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Newman Reflects on Crash, Tragedy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2009
Ryan Newman was in a serious mood on Friday for a couple of reasons.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Ryan Newman was in a serious mood on Friday for a couple of reasons. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Fort Worth, Texas – Ryan Newman’s continued concern over his latest wild ride at Talladega Superspeedway has been mitigated by Thursday’s deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, an Army base with ties to Newman’s NASCAR Sprint Cup team…and his heartstrings.

Newman is nearing completion of his first year as driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet, which features the U.S. Army and its black-and-gold colors as primary sponsor. In that role, Newman has gotten a behind-the scenes look at the men, women and children of military families facing deployment to America’s war fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As such, the massacre reportedly perpetrated by an Army psychiatrist that left 12 dead and 31 wounded at one of the largest military complexes in the world, touched Newman and team-owner Tony Stewart.

“Yeah, this has been a very special learning experience for me,” Newman said during a news conference Friday morning at Texas Motor Speedway, prior to practice for Sunday’s Dickies 500. “I’ve said before, maybe not in here, but I kind of took for granted some of the things the Armed Forces have done for us and are doing for us.  This has been an eye-opening experience this year with the U.S. Army, meeting different generals and colonels and soldiers – it’s been special.

“What happened, unfortunately to me it’s a part of life.  It’s happened before; it will happen again.  Whether it’s in the U.S. Army, in a convenience store, it’s a part of life.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families.”

Neither Newman nor Stewart said they knew any of the victims first-hand.  “But, you know, obviously it was something that nobody would have dreamed would have happened, but it did,” Stewart said. “You’re thinking about all the families and people that are involved and wish them the best.”

Newman asked that everyone take a big-picture look at the tragic incident.

“Think about everybody down in Fort Hood with the U.S. Army and their families that are going through some very difficult times,” Newman said. “Big picture here, we’re racing in Texas, but our thoughts and prayers go out to other places as well.”

That said, Newman indicated he was anxious to get out to practice and qualify on the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval, where he won the spring race in 2003. Conversely, Newman exited last Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 on the high-banked, 2.66-mile Talladega layout in spectacular fashion with five laps to go in the 188-lapper. Newman’s Impala SS went airborne after contact with Stewart’s No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy, flipped bass-ackwards and landed on the hood of Kevin Harvick’s car. Newman’s car spun several times before settling on its roof, forcing safety crews to cut away the sheet metal in order to remove the driver. Newman emerged dazed, but otherwise uninjured.

Ironically, Carl Edwards’ car went airborne and landed on the roof of Newman’s car during the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega on April 26. A graduate of Purdue University with a degree in Vehicle Structural Engineering, Newman has been critical of NASCAR’s inability to keep its cars from launching at Talladega. The Alabama track and Daytona International Speedway are the only high-banked layouts where the sanctioning body mandates use of a carburetor restrictor plate to reduce horsepower and speed in a bid to keep the cars planted – and out of the grandstands.

Newman said he met Wednesday morning with Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, and John Darby, Sprint Cup Series director, at the NASCAR Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C., to exchange ideas.

“Every crash is different and every situation is different, whether your car gets spun around by another car or it just takes air by itself,” said Newman, a 31-year-old native of South Bend, Ind. “Ultimately, yeah, there’s things that I feel can and should be done.  I sat down with John Darby and Robin Pemberton.  We talked about two different things – the extraction of myself from the accident scene, and secondly, the reason why we’re in that position in the first place, which is to me more important.

“From an aerodynamic standpoint, ultimately our biggest thing is to keep the race cars on the ground.  Crashes have always been a part of racing. There are fans that like that.  Sometimes that adds to extra excitement, don’t get me wrong.  When we can bounce off each other, get the car fixed, go back out and try to win a race, I understand that part of it. Keeping the race cars on the ground is how we keep the drivers and especially the fans safe.  So that’s the one thing.

“From an ironic standpoint, that’s why I was probably the most frustrated after the race last weekend, was I was in the media center talking about the very same thing on the last lap of the spring race. To live out what my frustrations were from six months before was difficult, as well.”

Newman was asked if he thought the rear wing on his Car of Today Impala SS might have contributed to its lift-off, as opposed to the fixed rear-deck spoiler common to Cup cars the COT replaced.

“From an engineering standpoint,” Newman said, “whatever we can do speed-wise and aerodynamically to keep the cars on the ground – in particular things in the back of the car, when it sees the air first for downforce – keep the lift out of the back of the cars is what we need to focus on.

“There has been testing done.  I learned some of that stuff on Wednesday morning talking to Mr. Darby and Mr. Pemberton, that they have tested.  But I don’t know that they have tested everything.  I don’t know that you can test everything.  But obviously more testing needs to be done in order to make it safer for everybody.

“Speed is a part of it.  The faster you go, the more likely you are to take lift.  We were talking… an airplane takes off at 160 miles an hour.  We’re 40 miles an hour above that at times. There’s plenty of potential for a car to take lift, whether it’s going forwards, backwards or sideways.  We have to take everything into consideration, as drivers, as teams, as a sanctioning body, to control that situation.”

Asked if he recommended anything specific to Darby and Pemberton in regards to the rear wing, Newman said, “That’s kind of my point from our conversation, is ‘Do you think’ is not the answer.  We have to do testing so that we know. Yeah, I think there might be potential for a spoiler to react differently than a wing for sure. I don’t know that it’s the answer.

“As we’ve seen before, I believe it was Matt Kenseth’s Nationwide crash, his car got airborne with a spoiler on the back of it. That’s not the answer, that’s not the fix. I’ve been parts of crashes with spoilers on the back of them and a wing on the back of them, unfortunately. That’s not the fix. Can it be a part of the fix? Yeah, potentially. Is it a better alternative in conjunction with other things you can do to the car? Maybe. Those are the things that NASCAR and the teams have to test collectively so that we can make it safer and better for the drivers and, like I said, more importantly, the fans.”

Newman said he was satisfied with the integrity of his car, despite the fact his helmet was wedged against the roll cage when he flipped.

“When I had 3,400 pounds come down basically on my head, I never was compressed physically in the car,” said Newman, eighth among 12 drivers in Chase points with three races remaining. “I say that, have to explain it a little bit. It’s just like a head-on collision. When two cars hit head-on, you got the force of both.  I had the force of me going up in the car while the car was coming down on me.  I was compressed.  My spine was compressed.  But I never was compressed to the point that it pushed my butt down into the seat.  There was an instantaneous load there that hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still sore from it. But I was never wedged.  Once they got the car back upright, I was able to take my helmet off, there was room there.  It wasn’t like I was physically wedged.

“The second part of my answer is, I was I guess a little disappointed in the fact the cage crushed the way it did. I know it was a heck of a hit, don’t get me wrong.  We’ve got to be able to learn from that.  Whatever we might be able to do from a welding standpoint, from a wall-thickness standpoint with the tubing, to make it stronger so that doesn’t happen again is equally as important from a safety standpoint.”

Stewart admitted his concern for Newman extended beyond that of an employee.

“Well, if he wasn’t driving for me, he’d be driving for somebody else,” said Stewart, Cup champion in 2002 and 2005. “At the end of the day, it’s about him being a person. The harder part is that he’s a good friend of mine on top of that. He was before we were teammates. We will be if, for some reason, we’re not teammates in the future.  You know, he’s a person. Like I said, he’s a friend. Anytime something like that happens, doesn’t matter whether they’re a friend of yours or not, when you got a fellow-competitor out there, that’s the first thing you’re worried about, their safety.”

The April race at Talladega was marred when Edwards was launched into the catch-fencing, a frightening crash that also injured several spectators. Newman indicated he was hopeful NASCAR would make more progress in dealing with the aero puzzle before the series returns to Talladega in another six months.

“I think there are, for sure, things that could be done and should be done based on what we saw, both Mark’s accident and my accident, the spring accident with Carl,” Newman said. “Aerodynamically there are things that need to be done to keep the cars on the ground.  I said that six months ago.  Six months is plenty of time to make those changes.  The important thing is to make the right changes, to do the testing, the best of our capabilities with the tools that we have – meaning wind tunnels, modeling, things like that – to make the difference, make the right difference.”

Newman added he is not a fan of NASCAR’s bump-drafting rule, which prohibits the practice through the turns.

“I understand why it was implemented, but I don’t think that is the fix,” Newman said. “I think if you put the right race cars on that racetrack as we have seen in the past, you can put a good show on for the fans, albeit not the ideal racetrack and not the ideal way a driver wants to race, but a show for the fans that will be better than what we saw last Sunday.

“I stated in my post-infield care center interview that I thought the drivers need to have a little bit more respect from NASCAR in order for us to make our own decisions, for us to be able to go out there and say,’ Hey, I’ll treat you the way I know you want to be treated and vice versa.’  I feel it used to be that way.  This sport has grown so much because of those people, those drivers that made it that way, and the more restriction that you give the drivers, the less the fans are going to be delivered excitement.  That’s not good.”

In another bit of irony, Newman’s 13th and most recent Cup victory was scored on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in the 2008 season-opening Daytona 500. Winless over the last 68 races, Newman said he was more-than-willing to meet again with NASCAR personnel to brainstorm additional plate-race ideas.

Stewart, fifth in Chase points in his first year as Cup owner/driver, said he would leave those chores to Newman. “Trust me, he’s the engineer. He’s the smarter one of the two of us,” said Stewart, winner of four races this season. “I’m not smart enough to know how to fix it. NASCAR has a great staff. If there was an easy solution, they would have figured it out by now. The good thing is that you have drivers that are willing to go over, like Ryan did this week, and spend time with the sanctioning body and try to help at least explain the situation from his first-hand experience. You know, that’s the only way to make things better, is just stay in communication with NASCAR over it.”

Newman said he believed both of the key NASCAR officials he dealt with learned as much from him as he did from them.

“That was the point of it. Therefore, I think it was a good conversation,” Newman said. “I just feel there were things that could be done or potentially could be done to make it easier for the next guy.  That’s my responsibility, ’cause the next guy might be me again.  You never know.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 6 2009
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