ST. PETERSBURG — Professional drivers watching Ryan Newman’s horrific crash in Monday’s Daytona 500 had the same reaction as fans who saw it in the stands or at home.
“Very scary,” IndyCar Series rookie Oliver Askew said.
“Horrible to see,” IndyCar veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay said.
Newman’s injuries were not life-threatening, according to his racing team, and he was awake and talking Tuesday.
Even after years of racing, drivers don’t get desensitized to the wrecks or the devastating impacts they can have on their colleagues and their families. The reminders are all around them.
When Hunter-Reay and Askew spoke Tuesday morning to promote the beginning of track construction for next month’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, they were just around the corner from Dan Wheldon Way — named after the late St. Petersburg resident who died in an IndyCar crash in 2011.
“When we’ve been around it this long, I think all of us understand the severe consequences that are possible anytime you sit in a race car,” said Hunter-Reay, a married father of three. “When you’re doing over 200 mph around a bunch of other cars, things are bound to happen at some point. It’s an inherent risk of the sport. It’s something that we take on every time we go out.”
Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion, said there was never a moment when he fully realized or accepted the stakes of his profession. It’s just there.
Askew isn’t numb to the danger, either. But the 23-year-old Jupiter resident said he never questions whether he should pursue a different career.
“When that — if that —thought ever comes into your head and becomes reoccurring, that’s when you don’t put your all into it, and that’s when you’re just wasting your time,” Askew said.
Instead, drivers prefer to cite the safety upgrades their sport continues to make, like SAFER barriers at tracks and Head and Neck Support (HANS) devices.
“I think this is just a testament to the build of these cars and how much work goes into the safety of it,” Askew said.
IndyCar will debut its latest safety upgrade at the Grand Prix: aeroscreens, large windshields that cover the cockpit and are designed to protect drivers’ heads.
The push for the new equipment came after a piece of debris fatally struck Justin Wilson’s helmet at Pocono in 2015 and after a 2018 crash there seriously injured Robert Wickens.
“I think it’s a huge step, absolutely,” Hunter-Reay said. “We’re doing 230 mph at some of these tracks with our heads exposed. It was definitely time to take that next step.”
Like Askew and Hunter-Reay, Victor Gonzalez was horrified by Newman’s wreck; the 44-year-old Orlando resident briefly competed against Newman in NASCAR’s Cup and Nationwide Series. They bonded over their love of animals.
Although Gonzalez is out of NASCAR, he still races and will drive in the TC America series in next month’s Grand Prix. But watching a horrific crash like the one Monday night at Daytona makes him pause, just for a moment.
“When you see that, you think, ‘Is it worth it?’” Gonzalez said. “But that’s what you do.”