Ryan Clarke has recovered from a horrific crash at Daytona
Ryan Clarke has recovered from a horrific crash at Daytona Image Credit: AP

A Purdue engineering graduate, NASCAR driver Ryan Newman has always loved understanding how things work and figuring out how to fix them — particularly if a car is involved.

But the factors that kept Newman alive through his horrific last-lap crash in the February 17 Daytona 500 and mercifully erased his memory from the moment before impact until he walked out of Halifax Medical Centre two days later holding his daughters’ hands defy any explanation he can muster.

“I feel like a complete walking miracle,” Newman, 42, told the Washington Post.

Newman’s next step comes Sunday — at nearly 200 miles an hour.

When NASCAR fires up its engines at Darlington Raceway for its first Cup event since the novel coronavirus halted competition in early March, Newman will be behind the wheel of the No. 6 Ford Mustang.

Ryan Newman's Mustang was knocked into Daytona’s concrete wall, flipped upside down, got hit again and caught fire
Ryan Newman's Mustang was knocked into Daytona’s concrete wall, flipped upside down, got hit again and caught fire Image Credit: AP

His return to racing — after his front-running Mustang was knocked into Daytona’s concrete wall, flipped upside down, got hit again and caught fire — coincides with NASCAR’s return from its pandemic-induced hiatus.

The stakes are considerable for Newman and NASCAR alike, which is banking on the conviction that by adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and medical experts, stock-car racing can lead the way to the safe, albeit modified, return of pro sports.

No fans will be permitted at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina for Sunday’s 400.2-mile race.

Newman said that while he understands the precaution and regrets the absence of fans, the drivers won’t be affected.

“When you’re running 200 miles per hour, you can’t look in the stands, anyway ... until you’re doing burnouts or doughnuts in Victory Lane,” he said with a smile.

Among NASCAR’s other safety precautions: Race teams will be limited to 16 people; wearing masks and maintaining distance in the garage and pits are mandatory; and the race “weekend” will be telescoped into one day, with no practice sessions or qualifying. The latter poses the biggest competitive challenge because practice laps help teams fine-tune their cars before unleashing them to run nose-to-tail and three wide at 200mph.

Heightening the stakes is the fact that NASCAR’s return comes on one of its trickier tracks, 1.366-mile Darlington, which stands as an egg-shaped anachronism in a sport that has sought desperately to modernise its venues. Built in 1950, Darlington has no two identical corners, making it impossible to settle into a rhythm. The fastest lap around requires running centimetres from the wall, hence its nickname “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”

For Newman, making his return at Darlington represents a silver lining in two regards.

It’s his favourite track, expressly because of the challenge it poses.

And though NASCAR drivers haven’t strapped into a car since March 8. Newman has — at Darlington.

Just a two-hour drive from most NASCAR teams’ headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, Darlington Raceway was the site of the final step in Newman’s getting medically cleared to return to racing. It boiled down to whether he could handle the speed and pressure of 20 fast laps at Darlington, with NASCAR officials and a neurologist looking on.

He felt no apprehension climbing in his race car for the late April test, he said. His problem was the opposite.

“I was so excited and ready to go and just kind of prove myself, that I actually had to slow myself down,” Newman recalled.

He left no doubt, posting speeds on his first five laps that were faster than last fall’s pole-winning speed.

The 2008 Daytona 500 winner, Newman said he hasn’t yet watched the entire 500 from three months ago, yet the frustration of knowing he was leading the last lap, with a second victory in stock-car racing’s greatest event in his grasp, is tough to take, even though he remembers little of that day.

He has looked at footage of his crash, but it triggered no memory.

“As I watched the crash and had to make myself believe what I had went through, I really looked to my dad to say, ‘Hey, did this really happen?’ “ he recalled.

Newman said he can’t fill in the blanks of the sequence that follows. He knows he was knocked unconscious. He has since learnt that he resisted track workers’ efforts to extricate him the wreckage and that his carbon-fiber helmet sustained damage, so either a section of his car or someone else’s made contact with it.

As for his diagnosis, Newman explained that doctors have given him conflicting information about whether he suffered a concussion. So, Newman offers his own diagnosis, saying simply that he suffered a “brain bruise” and needed a bit of time for his brain to rest.

He has stayed busy the past two months, home schooling his young daughters while restoring his latest classic car, and looking after his farm animals.

A man with varied interests, he won’t lack for something to do once he retires from racing. But that time isn’t now.

“I’ve been a race fan all my life,” said Newman, an Indiana native who started racing quarter midgets when he was 4. “I have a goal in my life to be a Cup champion, and I feel like I’m with a team and have the opportunity to do that.”