‘A better person’ after Daytona crash, Newman becomes organ donation spokesman
Ryan Newman is thankful to have the car that nearly killed him.
That’s one way to view the mangled No. 6 Ford that sits in the corner of a shop on his sprawling farmland near Statesville, North Carolina.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver was fortunate to survive the last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 that left him hospitalized for two days he still doesn’t remember.
Yet when his team (having received the car after thorough examination at the NASCAR R&D Center) asked Newman if he wanted a grim souvenir of the wreck, which left him with a head injury that sidelined him for three races before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he didn’t hesitate.
“I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to have it,’” Newman told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “Not because it’s just a race car, but I tell people, how many chances do you have of a trophy of something that saved your life? And that’s how I look at it. That almost cost me my life, but it’s also the things that saved my life.
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“I look at it as the guys that welded the car together, the guys that bolted the seat in, my helmet. All the things that saved me that day, those are trophies in my mind. That’s part of why it’s there. It’s educational for my kids, it’s educational for me, it’s educational for everyone in the garage area. And I appreciate that.”
It’s a glimpse of the hard-nosed, analytical side to be expected from Newman. The engineering graduate’s 19-year career in the NASCAR Cup Series has been defined by an adherence to persistence (Newman annually earns the unofficial title as toughest to pass in NASCAR) and a self-determination of grinding out consistent finishes with little sentimentality.
But a softer version has emerged since he escaped death at Daytona. Newman, who will turn 43 on Dec. 8, now talks openly about rediscovering the importance of being selfless and a newfound intensity of unconditional love for his two daughters that is “no doubt higher, way higher.”
While he stops short of labeling the crash as a life-altering, religious-tinged reckoning (“it wasn’t like it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve found God'; it was just another step”), Newman said he’s “probably more spiritual than I ever was. I’m more giving than I ever was. I’m more empathetic than I ever was. I’m probably a better dad. I’m a better person because I had that moment.
“So I don’t think it’s changed me, but I think it’s exaggerated the positive things that could have been me in the past, and I appreciate that. It’s changed me only in the way that it’s made me a better person.”
Driven to a new cause
The most obvious and public manifestation has been becoming an official spokesman for the Indiana Donor Network’s Driven2Save Lives program, which has driven more than 7,000 to sign up for organ donation.
Newman, a native of South Bend, Indiana, taped a recently launched commercial campaign at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, advocating for becoming a registered donor through the organization’s website (which takes less than a minute and is open to anyone nationally) and how to discuss donation with family members.
He was inspired by Bryan Clauson, the USAC driver who died following an Aug. 6, 2016 wreck during a Midget race in Belleville, Kansas. Clauson’s organs saved five lives (each donor can save up to eight), and his tissue continues to help others heal from injuries.
Having driven for Clauson Marshall Racing in the Chili Bowl this year (he is hoping to run the event again in January with the team, as well as the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Midget race in Clauson’s memory next year at IMS), Newman became intimately aware of the story and the Clauson family’s organ donor advocacy.
He already had been talking about how he could help further the cause before Daytona.
“Newman has always shown interest in helping us do whatever he can to help us spread the message and sign people up to be organ donors,” said Taylor McLean, Clauson’s sister who also works as a marketing specialist managing the Driven2SaveLives campaign for Indiana Donor Network.
“But after his crash, he kind of had this aha moment and came to me and said, ‘Look, this is something I’m really serious about.’ He just wants to help us in any way he can, and he has a second chance on life to be able to do that.”
A second chance, because Newman missed “coming full circle” as the latest race car driver turned organ donor by a few inches when his car was struck by Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 Ford at full speed after hitting the wall and turning upside down on a push from Ryan Blaney while trying to take the lead.
“What happened to me in Daytona in February was an opportunity to be just like Bryan, and I wasn’t,” Newman said. “I was left here to do it a different way, and I think it’s a great opportunity for me to be a part of Driven 2 Save Lives and to raise some awareness and represent what Bryan was, which is what Bryan is. I feel honored to be in this position and to give a little bit of my time to help out.”
Organ donation isn’t a new concept to Newman, who signed up as a teenager getting his first driver’s license (inspired then by his dad’s willingness to donate a kidney to his grandfather).
But Newman since has been touched by the legacy of Clauson, whose death occurred during a season in which he was trying to make 200 starts (including the 100th Indianapolis 500).
“Bryan was one of those guys that was giving long before he was gone,” Newman said. “He kind of inspired me to do the same thing. I didn’t realize how much like Bryan I was. Being an organ donor at such a young age, and having the inspiration to be giving like that. I’m not a giving person in general. I’m not the guy who calls you on your birthday. I’m the guy that gets reminded to call you on your birthday.
“I think that I just have a lot of respect for him and his family, and what he did and does. And what he’s still doing when he’s gone. He’s still here giving life to others and the legacy he carries and what his sister and dad and mom do is spectacular.”
Newman, whose career also began in USAC, didn’t know Clauson more than in passing, but he came to hear stories about his dirt racing prowess from fellow Cup drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson during Saturday night viewings in infield motorhome lots at Cup tracks.
He admired Clauson’s ability and drive (“his chasing 200 was an inspiration and ultimate goal, and that’s what a lot of people lack in life is goals. Here you got a guy who wants to race 200 times and win them all”) but even more so his generous character and dedication to family. Newman has met the father of five who received Clauson’s heart.
“Unfortunately, he had to die to become a legend,” Newman said. “He made himself a legend because of the groundwork that he had laid personally, and that’s pretty special.”
‘Their prayers were answered’
Newman has a unique perspective from Daytona in that he got a sense for what life would be like without him.
Though he has no memory of anything that happened from the crash and his extrication from its harrowing aftermath until leaving the hospital (“I woke up with a headache, like it was a three-day long hangover. I’ve never been drunk to know, but that’s what I equate it”), he quickly became aware of “the outpouring of the emotion and people that reached out and told me so many things about how they prayed for me.
“Their prayers were answered,” he said. “Text messages from people that I hadn’t talked to in 10 or 20 years. It was like I died, but I didn’t. Like, I was at my own wake, but you almost had to pinch yourself to realize, ‘Hey, I’m actually still here’ because of the emotion that I got from other people that was real, but it was real for them and not real for me. The crazy part of it is the fans that reached out who I don’t know.”
There’s much more Newman doesn’t know about the crash. Before the Aug. 29 regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway, he visited the medical staff at Halifax Medical Center to thank them and to reconstruct what happened.
Newman was told he went from barely breathing on arrival to stabilized within an hour – and with CT scans that “the pictures of my brain looked good.” But “the switch didn’t get turned back on” until shortly before Newman walked out of the hospital with daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. In a famous image, he still was wearing his hospital socks.
“They said I rebelled against putting shoes on,” Newman said with a laugh. “I don’t know why. You can always blame the medication in this situation. They tried to make me put shoes on, but I would not do it. I went full hillbilly.”
And he’s been more of a full-time father ever since. The two-month pandemic break allowed time for Newman to recover from bruising to his brain while spending more time helping his girls with homework (he enjoys reliving the teaching of zoology, botany, math and science) and then “we go feed the cows, we can go feed the deer, we can move some dirt. We can ride dirt bikes. It’s just things like that that I’m so blessed with being in the position to be a little bit more aware of those things.”
As thankful as he is this season, Newman has no major plans for Thanksgiving, which he sees more as the beginning of the month-long run-up to Christmas.
“I’m not a turkey guy; I like to eat ham,” he said in his typically deadpan wit. “So it’s not like Thanksgiving was ever meant to be my holiday.”
Besides, it’s easy to remain grateful when he’s around the shop, where he often encourages visitors to marvel at the miracle of his Daytona accident.
“It sucks I have to have a junk race car for a trophy,” Newman said. “I’d much rather have the winning car, but it’s not the way it unfolded that day. It literally folded up into pieces.
“I still view it as a trophy. It’s just not a pretty trophy.”