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Feature Writing
Second Place
Kris Johnson, NASCAR Illustrated


Taking Flight: Airborne accidents are high on emotion, hard on drivers

            Fear is the nastiest four-letter word in NASCAR.
            Talk with drivers about it — if you can even get them to talk — and you’ll usually end up in the same place you started: nowhere.
            High-speed airborne wrecks, by their very nature, should inspire fear. Then again, most competitors will insist walking away from spectacular wrecks like the ones featured here merely represents a hazard that comes with the job — and that no fear lingers afterward.
            That guy on the cover, though, the one nose-diving into the Atlanta asphalt? Well, he’ll tell you differently.
            Brad Keselowski believes he cheated death.
            “Hell yeah, I do. Absolutely,” Keselowski says. “It takes the perfect sequence of events to get hurt or, worse, killed in a race car. But it happens.”
            Don’t expect a rehash of Keselowski’s feud with Carl Edwards, because we’re dealing with the essence of the airborne experience — what it feels like and how it affects the athletes.
            Keselowski has seen the replay of his thrill ride (“probably a dozen times, maybe more,” he says), and he isn’t afraid to discuss the mental dynamics associated with it. This makes him not only refreshing but an aberration inside the garage area.
            “There’s not one definable emotion that you have with something like that; there’s a bunch of them that play off of each other,” he says.
“From the subconscious feelings where you realize what you’re doing, and is it worth putting yourself at risk? You’ve only got one life to live. So you have to go back to that chain of emotions.
            “Is the lifestyle I chose worth it?”
            Keselowski asked himself that question repeatedly after his wild ride at Atlanta and never came up with no as the answer.
But some fear remained.
            “Subconsciously,” Keselowski admits, “and the only way to get rid of it is to get back in the car as quickly as possible.”
            Keselowski’s crash was seen by millions, but the worst airborne wreck of Elliott Sadler’s career is one you’ve likely never seen. It occurred during practice at Michigan in 2000 and prepared Sadler for the mayhem he experienced three years later at Talladega.
            Sadler says it was there in the fall of 2003 that he swerved to avoid a late block attempt by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was bidding for a fifth straight victory at the Alabama track known for its aerial displays.
Sadler cut across Kurt Busch’s nose and then found himself sailing through the air.
            “All of a sudden, it was very quiet,” Sadler says. “I was airborne, and I was looking down at the pavement. When things start to happen that quick and the car goes silent, what I learned from my first flip in 2000 was just to get in a fetal position, keep my arms and hands real close and just kind of ride it out. Because there’s nothing you can do as a driver.”
            Nothing but prepare to be pummeled and accept your fate, whatever it might be. The hits just kept on coming that day for Sadler.
            “It’s almost like being in a boxing ring with a heavyweight boxer,” says Sadler, who would flip again in 2004 at Talladega. “He just started giving you body blows. It seemed like every time you hit the ground, you lost a little bit of air. The next thing you know, you’ve hit six or seven times pretty hard and you’re out of air.”
            Ryan Newman’s world turned upside down on nearly the same piece of real estate at Talladega. Newman came to grief there in last November’s race; his Chevrolet came to rest on its roof.
            “The roll cage was down on top of my head. It was not an ideal situation,” deadpans Newman, who waited more than five minutes before safety workers extracted him from the mangled machine.
            Newman deliberates long and hard in choosing one word to describe his Talladega twister.
            “Eventful,” he says. “Because I thought I was gonna hit the inside wall, but I got turned around before I hit it and got airborne, hit the wall upside down and then flipped in the grass, which felt like 10 times but actually it was only twice. I did everything but catch fire or leave the race track.”
            Newman says the best thing about the incident — aside from walking away — was having his voice heard by the sanctioning body afterward.
            A meeting with NASCAR officials helped lead to the eventual removal of the car’s rear wing, which was believed to play a role in the degree of “lift” Sprint Cup cars were getting. The wing appeared for the final time at Martinsville in March.
            “It sucks to have to be the guinea pig, the one that lives through it to be able to work on it to make it better,” Newman says. “But I would have expected Kenny Irwin to do that; I would have expected Dale Earnhardt Sr. to do that.
            “I’m glad that NASCAR finally made that step to make the car safer, to keep the cars on the ground. Not just for the drivers’ sake, but for the fans’ sake.”
            Fan safety became a hot-button issue last year at Talladega — and six months prior to Newman’s misadventure. Last-lap contact in the April Cup race between Keselowski and Edwards sent the latter’s No. 99 Ford careening into the catchfence near the start/finish line, and it was no longer just competitors scrambling for cover.
            Edwards destroyed both his and Newman’s car in the process, but it was a 17-year-old fan from Rogersville, Ala., who bore the brunt of the most spectacular wreck NASCAR has witnessed in the 21st century. Blake Bobbitt suffered a broken jaw when she was hit by a piece of metal from Edwards’ car.
            Edwards walked away unscathed — after running across the finish line — but gained a perspective that had nothing to do with his own self-concern.
            “I can tell you, as a fan, I watch the hell out of those races. It’s just amazing that this is going on and disaster is imminent. But talking to that young girl that was hurt, it makes you question what exactly we’re proving out there,” Edwards said. “The part that stands out to me most about that wreck is the potential for injury to spectators. That’s the part I didn’t really even think about at the time. I hadn’t seen a replay of the wreck; I didn’t know what it looked like.”
            Keselowski’s myopic view of the event — he was ecstatic about winning his first Sprint Cup race at the time — changed when he watched a YouTube video of Edwards’ wreck taken by a fan in the Talladega grandstands.
            “Your jaw drops,” he says.
            Michael McDowell knows the feeling. No matter how long his racing career lasts, McDowell will be remembered by many for the wreck he endured during qualifying at Texas in the spring of 2008.
            McDowell, then 23, was preparing for just his second Sprint Cup start when his Toyota broke loose after running through oil-absorbent material on the track from a previous qualifier.
            After sliding on entry into Turn 1, McDowell veered down the track and then back up into the retaining wall. His car then slid on its roof before rolling nearly nine times.
            McDowell’s misfortune marked the first big test for the safety of NASCAR’s new car and it passed with flying colors.
            “I feel like it wasn’t my day to die,” he says. “A lot of it is my faith: I feel like God’s got a plan for me in this sport. If it was my day to get out of it, it would have been my day. It doesn’t haunt me and it doesn’t scare me. If anything, it’s actually the opposite. I go to Texas now and think there’s no way I can crash any harder than that.”
            Former driver and current ESPN racing analyst Ricky Craven says McDowell’s attitude is not uncommon for drivers who survive major accidents.
            Craven did just that in 1996 at Talladega, and he emerged with what could be construed as a false sense of security.
            “You’re able to put it behind you because you sort of establish an invincibility,” he says. “Whether that’s right or wrong, you do and say, ‘Oh, hell. I survived that. These cars are bulletproof. If I can survive that, I can survive anything.’ ”
            McDowell garnered gobs of national exposure in the wake of his accident — appearing on “Good Morning America,” the “Today” show and “Ellen” to discuss his dance with death. You could almost feel America craning its collective neck just to get one more look.
            “I’ve seen it probably a thousand times, and I don’t go watch it by myself,” he says. “People want to see it. You’ll be around somebody and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy who crashed at Texas?’ ”
            Unlike McDowell, Joey Logano doesn’t care to revisit the roughest ride of his young career. It came last fall at Dover, where he barrel-rolled seven-and-a-half times.
            “It scared the heck out of me,” Logano, then 19, said afterward. “I’m not sure I want to see a replay. It was like it started rolling and I was in there like, ‘Please make this thing stop’ and it just kept going and going.”
            Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion and a current ESPN analyst, suffered two vicious airborne wrecks nearly three months apart early in the 1993 season.
            “At Daytona in ’93, I got out of the car mad because I got hit by a lapped car and I was running third and had a fantastic run in the 500,” Wallace says. “But the one at Talladega just knocked my lights out. It broke my wrist, blackened my eyes and I woke up in a helicopter.
            “It was a violent, violent wreck.”
NASCAR then summoned Penske Racing officials to bring one of their cars to a small airport near Darlington Raceway, and officials put it on the back of a flatbed truck.
            Wallace was not in attendance, but it was his second high-flying accident that year and NASCAR wanted to take a closer look.
            “[They] backed this jet up, fired it up, brought the throttles up to a high power setting and tried to simulate blowing 200 mph air across the car,” Wallace says.
            The rudimentary test “showed that the car was trying to lift off the damn flatbed trailer,” he says. “They started developing a couple of strips that pop up, so the air can’t attach to it.”
            Roof flaps soon entered the racing lexicon.
            “They started really defining it then,” Wallace says. “Then the manufacturers got involved in it, and they took their cars to the wind tunnels with the specific reason of spoiling the lift of the car when it gets sideways.”
            The sanctioning body has made great strides to keep cars from taking to the air, but as long as competitors teeter on the verge of 200 mph, it will not be possible to completely prevent airborne accidents.
Keselowski, for one, is OK with that.
            “I think the fact that they’re not preventable is part of what makes racing so cool. You don’t know what you’re going to get,” he says.
            Newman sees things in a very different light and adamantly espouses side-by-side competition and strategy as the hallmarks of real racing. He holds little regard for those who view NASCAR as some sort of bloodsport.
            “Frankly, I don’t think that they care if the driver lives,” he says. “The guys that like to see that big crash, those are the people that really don’t even care about the human lives.”
            Keselowski counters by saying action — whether a pass for the lead, bump-and-run maneuver or titillating wreck — is what keeps fans engaged.
            “Otherwise, we’re just playing chess. I’ve never been to a chess match, but I’ve seen a few of them on TV and they’re not a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t look like they get a lot of fans, either,” he says.
            To elaborate, Keselowski draws an imaginary line on the kitchen table in his motorcoach.
            “It’s the line we straddle,” he says. “On this side is chess, on this side is the cowboy and flirting with death all the time where you’re more like daredevils.
            “I think the fans want to see us as close to this [daredevil] side as possible but they don’t necessarily want to see the consequences.”