Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Scary Moments Drivers Walked Away From

1. Michael McDowell tests the SAFER barrier

I had just sat down to watch qualifying on TV from Texas as Michael McDowell began his run. When that car broke loose in Turn 1, it was as if the whole world stood still. I remember every frame, from the over correct to the barrel roll tumble down the banking. I’ve never been so grateful to see movement inside a wrecked racecar. Unbelievable to watch even to this day. – Frank Velat


2. Dale Jarrett and the lucky dog

2003 New Hampshire International Speedway, Dale Jarrett spins out coming off of Turn 4.  There had been talk recently about the dangers of racing back to the yellow.  The No. 88 sat smack in the middle of the lane unable to move with some flames peeking out from under the hood.  You could see the lap down cars on the backstretch jockeying for position and accelerating as they approached Turn 3. Over my headset came Jarrett’s spotter. “Tighten your belts. Because here they come.” The entire grandstand took a collective gasp as the field raced forward. There was no impact, but it was a slow-motion moment of dread.  Freezing the field at the time the yellow is thrown was implemented one week later. And that’s how we got the Lucky Dog. – S.D. Grady

3. The King’s wild ride

This probably predates some of you folk’s interest in the sport (if not your arrival on this big blue marble), but it took place back at Darlington in 1970. Richard Petty had been having a rough weekend. He’d already wiped out his Superbird in practice, forcing him to run the standard Road Runner in the race. This was one of the rare races that TV was covering live, at least in part, as the program flipped back and forth between the race and other sports. Moments after the cameras went live (ABC I believe) this happened.

Note there was no window net to try to keep the King in the car and what happened to his arm as a result. This was the impetus to add the nets we are all used to today. Also, the first people to arrive on scene were members of the No. 43 crew. An inept safety worker sets off a fire extinguisher when no fire is evident, forcing everyone to flee. Note the “ambulance” is a station wagon (style points for the whitewall tires), and Petty isn’t even strapped in. Also take note of the condition of Darlington back in that era. Soft walls, hell, they still had Armco barriers! It was a brutal and all too often fatal period in the sport’s history but the cars did in fact look (and were) stock for the most part. Having owned a 70 Road Runner (440-6) back in high school I can attest to that. – Matt McLaughlin

4. Why brakes are important on a road course

Jimmie Johnson’s head-on crash at Watkins Glen.  At the time he was an XFINITY Series rookie, just a kid with a goofy haircut, and nobody had any idea that he’d have such a remarkable career. The car lost its brakes and got airborne over the edge of a corner, launching over the gravel that was supposed to slow it down.  The hit he took was absolutely brutal. Armco barriers are old technology and have a lot of faults, but that one gave a ton, just as it needed to, and the big blocks of styrofoam did their job as well.  I’m not sure that SAFER barriers would save a driver at that speed and angle of impact, but that old technology did, and Johnson climbed out and jumped on the roof like he’d won the day, which in a sense, he had, because that could have been a lot worse.  He said later he thought the styrofoam blocks were concrete, and he was just happy to be alive.  Scary, scary wreck and a great reaction from a driver who’s often accused of not showing emotion; he showed it that day.

A frighteningly similar incident happened just a couple of weeks ago at Mid-Ohio, and it was scary because it looked so much like Johnson’s crash all those years ago. Casey Mears’ car lost its brakes and got airborne, giving it no chance to scrub speed before impact.  The crash wasn’t quite as spectacular as Johnson’s with all the flying foam, because tires, but the car was destroyed.  Luckily, again, the driver wasn’t. – Amy Henderson

5. The car wasn’t as lucky

Here’s the perfect answer to this question. Wednesday is the 15th anniversary of Mike Harmon’s huge practice crash at Bristol after he appeared to cut a right front tire in Turn 2. The No. 44 Chevrolet went into the outside wall at what was then the crossover gate to get into the infield, which also wasn’t closed properly. When Harmon hit the wall, the gate banged open. As a result, he went into the blunt end of the wall, tearing the car apart.

Before he came to rest, Harmon got hit by Johnny Sauter as well. Luckily, Harmon walked away with minimal injuries from the crash.  The car was not OK. It was ripped asunder. – Phil Allaway

The fact that Harmon walked away from that is still amazing 15 years later.  You almost can’t watch that one without seeing the crash Michael Waltrip had in the same locations with a similar result. – Amy Henderson

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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