Rookie NASCAR driver Michael McDowell might have seen his young life flash before his eyes. There just wasn't any time.
McDowell, 23, was making a qualifying run at the Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung 500 on Friday when the Toyota Camry he was driving got away from him and slammed into the wall without warning. Racing veterans said it was one of the most spectacular crashes they had witnessed in 20 years.
"I knew right away, once I turned into the corner, that it wasn't going to be pretty," McDowell told TODAY co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on Monday. "The car got loose and hooked to the right. As you enter Turn 1 there, you are doing about 200 [mph], so we knocked off a little speed before we hit the wall."
McDowell's #00 car barrel-rolled at least eight times and burst into flame before coming to a rest on all four wheels near Turn 2.
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"Were you counting the rolls?" Lauer wanted to know.
"I wasn't counting. It was holding on for dear life," McDowell said. "Once I stopped and landed on all four tires, I was, 'Well, this is good. I can just hop out of here.' I just felt really fortunate and lucky I was all right."
Lucky indeed. Within seconds of McDowell's car coming to a complete rest, NASCAR safety crews surrounded the burning car. Whenever there is a crash, there is always a risk of explosion and the possibility a driver can be burned to death.
"The safety crew did an awesome job. They were right there as soon as I landed," McDowell said. "I saw the fire extinguishers, I didn't really need to panic. I just sort of hopped out gracefully and walked to the ambulance."
McDowell's wife, Jami, got a scare but remembered her husband's admonition to keep calm when things get bad.
"Were you panicking though, Jami? You're seeing this whole thing, right?" Vieira asked.
"Absolutely, yeah. My heart stopped," said Jami McDowell, who began dating McDowell when they were 15 years old. "It was pretty terrifying for me to watch, but Mike's always taught me that the thing not to do in a bad situation is panic. So I tried to remain calm."
McDowell escaped the crash with minor bruising and went on to finish the Samsung 500 on Sunday in 32nd place.
"I've never been nervous before. He's never given me anything to be nervous about," Jami McDowell continued. "It's different now when he gets in the car. I just make sure I get a hug and a kiss in there, and just say a prayer."
Safer cars, tracks
Since legendary racer Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death in a crash Feb. 18, 2001, during the last lap of the Daytona 500, NASCAR has instituted numerous safety improvements, including restraints in the cars and safety barriers that absorb some of the energy during crashes.
"NASCAR always learns from a tragic crash ... and they'll learn from this one as well," Michael McDowell said.
McDowell learns lessons, too, having been in the headlines twice now in two weeks. A week before the crash, he had to mend fences with veteran driver Jeff Burton over an incident of on-track etiquette.
"I'm going to try to get in the headlines by good race results," McDowell promised. "I told NASCAR, 'I'm done being the crash-test dummy.' We're going to let someone else do it from here on out."
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