It took just 3.5 seconds for Mike Harmon's No. 44 Chevy to be crushed, shredded and torn in half. In that time, he narrowly escaped death — twice.
To the astonishment of the people watching, Harmon got up and walked away from what was left of his car, and then returned later in the day to resume racing.
The crash — at a practice session for the Food City 250 in August 2002 — is regarded as the worst wreck in NASCAR history that a driver survived.
The dangers of motor racing were underlined by the high-profile death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt in February 2001. Although NASCAR made safety changes and there have been no fatal crashes in its top three series since then, drivers are aware of the ever-present dangers. They don't tend to talk much about crashes, but they bow their heads at the prayer services that are held before every race.
Racing in a Brand New Car
On the morning of Aug. 22, thoughts of an accident were, as usual, far from Harmon's mind as he prepared for the practice session at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.
"The only time I think of it is if I'm already in a crash and it's time to survive," he says.
Instead, he was focused on his brand new car, a Chevrolet with a mile and a half on the odometer, and how it would perform in practice laps for the Busch Series event to be held the next day. Harmon and his team — one of the smaller outfits in NASCAR, with just one sponsor — had been fine-tuning the car for the Food City 250.
90 MPH and Out of Control
Twenty minutes into the practice session, Harmon was on his fourth lap of the half-mile track. He was hitting 90 mph as he entered Turn 2, when the car suddenly veered right — toward the outside wall.
Slow motion videotape would later show that debris was coming off the front right of the car, and witnesses reported hearing a pop — signs that Harmon's front right tire might have blown.
But all Harmon knew at the time was that he had lost control of the car and was going to hit the wall. He braced for the impact and told himself, "This is not going to be good."
The smooth walls on NASCAR tracks are designed to allow cars to skim along them, so Harmon was expecting to bounce off the wall back toward the inside of the track.
But instead his car kept on going into the wall. He had had the bad luck to hit just at the point where the wall was interrupted by one of the track's two access gates. The gate was supposed to be secured with six thick metal posts, but they were not in place.
Harmon's Chevy slammed into the exposed edge of the wall. "It carved right through the car," he said. "All that saved my life ... was that it went on the right side of the engine instead of the left side of the engine."
The car shredded, twisted and ripped apart around him, hurling debris as far as 650 feet down the raceway. There was a momentary burst of flame, but the car did not catch on fire.
But the car's collapse actually helped save Harmon's life. "Each bar as it broke, or each tube as it snapped, took away some of the energy," said NASCAR safety expert Gary Nelson, who investigated the accident.
"It seemed like a short period of time when you watch it on video, but when you compare it to [other] accidents, it was really a fairly long period of time," Nelson said, adding that the extra time actually makes an accident safer, by spreading the force of the impact over a longer period, making it less intense.
More Cars on the Track
Harmon survived the impact with the wall, but moments later faced another threat from the car just behind him, the No.2 Chevy driven by rookie Johnny Sauter.
Sauter could not avoid the front part of Harmon's car, slamming into it at around 90 mph. Sauter's car missed Harmon's body by just 6 inches, and tore the steering wheel out of his hands.
"It just took all the steering wheel, the steering column. It just took everything with him as he came by," Harmon said. His engine was still running when it came to rest 100 feet away.
As his car spun around, Harmon crossed his arms and hunched over to make his body as small as possible. When the car finally stopped moving, he looked around and realized he was OK.
"I could see that the car was just split in half right beside my seat," he remembers.
Bruised But Not Beaten
Harmon unbuckled his harness and got to his feet beside what was left of his car. He remembers seeing race officials running towards him. "It was like all those guys got in slow motion, and it was like they couldn't believe what they were seeing."
As he stood beside his tangled car, he remembers thinking to himself, "I'm glad that I made it through this because this — this was close."
Harmon was treated for a bruise at the track's in-field clinic, then returned to the track for the qualifying stage, using a back-up car he borrowed from another team. Harmon qualified for the next day's race, but pulled out after just two laps because of handling problems.
"It really killed me to have to pull out of the race, because I wanted to race," he said. "You know, you get a race behind you, and you got something else on your mind besides a crash."
He says the management of the track apologized to him for the unsecured gate. "It was just an oversight on their part, and I'm glad it didn't cost me my life," he said.
The wreckage of No. 44 was hauled away and later enshrined at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. All that Harmon's team salvaged from the wreck was a fuel cell bladder.
"I really didn't want to use anything," Harmon said. "I mean, I figured it was used up, and I'm here to talk about it. And I didn't want none of that stuff around me, you know."
This report originally aired on Jan. 30, 2003.