‘It’s OK to race’: Despite wild wreck at Daytona, Ryan Preece competes at Darlington

Ryan Preece stood outside his team’s truck in Darlington on Saturday morning, looking through a pair of black sunglasses. He opened his remarks making it clear he felt “good, OK, no broken bones” and is ready to race in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500.

Asked about his eyes, Preece, the driver who flipped 10 times in a violent tumble last week at Daytona confidently removed his sunglasses as reporters gasped at his severely bloodshot and bruised eyes.

“They aren’t bad. I’m just gonna put an end to it right now,” Preece told reporters. “What I want you all to know is that racing in general, whether you’re racing the sprint car or modified or anything, it’s dangerous. So, there are consequences to everything.”

Preece said he felt ready to leave the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida, at around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night, but stayed until 6 a.m. so “they felt better.” While shaken up, to him, these wrecks are part of the sport. And as long as he was feeling all right, he wanted to be out of the hospital and racing.

“Why?” Preece said in response to the thought of him not racing this weekend. “We love to race, and I feel completely fine. So why stop? It’s OK to not race, but it’s OK to race.”

Preece’s wreck last weekend at Daytona drew national attention for its unique severity in this day and age of NASCAR. With fewer than 10 laps to go in the Cup Series’ regular-season finale, Preece was bumped from behind and got loose and skidded all the way into the grass on the superspeedway front stretch.

It was there when the car went airborne and started violently tumbling that startled even the most veteran of drivers. Preece was able to get out of the car on his own power — and after spending a night in a local hospital and learning he didn’t suffer from any concussion-like symptoms or any injuries beyond bruising — he opted to race at Darlington Raceway’s Cup race on Sunday at 6 p.m.

“What I can tell you is I went through all the tests,” Preece said. “I feel fine. If I didn’t feel fine, I wouldn’t be in the car this weekend. I’m grateful and excited to be here.”

He added: “I’ve seen interviews from other drivers in the past talking about when you get sideways like that, and as you go in the air, it’s real quiet. After experiencing that, it’s 100% true. Everything beyond that, everything is happening so fast. ... All you’re trying to do is tense up and hope that you’ll be OK.”

Preece’s tumble pushed driver safety into the spotlight again after discussion ramped up right before the Cup playoffs a year ago. Many drivers held a similar opinion: that the car — despite going airborne — largely did its job keeping Preece safe.

Preece agreed with that Saturday.

“From a safety standpoint, I feel like I’ve kind of been the test dummy with the frontal impact, and even the rollover,” Preece said. “I’m joking, obviously, but I feel fine. To be honest with you, I was a lot more sore from the frontal impact than I was from the tumble. I just look a lot worse today.”

Preece’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates were in touch with him all week. That includes Kevin Harvick, the organization’s only playoff driver and outspoken driver safety advocate, and racing veteran Aric Almirola.

When asked if he was surprised by Preece’s eyes, Almirola shrugged.

“You see that a lot in sprint car racers,” Almriola told reporters Saturday. “I grew up around sprint cars, and my grandfather raced sprint cars, and I’ve seen my grandfather take some pretty bad tumbles racing, so that’s pretty normal when you get into those violent barrel rolls.

“So yeah, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was probably out of the ordinary for people who just follow stock car racing, but anybody who follows sprint car racing, you see that pretty often.”