The fatal on-track accident involving NASCAR Sprint Cup star Tony Stewart, which took the life of 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Speedway Saturday night has triggered intensive media coverage and left track owners and promoters wondering what the residual effect will be.
Whether you are a racing lifer, a casual fan or a disinterested party, perhaps even one who buys into racing stereotypes, it’s apparent that a tragedy occurred. Members of the racing community that I contacted in the last 48 hours were keenly aware of the grieving ahead all the way around and expressed sympathy and concern for the Ward family.
After shock and sadness, the most universal reaction was the obvious warning about the danger of getting out of one’s car to vent on the race track. Next came the disbelief that Stewart was intending to hurt anyone, which is not the same as absolution of all responsibility.
“This was a tragedy that’s going to bring a lot of negativity down on all racing,” Hudson Speedway’s Bob Webber said. “We tell all the drivers — never get out of your car — for your own safety. It’s become somewhat OK for racers to do that in some circles. You see it on television and it’s thought to be entertaining. Young guys coming up take all that in. I think you’re unlikely to see Cup guys racing at local tracks anymore.”
Webber hosted a TV crew at Hudson Sunday doing background about the 30th anniversary of Richard Petty’s last appearance there. “I’m appreciative that they didn’t stick a microphone in front of me and ask me about Stewart,” he said.
“It was very unfortunate,” Monadnock Speedway GM Michelle Cloutier said of the Canandaigua incident. “That’s why we stress ‘Don’t ever get out your car unless it’s on fire.’
You can’t let your emotions get the better of you. Our infield crew knows the players and the temperaments. It’s usually in the pits where things flare up and they have defused a lot of situations.”
It’s hard to know what Stewart saw, or didn’t see, or to judge how he reacted. More than a few people, both in off-the-record commentary and on the Internet, have surmised that he “buzzed” the car as a knee-jerk, right-back-at-you, gesture to Ward.
One successful Granite State racer, preferring anonymity, explained what he commonly does once the caution flag is out and there’s some room between himself and the car in front of him: Take cockpit inventory — gauge checking, brake adjusting, seat-belt tugging, etc.
“You just don’t expect to have someone walking out on the track toward your car,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Canandaigua horror show Saturday night was the second extraordinary sprint car accident in as many years for Stewart. He admitted being at fault for a big multi-car accident that launched 19-year-old racer Alysha Ruggles into the air and landed her in the hospital with a broken back. And there’s plenty of video on record of Stewart hurling his helmet in frustration on pit road at Bristol, Tenn., while NASCAR commentators yuck it up in the background. It’s all fuel to the firestorm now.
“This puts a bad mark on race tracks,” C.K. Elms, owner and promoter of Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt., said. “We’ve gone to race receivers to communicate with the drivers, but the main thing is you’ve got to stay in your car. In our case, we’re dealing mostly with local teams or at least teams that race here often and it’s a small family. In those special shows, you have teams and drivers coming from around the country (so) it’s different. We take every situation as it comes, but if drivers lose self-control they are probably going to end up having a closed-door session with me.”
Lee USA Speedway General Manager Bill Callen had a reminder, as if he needed one, of how dangerous racing can be at Friday night’s successful Ollie Silva Memorial event when the throttle hung up on Danny Lane’s winged ISMA Supermodified. Lane hammered the first-turn wall at full song. The car scrubbed along the fence to the second-turn billboards and was destroyed.
“The safety crews were right on top of it,” Callen said, “but it makes you realize that you have your life on the line at times. The accidents are an unfortunate part of our sport. My heart goes out to the Ward family and to Tony.”
Racing is a tough sport. Teams can spend hours and sometimes the rent money trying to get a car in competitive condition and watch it go up in smoke in the first lap of a heat race, if not in practice. People get stressed. Their egos get in the way — as with any competitive sport and life generally. Tempers flare. Take a few deep breaths. Be grateful for your loved ones, the food on your table and the country you live in. Stay in your car.
Tom Herzig writes a weekly column during the motor sports season for the New Hampshire Union Leader for the New Hampshire Union Leader. This is a special edition. His regular column will run Thursday. Email him at email@example.com.