Will Auto Racing Heal After The Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward,Jr. Tragedy?

Tony Stewart

(WOMR file photo)

There is absolutely nothing you or I say, or for that fact do, that will change what happened late Saturday night, at the small dirt track in upstate New York—its grandstands full of fans trying to catch a glimpse of a true legend of auto racing, drinking an adult beverage or two, and rooting for their local favorite driver!

As night became early morning, the facts became clearer and clearer, and the whole episode more surreal and totally horrific. Twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. was dead after being struck by Tony Stewart’s car.

There is no doubt that this was the worst possible nightmare for racing. One of the sport’s biggest stars gets his name in headlines splashed across the country and around the world—along with the word “death.”

I really don’t know what happened for sure, although I have watched one YouTube video of the incident. There is only one person alive that knows what really happened Saturday night on a dirt track in upstate New York. Nevertheless, it is absolutely a tragedy.

For one family in upstate New York there will be unimaginable grief and pain, parents planning and attending a funeral for their young 20 year old son.  If it’s ever been part of your life, you know how a sudden loss is always the worst loss!

And for the family of racers and race fans alike, the pain of this horrific loss will linger with a bitter sting because the young man, whose life ended much sooner than it should have, wanted nothing more than to be like Tony Stewart.  That dream of racing sprint cars on dirt, winning races, being ten feet tall and bullet-proof, and quite possibly one day make it to “The Big Show” are gone!

This has put the entire auto racing world on the front pages everywhere. And it will be there for months to come. How can something so ugly, so hurting ever go away?

Let me say this.  I have been going to races for more than 55 years, courtesy of my older brothers.  I have seen this same scenario play out hundreds of times, frustrated drivers climb out of the wrecked race cars, wagging a finger, raise their arms up in a questioning gesture, as in WTH, and yes flip the bird, the international friendship sign, the California howdy, or what ever you wish to call it!  I have seen helmets thrown, gloves tossed, and many other things thrown in total frustration.

Saturday afternoon during the Nationwide races at Watkins Glen, J.J. Yeley, a great sprint car driver in his own right, got out of his car after being wrecked, directed his frustration at his perceived culprit, Trevor Bayne.  And yes, we all remember Tony Stewart throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth two years ago at Bristol. The anger and frustration overflows onto the race track on a regular basis across this country.

Emotions play a big part in racing. The fans expect it. They want that emotion-fueled, adrenaline pumping, heart-stopping, side-by-side action. It’s one of the many reasons why people watch and attend races.

If the race fans are totally honest with themselves, they actually really enjoy the wrecks and crashes!  No, they really don’t want anyone to get hurt!  However, they do enjoy watching a driver use his bumper, fender, or any other part of the race car to move a competitor out of the way!  And if one of them ends up in the wall, oh well, it’s just “one of those racing deals.”

Last Saturday night’s incident should have been “one of those racing deals.” However, something went horribly, and catastrophically, wrong! And while the fans were looking for a little bumping, banging, maybe a car flipping, they got way more than they asked for!

And for one family in upstate New York an unthinkable reality set in!

Did we forget that racing is an inherently dangerous sport?  Did we forget what happened in February 2001 at Daytona International Speedway to NASCAR’s “Superman”?

Since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, great strides have been made to minimize serious injuries to drivers in racing accidents. When an accident happens and someone is injured, it’s still unexpected, unwanted, and it shatters the notion that we find enjoyment in watching others do battle at high speeds in these contraptions that we call cool looking racing machines.

This young man, who died on Saturday night, climbed out of his wrecked machine and marched, somewhat unprotected, towards the flow of race cars on the track, like many other drivers have done before him, including the driver who would be forever tied to this tragedy, Tony Stewart.

Can auto racing be expected to regulate heat-of-the-moment emotional outbursts? Not hardly. Can any sport be expected to regulate the heat-of-the-moment?  Again the answer is a categorical NO!

For years, we’ve taken for granted seeing a driver jump outside of his car following a wreck, flipping the bird or wagging a finger at another driver. Currently, there are no uniformly enforced rules preventing a driver from unhooking his seat belt and climbing out of a damaged car following a wreck. 

No doubt this event will cause certain sanctioning bodies to re-evaluate their rules, and quite possibly make some necessary changes to make sure that something like this tragedy will not be replayed.

Needless to say, both the race fans and the media will examine every angle of this tragedy, and they should. They will talk about Stewart’s history, of how he wears his emotions on his sleeve. They’ll remind us of his shoving a reporter at a race track in 2002, and you can expect the video of Stewart throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car at Bristol two years ago to be played.  It is only normal.

Will this episode permanently tarnish the reputation of the three-time Sprint Cup champion? For the short term, possibly yes. However, for the long term, this tragedy will probably not haunt Tony Stewart forever.  It will fade away because Americans have a very short memory.

But for one family in upstate New York this tragedy will never fade away!

I do not pretend to have the definitive answer as to how to prevent this from ever happening again.  I doubt that any one person does. Needless to say, there has to be a way to collectively prevent this particular type of tragedy from playing out again on the short tracks of America!


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