The grand sport of auto racing made the national news this week for all the wrong reasons. The sprint car accident that claimed the life of aspiring racer Kevin Ward, Jr. in upstate New York before NASCAR ran at Watkins Glen touched off a firestorm. Still is. When I awakened from my slumber Sunday morning every initial report that arrived via my smart devices had already positioned Tony Stewart as a crazy race driver who mowed down another driver and killed him, and that video was out there. My imagination concocted a lurid visual picture of Tony Stewart as a mad man who aimed for the young Ward and took him out.
Then I watched the video expecting the worst. What I saw was a fairly innocuous accident, a yellow, then cars slowing for it. Meantime Ward, completely uninjured, extracted himself from the cockpit and proceeded to run around his wrecked car and into the racing line to express his displeasure with Stewart when Tony came around.
The guy in front of Stewart barely avoided Ward, who was running down the middle of the track. Tony did not. It was oddly reminiscent of an accident in a cart race in Vancouver in 1990 in which a track worker wound up in front of Willy T. Ribbs’ left rear and also paid the ultimate price. Those in the know have indicated how difficult it is to see out of a winged sprint car under normal circumstances. Add in a dimly lit track and a driver in a black uniform with a black helmet running toward cars going about 80 and a recipe for disaster results.
It was a racing accident. The Zapruder-film-like frame by frame ‘analysts’ weighing in Stewart’s possible culpability have suggested Stewart may have intended to buzz Ward by getting close and goosing the throttle. That may be something we will never know, but either way Stewart has a conscience with which he will spend the rest of his career trying to put back into balance.
The national media have played up the fact (and the video) of Tony Stewart being some kind of hot head to spice it all up. All the while the general reputation of NASCAR participants and race drivers in general of seeming like type-A redneck hooligans is enhanced. That is a shame. The one thing that would have presented the needless accident would have been Ward staying strapped into his car until the safety crews got there. The smart thing to do would have been to approach Stewart after he got out of his car after the race away from the track. That is fact. People will also forget that Tony Stewart is a race driver who does it because he loves every single part of it as much as possible. Asking him to give up the side trips is like asking a cart enthusiast that refuses to budge from 1995 to function as a non-developmentally challenged adult and lose the arrogance.
It is easy to assume many more than usual tuned in to ESPN on Sunday to watch the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen. If so there were probably thrilled. It was a crash-fest on a road course red flagged twice to take care of barriers either ripped off their posts or smashed to smithereens. Using ARMCO barriers in accident-prone areas of the track is, to borrow a word from the president of the track, insane.
Some IndyCar fans pine for a return to either Watkins Glen or Road America, but the people who run the tracks disagree with the traditional IndyCar model of demanding 1.5 million or more to show up. They have a point considering neither IndyCar nor the tracks seem willing to promote events, and title sponsorship is challenging. Ever wonder why IndyCar seeks events in far flung corners of the world? Those folks are willing to cough up the bucks. My hope for 2015? That Pocono, Fontana or Texas do not get screwed up, and add another oval such as Chicagoland back to the schedule.