The phone rang at 5:30 am Sunday morning. A friend on the other end said that Tony Stewart had hit another driver under caution and killed him the previous night at Canandaigua Speedway in upstate New York. I spent the rest of day talking, discussing, listening, watching and reading a wide variety of opinions on the subject.
By now you all have read the details and likely saw the video, Kevin Ward Jr. and Tony Stewart tangle on track, Ward spins. Under the ensuing caution the 20 year old gets out of his car and storms onto the track to confront the 3-time NASCAR champ. What happened next set the social media world abuzz, spawned a police investigation and has put racing, short track racing in particular, square in the national media spotlight and not in a good way.
The only thing we do know for sure is that Kevin Ward Jr. is dead, the result of getting hit by Stewart. Video footage shows Stewart’s sprint car accelerate at the moment of contact with Ward. Was he trying to scare the youngster? Teach him a lesson for getting out of the car and pointing a finger? Or was he trying to avoid him? Did Tony have that oh sh*t I’m going to hit this guy, moment? Nobody knows for sure and at this juncture the answers to all of those questions are purely a matter of conjecture, only Tony knows what happened inside his cockpit. In the coming days or weeks he will make an official statement. Until then we wait, left to debate the situation as a whole.
When tragedies happen it is human nature to want to assign blame. Those of us who have been behind the wheel in competition understand that emotions run high during the heat of battle. We also know that many short tracks in this country are dimly lit making seeing anything let alone a guy in a black firesuit and helmet running at you difficult. In racing bad things can happen, sometimes they are intentional, sometimes they are not. But in every tragedy there is a series of events that lead up to the end result. When dissected, those events can point us to lessons of how to avoid a repeat of the tragedy in the future.
In this case, Ward, in the heat of the moment, clearly let his anger get the best of him and he exited the car. He stormed onto a hot race track and that was his mistake. But can we really blame him? After all, we’ve seen drivers from the Cup level on down do this for years. It is almost an accepted practice. Who can forget Michael Simko diving feet first into a fellow competitor’s front windshield after tangling at Toledo Speedway? The video of the incident and subsequent fistfight was widely shared across social media and through traditional news outlets. The incident became a Jerry Springer-esque example of short track gone wild. But it could have easily had a much more devastating end since the competitor’s car was still moving.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the Canandaigua tragedy it’s this; unless your car is on fire stay in the seat, belts strapped until the safety crew arrives on the scene. It’s their job to provide a perimeter of protection around the incident and allow the driver(s) to safely exit their car(s). Remember the minute you get out of the car you surrender the majority of the safety equipment designed to protect you. If you feel the need to confront another driver because of what happened, wait and do it in the pits after the race. While that may be hard to do, it can prevent bad things from happening.
We here at Circle Track have been calling for tracks and sanctions to mandate head and neck restraints for years. Perhaps we need to add a rule to the list that requires drivers to remain belted in the car (assuming no imminent danger) until the track safety crew gives an all clear signal. Better race procedures and better safety education will go far in preventing an incident like this one from recurring.