I started writing this yesterday but I was so angry about much of the coverage and how they were completely missing the point that I decided to stop and wait until I got to the point where I wouldn’t write angry. Before I go into my opinion on what happened on Saturday night, I wish to express my sympathy to Kevin Ward, Jr.’s family and friends.
On Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr. were involved in a racing accident that turned into an unnecessary and completely avoidable tragedy. After the initial accident, Ward got out of his car then walked down the track toward the racing line while cars were circulating under caution to confront Stewart, who was still in his race car and circulating with the rest of the field. At this point, one car avoided Ward and the car driven by Stewart didn’t. Ward was struck and killed. The question of intent will answered by a law enforcement investigation and I have absolutely no comment on that. What I do know is this: Ward wouldn’t have been struck by Stewart’s car if he hadn’t gotten out of his, walked down the track to the racing line and tried to confront Stewart in that fashion. All of the personal safety equipment and all of the safety enhancements to the cars do you absolutely no good if you leave the car before directed to by the safety crews. There are many mentions of NASCAR below, but let me be perfectly clear, this isn’t just a NASCAR problem. This is a motor sport problem.
Unfortunately, on track confrontations involving drivers that have exited their cars and drivers still circulating with the rest of the field have become commonplace and accepted regardless of the fact that it is unsafe. Not only have these types of confrontations become acceptable, they have become glorified. Whenever a driver gets out of his car to confront his still circulating foe, TV centers in on him and the announcers excitedly describe what happens – then they replay it over and over. Afterwards, tracks and sanctioning bodies use the footage to promote races and the series in advertisements. Fans salivate over it and discuss it endlessly. Regardless of the outcome of the Stewart investigation it is time for sanctioning bodies to put an end to these types of confrontations. If drivers wish to handle their differences behind the pit wall or back in the garage fine, but walking to or into the racing line on the track to do it must to come to an end.
How many times have we seen Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or any number of drivers do exactly what Kevin Ward, Jr. did on Saturday night? Plenty, too many times I would argue. Kevin Ward, Jr. was 20 years old; no doubt he grew up watching drivers do exactly what he did whether he saw it at the race track or on the television. The drivers that did it, the sanctioning bodies that have allowed it (not just NASCAR), the television stations that focused on it, the sanctioning bodies and promoters that have used the footage for profit, and the fans that have cheered it on are all culpable in what happened on Saturday night. We as fans must not cheer these confrontations when they happen. The sanctioning bodies must take action against drivers who take those kind of actions. Television commentators must point out the stupidity of doing it when the confrontations do happen and state that the behavior is unacceptable. Sanctioning bodies and promoters must stop using the footage to drum up attention for their races. By using these type of scenes in promotions and advertisements, they’re only pandering to the lowest common denominator.
This tragedy could have occurred at any race track in any series in any level on any night. I’m honestly surprised it has never happened at a top level NASCAR race. By debating sprint car racing or whether Stewart should have been racing sprint cars, we’re missing the point. We the fans and the racing media should be drawing attention to how unsafe this practice has been and continues to be but we probably won’t. At the next Sprint Cup short track race, there will probably be another confrontation of this nature and television will cover it exactly the same, the fans will cheer it, then promoters will use to advertise their races and the series in general. Ward’s death will be forgotten and a phrase that was tossed around on Sunday morning will be seen to be true: it will continue to be “business as usual.”
For the sake of the memory of Kevin Ward, Jr. and for the sake of motor sports, I hope I’m proven wrong on that point.