Kevin Ward Jr. made a fateful mistake Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. He removed his safety belts from his Sprint dirt-car, he walked on to a dimly lit racetrack, and he stepped in to on-coming traffic while racecars drove by him, just inches away from where he stood. Sadly, it's a sight we see all too often at racetracks all across America.
Ward Jr. was attempting to show up one of NASCAR's biggest stars by offering up a rambunctious tirade of finger pointing and yelling. As three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart drove by under caution, Ward Jr. did everything he could to get as close to Stewart's racecar as possible so he could make his point known to the legendary NASCAR owner/driver.
Unfortunately for Ward Jr., it would be the last time the 20-year old Sprint car driver would have the opportunity to let his emotions get the best of him.
Stewart's right rear tire would suck Ward Jr. in, run over the young man, and fling him many feet in to the air. His lifeless body would eventually fall back to earth, where he would lay motionless as the crowd at the speedway gasped in horror. Ward Jr. was later pronounced dead.
A lap earlier Ward Jr. and Stewart were racing hard, both drivers fighting for position. As the two approached a lapper, Stewart just ahead of Ward Jr., moved up the racetrack to avoid the lapper - Ward Jr. followed suit. This left both cars fighting for essentially the same piece of real estate, but Stewart had the slight lead and the inside line.
Ward Jr. had two choices. Lift and try to slide underneath Stewart, or stay in the gas and hope to sneak by on the outside. He chose the latter and ended up in the fence.
We all saw what happened next. Ward Jr. lost his temper, jumped out of his racecar, and attempted to show-up Stewart.
A few thoughts here.
Would Ward Jr. have jumped out of his racecar and acted the way he did if it was NOT a legend like Tony Stewart? What if it was just a local racer that he raced against every weekend? Would he still have acted the way he did? Or did he act that way simply because it was Stewart? Only Ward Jr. knows the answer to that question.
Did Stewart see Ward Jr. standing in the middle of the racetrack?
The race was a night race with poor lighting. You have all been to local dirt tracks, and you all know the lighting is horrible. Ward Jr. was also wearing a black racing suit and a black helmet.
It also appears from the video, that the car running in front of Stewart on the caution lap did not see Ward Jr. until the very last moment, and Stewart was directly behind that car. If the car in front of Stewart couldn't see Ward Jr., how could Stewart possibly have seen Ward Jr.?
In addition, both Ward Jr. and Stewart were wearing tear-offs, the thin lenses designed to help racers keep their lenses clear from dirt and mud.
Tear-offs work great when the car is running at speed, but when running under caution speed or even worse - standing still, it is very hard to see through tear-offs. When the car is under race speed the pressure of the wind keeps the tear-offs pressed against the helmet lens and vision is clear. But, when the car slows the tear-offs separate, creating space between them, and the light refracts and creates an unclear vision.
So, who knows what Stewart actually saw and didn't see. Did he even see Ward Jr. standing to his right on the dimly lit racetrack? And, did Ward Jr. realize how close he actually was to the racecars zooming by in front of him? What was the vision like through his tear-offs?
But, let's say Stewart did see Ward Jr.
And, it 'might' be fair to assume Stewart did see Ward Jr. because you can hear Stewart's engine rev as he approached Ward Jr.
You see, the only way for Stewart to avoid hitting Ward Jr. would have been for him to hit the gas pedal. Sprint cars only turn when there is power to the rear wheels. You cannot turn a Sprint car quickly by simply turning the wheel without propulsion. Without power to the rear wheels, it just won't turn.
Think of a jet ski or a wave runner. If you release the throttle on a wave runner and try to turn the steering wheel, you will go straight ahead. The only way to make a wave runner turn is to give it gas.
The same holds true for a Sprint car. Sprint cars turn when the driver gets in the throttle and gets the back end kicked-out. They have no gears, no clutch, and when not under power - they drive like dump trucks. But, hit the gas and they drive like an unguided missile. Without power, they just don't steer at all. So, the only way for Stewart to avoid Ward Jr. would be to hit the throttle and try to get the car to turn left.
So, before we hang Tony Stewart at high noon in the town square let's take a look at what really happened here.
A 'racing deal'.
What happened Saturday night in upstate New York is something that is seen every Saturday night at racetracks all over America. Driver's bumping and banging. Tempers flying. Emotions running high. Drivers losing control, jumping out of their racecars and pointing fingers.
In thirty years of racing, attending races, watching races, and reporting on races, I have seen countless drivers exit their racecars and chase down the driver that "did 'em wrong". In most cases, they just end up looking like a jackass. Heck, I've seen Stewart do it many times. We all remember the helmet throwing incident with Matt Kenseth.
Unfortunately for Ward Jr., Saturday night will be the last time his family will ever get to see him act like a jackass again.
And, hopefully the sanctioning bodies of all of the major racing organizations will put in stiff penalties for drivers exiting their racecars without track officials instructing them to do so.
At drivers meetings before races all over the country, officials remind drivers not to get out of their racecars while on the racetrack. Drivers are reminded to stay in their cars unless they are on fire. But, they do it anyway. They climb out and embarrass themselves, their families, their car owners, and their sponsors. If I've seen it once, I've seen it a hundred times, and so have you.
Maybe it's time for penalties. Fines. Suspensions.
I'm sure Ward Jr. was not a bad guy. He's was not a jackass or a jerk. But, given the moment. The raw emotions that are generated from such an adrenalin filled sport; we can all act like a jerk at times. We can all let our emotions get the best of us. Sadly, Ward Jr.'s got the best of him Saturday night.
But, what if there are repercussions?
I wonder if Ward Jr. would have stepped out of his car and acted like a lunatic if he had the potential of a $5,000 fine or a loss of 200 driver points hanging over his head. Sadly, we'll never know.
My heart goes out to the Ward family. I have a young son that races and I couldn't imagine waking up to a day on this earth without him. I pray that they have the strength to deal with this horrific loss.
I don't want to minimize their loss by classifying this as a 'racing deal'. Losing a child is never as trivial as just being a 'racing deal'. But, Ward Jr.'s actions Saturday night - were a racing deal. This is what racers do. At least for now.
As long as this type of activity continues to go on each and every weekend at racetracks across the country, and every Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, we will continue to look at these actions as just another racing deal.
A driver gets out of his car to yell at another driver. It happens every weekend.
Hopefully, this is the last time, and the only time we have to bury another racer. - Captain Thunder www.CaptainThunderRacing.com