How Will Auto Racing Heal After the Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. Tragedy?

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How Will Auto Racing Heal After the Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. Tragedy?
Mike Dinovo/USA Today

Nothing you or I say or do 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.

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

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 a YouTube video of the incident. It’s terrible.

For one family in upstate New York there will be unimaginable grief and pain. If it’s ever been part of your life, you know how sudden loss is always the worst loss.

And for the family of racers and race fans, the pain of this loss will linger because the young man, whose life ended sooner than it should have, wanted nothing more than to be Tony Stewart.

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

In my years of working in racing, I’ve seen this scenario play out before. I’ve watched drivers who had been wrecked get out of their race cars and express their frustration with hand gestures and worse. And I’ve seen a helmet or gloves be thrown at the target of their anger.

Stewart has been there before. In fact, he’s often the one doing the throwing.

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 why people watch and attend races.

And they enjoy the wrecks. Yes, they do.

I don’t think fans really want to see anyone get hurt, but they still enjoy it when a driver uses a fender or a wheel or some other part of the race car to move another driver out of the way. And if one of them ends up in the wall, well, then it’s just “one of those racing deals.”

Saturday night’s incident should have been “one of those racing deals.” But something went horribly wrong. And the fans who were looking for a little bumping and banging got more than they asked for. More than they could ever want.

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

Did we forget that racing is a dangerous sport?

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 beast-like, almost uncontrollable machines.

This young man who died on Saturday night climbed out of his wrecked machine and marched, somewhat unprotected, into the flow of race cars on the track.

Can auto racing be expected to regulate heat-of-the-moment emotional outbursts? Not hardly. Can any sport?

For years, we’ve taken for granted seeing a driver outside of his car following a wreck, flipping a bird or wagging a finger at another driver. Currently, there are no rules preventing a driver from unhooking his seat belt and climbing out of a damaged car following a wreck. There should be rules in sprint car racing to keep a driver inside his or her race car after an accident until the safety crew arrives, unless there’s a fire.

These are changes that will make racing safer for a long time after the memories of the event that took Ward’s life have faded.

Mel Evans/Associated Press

The pundits and fans will examine every angle of this regrettable incident. And they should. They’ll 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 repeated over and over.

And there will be lawyers. For something like this, there always are.

For Stewart the emotional maelstrom he faces over the next days and weeks will take its toll. He is still recovering from the leg injury that kept him out of a race car for much of 2013. The recovery from the emotional scars of Saturday night’s accident may take much longer.

Will this episode permanently tarnish the reputation of the three-time Sprint Cup champion? For the short term, yes. For the long, probably not.

The road ahead is bumpy and onerous. But 10-15 years from now, this event will be a paragraph in a biography.

After all, how many remember when “The King” Richard Petty went drag racing in 1965 and a part of his race car flew into the stands, killing an eight-year-old boy? Or IndyCar driver Adrian Fernandez hitting the wall at Michigan Speedway and parts of his race car flying into the grandstands, killing three in 1998?

Both events were shocking in their time and put auto racing in an ugly light. But time moves on.

Memories are short, and over the passage of time, even the worst moments fade from our thoughts as life presents new challenges.

Like that stop sign that never gets erected, until someone dies at the intersection, maybe, just maybe, the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will be cause for necessary changes.

But for now, an unwanted and unthinkable event that reflects upon everyone who is and has ever been involved with auto racing forces this sport that I care so much about to operate for the foreseeable future under a cloud of sadness and regret.

I wish it weren’t so.

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