As everyone knows, Tony Stewart’s life was plunged into a very difficult, deeply tragic phase at the little Canandaigua dirt track in upstate New York a week and a half ago. Three-time NASCAR champion Stewart was racing a winged sprint car on a Saturday night, battling hard with 20-year-old local hero Kevin Ward Jr, when the two brushed wheels and Ward spun into the fence.
An enraged Ward jumped out of his car and started walking down the slippery clay track waving an arm at the approaching field, apparently aiming at Stewart. The first car in line had to swerve to avoid Ward, but Stewart was the next and all we know is that Stewart’s right rear tyre struck Ward, who was sucked underneath the tyre and thrown out, instantly dead from massive head injuries.
Did Ward slip on the slick surface? Did Stewart flick his car at Ward? Immediately both the mainstream media and the internet lit up with high volume commentary, much of it castigating Stewart. Frankly, I thought it was pathetic that so many ill-informed, self-appointed experts could throw themselves into the midst of a terrible tragedy and make everything worse for all parties – Stewart, the Ward family, and motor racing as a whole.
Kevin Ward Jr
At last weekend’s superb Monterey Historics I talked to Bruce Canepa about Stewart’s tragic accident. Canepa is a veteran vintage racer who drove a wide variety of cars at Laguna Seca last weekend, including a Birdcage Maserati, a 1970 Javelin Trans-Am car and a Porsche 935. A few years ago Canepa enjoyed one season racing sprint cars and he talked about how difficult it is to see out of those machines.
“Your field of vision is very limited,” Canepa said. “You can see a limited area straight ahead but you really can’t see anything off to the side and as the race goes on and a bunch of mud or clay gets kicked up and sticks to the screen it gets more and more difficult to see. When you’re running at night at some of those tracks you just can’t see very much at all. I can’t imagine Tony had any idea the guy was there until the last moment and then it was too late.”
In fact, Canandaigua is renowned for being poorly lit and the various pieces of video of the accident we’ve all seen clearly shows the poor lighting. But I’m not about to start pointing fingers or demanding changes. I believe Ward’s death was a combination of many circumstances – bad visibility; poor lights; a talented, ambitious young driver anxious to show his stuff by beating a legend of American racing; maybe a fateful slip of racing boot on a slick, clay track…
But in that moment Tony Stewart’s life has changed, maybe forever. He pulled out of the following day’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen. Nor did he race his Sprint Cup car at Michigan last weekend. As I write on Sunday afternoon, it’s unclear when Stewart will return to action.
Meanwhile, NASCAR last week announced new guidelines to stop drivers from walking on the track and gesticulating at other drivers they feel have wronged them. NASCAR’s vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said NASCAR will formalise rules over how drivers should act following incidents.
A new rule has been introduced by NASCAR that says if a driver’s car cannot continue after an incident they must stay in the vehicle and keep safety equipment fastened until directed otherwise by officials. The driver then has to proceed directly to an ambulance or other official vehicle as instructed, without approaching other cars.
Pemberton said drivers running under a yellow flag will be urged to use extreme care as they approach any on-track incident and, “not weave or otherwise stray from the line.” NASCAR didn’t announce any specific penalties for any such transgressions. Pemberton said any incidents, “will be addressed according to each individual situation.”
Tony Stewart has established himself as one of America’s most popular racers who stands out as a free spirit who speaks his mind and loves to race as much as possible, usually running as many as 100 races every year in many different types of cars. He also owns and operates the legendary Eldora Speedway dirt track in Ohio and is co-promoter of the PRI trade show in downtown Indianapolis each December. And of course, he’s the team leader and a 50/50 partner with Formula 1-bound Gene Haas in Stewart-Haas Racing, a four-car Sprint Cup team.
Stewart loves and is as deeply committed to the sport as any man and it’s sad that so much of what he represents has been called into question by many professional and amateur commentators who know little or nothing about automobile racing.
We don’t need knee-jerk reactions. Nor do we need more rules and regulations in a sport that’s become far too over-regulated. Every incident and death on the racetrack requires a close, careful examination before any properly measured responses occur and indeed the New York state authorities are currently conducting a thorough investigation of Kevin Ward’s death.
We can only hope that lawsuits will not start flying after the results of the investigation are made public and that Tony Stewart will soon be ready and able to return and enjoy the sport he loves so deeply.