Thoughts on Tony Stewart Incident and Track Safety

I’ve talked to a few folks about this since it happened, read lots of posts on it and started to form my own opinion. Here’s a recap of what happened, as factual and non-presumptuous as possible:

  1. Tony Stewart raced in an amateur Sprint Car dirt track race in the evening Saturday August 9th at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, NY. He was set to race a NASCAR race the next day at Watkins Glen, about 50 miles away.
  2. There was an on-track incident between the cars driven by Tony Stewart and 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. As a result Kevin Ward Jr. spun and crashed with his car apparently non-operable on the track. Yellow flags come out, which means caution, no overtaking.
  3. Kevin Ward Jr. gets out of his car with cars still on track, apparently in an attempt to confront Tony Stewart the next time he comes around.
  4. Many cars drive by Kevin Ward Jr. and when Tony Stewart comes around, Kevin is hit by Tony’s car and injured seriously enough to die shortly thereafter.

This is an extremely sad circumstance. I feel extremely sorry for the Ward family’s loss, particularly since they were in the stands to see it. I have personally not watched a video of the incident, because I don’t feel the need to watch someone die. I’ve read enough to still make some statements about this as an avid racing fan, an attendee of racing schools and a sometimes-driver at amateur races and track days.

Racing incidents happen

Whether intentional or not, you will crash at some point in your driving career. Some will be your own fault, some will be through outside influence like dirt, oil or coolant on the track and others will be because another driver did something dumb. They all suck, because likely your race is over and you’ve got a repair bill coming, but when someone else is at fault, it really stings. Sometimes it’s very obvious that the other person made a mistake, like getting hit in the back when braking for example, but often there’s a fine line between who’s at fault or not.

Even in Formula 1, this is discussed quite often, most recently in the high-speed crash of the last lap of the Canadian Grand Prix. Still vying for points positions, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez tangled, flying into the tires at very high speed. Here’s an amateur video of that:

Here the question was who had the line into the corner and whether Felipe braked too early. Thankfully neither driver was hurt. Big props to F1 chassis design.

Point is, racing incidents happen at all levels of motorsports and you discuss them afterwards when you’re back in the paddock. Potentially you hand out a penalty, like in this case for Sergio Perez. He was set back 5 spots on the grid in the next race. Done, you move on.

Know how to handle an accident

Post-race penalties or not, one of the key rules when you crash, if not the single biggest rule, is that you never ever get out of the car unless you’re on fire or the safety crew instructs you to do so. If you’re in an accident, irrespective of whether you’re way off in the dirt or in the middle of the track, the safest places to be is inside your roll cage. This is sometimes a lightly enforced rule and it’s hard to give out a real penalty when that driver’s race is over anyway, but it’s standard practice that you stay in your car until a safety worker tells you to get out.

Again, I feel extremely sad about the loss of a driver, but Kevin made a big mistake by getting out of his car on track that was under caution. That simply means cars have somewhat reduced their speed and they’re not passing each other. They’re still around and on the track and safety personnel may or may not have arrived yet.

NASCAR condones the culture – and Tony Stewart is a big part of it

Rules are great, but when you have a culture of confrontations, they might as well not exist. Let’s be real, NASCAR is entertainment like every other sport and they want the most eyeballs and publicity possible to sell tickets and ads. Unfortunately, stories of rivalries are great and they get even better when you have fights. Just google “NASCAR fights” and you’ll see what I mean. There are lots of videos too, like this “Best Fights of 2010” one:

That’s a fan video. Fans clearly love the fights, they want users to engage with the content and (probably illegally) put videos like this together because they think it’s awesome. It sells the product. It is the product. NASCAR feeds into further by not seriously cracking down on it with Tony Stewart being one of the biggest perpetrators. I would guess that’s a large reason why he’s so popular beside being successful: he puts on a good show.

Now I’m not saying that NASCAR needs to turn into this gentlemanly sport where squabbles are settled over a glass of cognac, but it needs to think about its role in educating young drivers. Should you be showing kids that if somebody hits you, you go confront them physically, potentially even on the track? I don’t think so.

So my view, as the dominant US racing series, NASCAR needs to think seriously about the message its product is sending to young drivers. Yes, Kevin Ward Jr. should have known to not get out of his car, but what he sees on TV is not that. He sees pros often taking matters into their own hands (literally), so why shouldn’t he when he’s racing a pro? Conversely, Tony Stewart has been allowed to participate in a series where he can get into on-track and off-track incidents (with cars or fists) and largely get away with nothing. That’s not right either. He might be hothead, but it’s systemic if he’s allowed to be one.

There’s a lot more detail being discussed about this incident around potential intent, investigations and criminal charges, but I don’t know enough about that to comment properly. They also don’t matter, because they’re not the root cause. The systemic issue is that NASCAR and its associated culture prevalent in many US racing series failed Kevin and Tony. Unfortunately for Kevin and his family to the worst degree possible.

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