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Racing Death Mars Weekend

August 11, 2014 - Al Stephenson
It should have been an outstanding sports weekend. Rory McIlroy won a stirring PGA Championship - his second major win in a row and third straight tour victory - in the gloaming at Valhalla. A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose put on a great show with a sprint to the finish at Watkins Glen. I was even able to flip back and forth between three channels as I watched the Cleveland Indians knock off the New York Yankees for the second day in a row.

Maybe the baseball game is not on the same level as the other two events, but it is a significant part of this column.

Instead of enjoying to the fullest these great sporting events, I watched them with a certain detachment as I could not get the biggest story of the weekend out of my mind. A young 20-year-old sprint car driver was killed on Saturday night in what one has to call a bizarre racing accident. Tony Stewart left the track at Watkins Glen after qualifying on Saturday to make the trek to Canandaigua to do some dirt track racing. Stewart broke his leg last year at about this same time driving a sprint car and missed the rest of the season. Many called his hobby a bad idea. Racing on dirt tracks for small purses when it could drastically affect his Nascar Sprint Cup team was not such a good idea, some thought.

But Stewart loves racing and he was not about to stop doing what he loves so about a month ago he hopped back into a sprint car for the first time since that accident. That is what he was going to do at Canandaigua too. Then things went horribly wrong. Stewart touched wheels with young Kevin Ward, Jr. causing the latter to spin out suffering a flat tire. Ward was not pleased with the contact and hurriedly exited his race car to confront Stewart on the track. What happened next defies belief. Whether Stewart hit the throttle as he approached the driver and swerved we may never know. What we do know is Stewart's rear tire hit Ward hurtling him up the track where he lay motionless.

Ward was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital and race fans everywhere were in shock. At this point police are investigating whether there was any intent on Stewart's part to strike the young man. So far no criminal charges have been filed. Frankly I don't expect any to be filed, but we'll have to wait and see what the investigation brings. We can, and should however, learn from this tragedy.

Here is what we do know. Ward should not have left the relative safety of his race car until safety vehicles had arrived and the race cars had slowed down sufficiently. That is rule #1 in sprint car racing. What he did though is understandable as drivers have confronted competitors a number of times when angry. Maybe the biggest offender of this is Stewart. Remember when he tossed his helmet at the windshield of Matt Kenseth at Bristol under caution? Ward was only doing what he saw on television numerous times.

Did Stewart try to send him a message by buzzing him when he saw him approaching his car and did that go horribly wrong? The bravado and "unwritten" rules in sport can cause this type of situation. Maybe we should not call this a bizarre accident. Perhaps this was something that was waiting to happen and the racing community is lucky it hadn't happened before. Race car drivers have long felt that if you don't stand up to another driver when you feel he wrongs you that you will never earn any respect. Pointing and yelling from a few feet away while a car is bearing down on you may not be the best way to confront your competitors.

Which brings us to baseball. When a batter takes too long circling the bases after hitting a home run, the pitcher feels disrespected. When said batter comes up the next time, he should expect a fast ball to buzz his head. That's the unwritten rule in baseball. How long will it take before someone is seriously injured if not killed by a pitch thrown deliberately at his head. Yes, I know that the intent is not to throw at the head, but baseballs do not always go where the thrower intends.

The view from my seat suggests that my sympathies go out to the Ward family. My thoughts are also with Tony Stewart. There is absolutely no way he intentionally tried to hit this kid with his car - of that you will never convince me otherwise.

My hope though, is that we learn from this and take steps to stop it from happening again.


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