Auto racing resumes at many tracks today as fans and racers continue to debate if changes should come to the sport after a fatal accident involving a high-profile driver last week in New York.
In southwest Ohio, long a hotbed for fans and racers, many say they are sorry for everyone involved in the fatal incident at a dirt-track race Saturday near Canandaigua, N.Y. Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old sprint car driver, left his car after a wreck and walked down the track to confront another driver, NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart, whom he appeared to blame for his crash. The right side of Stewart’s car struck Ward, who died of his injuries. The crash is under investigation.
“It’s a situation, and I find this in drag racing and in stock car racing, racers are passionate about what they do,” said Kyle Willetts, manager of Kil-Kare Raceway in Xenia. “That passion sometimes takes hold of them. Quite honestly that is a battle I don’t know you will ever win.”
Miamisburg’s Toby Alfrey wrote a book on driver conduct for one racing circuit, the TriState Legends Cars series. Alfrey knows the dangers that can follow from unsportsmanlike behavior during a race, saying he broke many of those rules himself when he was younger.
“I’ve thrown my helmet, grabbed the window net. I actually took my (modified) car and pinned another car against the wall in my younger years,” said Alfrey, the TriState series director. “I was young, stupid and hot-headed.”
Drivers meetings across the country this weekend will no doubt address the incident. Kil-Kare and Champaign County’s Shady Bowl Speedway are among those that will likely address the issue.
But once the racing starts, organizers and drivers say, responsibility belongs to the drivers.
“It’s pretty much a common sense thing,” said Willetts. “You don’t jump out of the car with a track full of running cars. It’s an unfortunate situation that of course anything can happen in motorsports.”
Officials at both Kil-Kare and Shady Bowl said they either have rules in place or advise drivers to remain in their cars — buckled and with their helmet on — after an accident unless they are in imminent danger. But like the hundreds of tracks across the country, neither has concrete penalties for breaking that rule.
“We’ve never really run into that problem,” said Shady Bowl official Rick Young. “From now on I think it’ll be a mandatory penalty. Maybe like two weeks, maybe you lose some points, maybe you’re disqualified from the race.”
Some racing fans — or at least online commentators — are suggesting Stewart should be banned from racing and face jail time. Others argue Ward put himself in danger for leaving his car and walking toward sprint cars moving at about 35 miles per hour.
“(Ward) just did a dumb 20-year old thing and it cost him his life,” said National Sprint Car Hall of Fame driver Jack Hewitt of Troy. “It don’t get any sadder than that. Anybody that wants to blame Tony Stewart for that, they either know nothing about racing or they just want an excuse to blame somebody.
“I feel sorry for Kevin’s family because they are going through it. And I feel sorry for Tony because he has to live with it.”
Ward was buried Thursday in New York and the debate is slowly turning from who to blame to what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
Officials at Kil-Kare and Shady Bowl said they don’t anticipate a drop in attendance due to the danger of racing. If anything, they said, attendance might go up.
“Look back at the tragic accident of Dale Earnhardt,” said Brian Casey, a racing commentator with 1410 ESPN Radio. Earnhardt, a popular NASCAR star, died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. “In the after-effect of that, NASCAR’s fan base grew leaps and bounds. It’s sad to think people come to this to watch the wrecks.”
Operators of Eldora Speedway near the Darke County village of Rossburg, which Stewart bought in 2004, declined comment out of respect for Ward’s family.
The Darke County track’s next scheduled event is the Baltes Classic on Aug. 31.
NASCAR racing fan Darin Davis of Sidney said he keeps up with Stewart among other NASCAR drivers and said his first thought on hearing about the accident — and before seeing the video — was Stewart “just lost his cool.” Davis said Stewart’s involvement would not keep him from attending events at Eldora.
Casey hopes fans separate the incident from the sport.
“We’ve had tragedies in racing, but it’s still, in my opinion, one of the safest sports in America,” Casey said. “The unfortunate part is these incidents are what give us the reason to create new rules for safety. Out of this I think we can save lives.”
NASCAR announced Friday a new rule requiring drivers to remain buckled in their cars after crashes until race crews give them directions on how to leave the tracks. Drivers are prohibited from approaching the racing surface or another vehicle.
After crashes like the one that disabled Ward’s car, the other racers are supposed to slow down and fall in line “under caution.” Among the issues under investigation is whether Stewart did all he could do to avoid the collision with Ward after the driver left his vehicle.
Sprint car driver Matt Westfall of Ludlow Falls said it is difficult to say. That the racers were “under caution” doesn’t mean they weren’t busy.
Drivers are checking and re-tightening their safety belts, dusting off visors, looking at gauges and watching the car in front of them to follow their line to avoid debris fields caused by accidents. Drivers interviewed also said they tend to look more to the left — toward the infield — when going through a turn, which is where Saturday’s accident took place.
“There’s a lot of things that go on in a race car driver’s head,” Westfall said. “When you race with a wing you can’t see out the right side of the car. You can’t see hardly anything. Plus with our safety seats it’s hard to see. The car in front of him about hit him, too. The only person that knows (what happened) is Tony.”
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