From negatives often come positives. NASCAR, sanctioning bodies and race tracks across North America have an opportunity to make something positive out of the horrible tragedy that took the life of racer Kevin Ward, Jr. last Saturday night.
The headlines have been dominated this week by the story of the 20-year old Port Leyden, NY, driver, who emerged from his damaged race car to confront NASCAR driver Tony Stewart following a crash in an Empire Super Sprints event in upstate New York, then died after being hit by Stewart’s car.
In the days following the tragedy, a number of tracks have instituted new rules prohibiting drivers from leaving their damaged cars until cleared to do so by track officials, except in the event of fire or other life-threatening circumstance. It is a prudent move; one that both NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies would do well to emulate.
Some, including former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and NASCAR on TNT commentator Wally Dallenbach, Jr. have spoken out against such a rule recently, saying there are already too many regulations in motorsports and that such a stipulation would take the spontaneity out of the game. Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, and I’m all for emotion in the sport. I jump out of my seat as quickly as the next guy when drivers climb out of their battered race cars and go nose-to-nose (or fist to nose) with each other.
But my amusement is not worth someone’s life.
Angry people cannot be relied upon to be clear thinkers. Common sense often goes out the window in times of stress or high emotion, and people make bad decisions, putting themselves and others in positions of unnecessary risk. It happened Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, and it happens dozens of times each season at race tracks across the country. And despite Saturday night’s horrifying example of how things can go tragically, terribly wrong, it will happen again this weekend at a race track near you.
The sad truth is that from time to time, people need to be protected from themselves. Racers are no exception. In the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, some drivers resisted a NASCAR mandate that they wear head and neck restraints on the race track at all times. They cited claustrophobia, impaired lateral vison, delayed egress from a potentially burning race car and a hundred other factors as reasons for them not to wear the lifesaving devices. But NASCAR held firm, and today, every driver in every NASCAR national series wears a HANS or Hutchens device. There have been no deaths due to basal skull fractures since Earnhardt’s tragic passing, and that is no coincidence.
A new rule requiring drivers to remain in their race cars until safety workers arrive on the scene, backed by substantial monetary fines, championship point deductions and even suspensions will prove equally effective, keeping drivers enveloped in the relative safety of their race cars for the few precious moments necessary to allow anger to pass and common sense to return.
Common sense alone will not get the job done, as evidenced by the dozens of YouTube videos showing drivers bailing out of damaged race cars each week to risk life and limb, all in the interest of “telling off” a fellow competitor who richly deserves the telling. We think we're invincible; that a tragedy like the one that felled Kevin Ward, Jr., last Saturday night cannot possibly happen to us.
That’s what we tell ourselves, despite knowing -- all too well -- that it’s not true.
Kevin Ward, Jr. did not plan on losing his life Saturday night, but it happened. And it will happen again, unless the people in charge of running these shows have the intestinal fortitude to do something about it.
Losing 100 points in the midst of a championship chase will absolutely make drivers stop and think. Men and women will risk their lives at the wheel of speeding race cars, but they will not risk losing valuable championship points by blowing their tops. They will not risk the money needed to buy that new set of tires, and they will not risk sitting on the sidelines next Saturday night, watching others do what they love most.
Kevin Ward, Jr., was laid to rest today in his native New York, surrounded by family members and friends who are struggling to make sense of a senseless tragedy. We owe it to them – and to ourselves -- to ensure that it never happens again.