Last Modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 11:59 AM
At a young age we were all told not to play in traffic.
Yet in the heat of the moment we often forget.
Kevin Ward Jr. taught all that lesson again the hard way.
This is not to make light of a tragedy, but rather to shine the light on auto racing’s secret.
We all understand speeding around a track at lighting speed is a dangerous way to make a living. In the best of conditions one slip can mean the end of a life.
Ward Jr. didn’t race in the best of conditions.
Last Saturday night, on a dirt track in upstate New York, the young driver with a promising future bumped cars with a NASCAR legend, Tony Stewart.
Ward was sent into the wall, which at that track was more like a picket fence, and knocked out of the race.
Upset with his circumstances and clearly angry at Stewart, road rage took over. Ward got out of his car, which had come to a stop at the top of the track, and waited for his foe to circle back to him.
Dressed in a dark fire suit and dark helmet, Ward was almost invisible on the poorly lit track. On the video it appears Ward is almost hit by one car before Stewart’s sent him into the air some 50 feet.
The outcome for the 20-year-old was inevitable.
The future of Stewart’s career is in doubt.
Two lives that no one would ever have expected to cross paths were on a collision course for doom the minute they locked bumpers.
No criminal charges have been filed against Stewart, who sat out last Sunday’s NASCAR race, but an investigation continues.
We will never know what was in the minds of either Ward or Stewart the seconds before the tragedy, but we do know that this is now the moment of truth for all of the motor racing world.
Having sat in driver’s safety meetings before a race I know the instructions handed down to all parties include doing what you must to be safe. That means stay in your car if it is on the track and not on fire.
They claim safety always comes first.
Then there is the reality.
NASCAR knows confrontation sells.
It is why the cameras always stay on the drivers and crews when they race toward each other on the pit road after such incidents.
Some would even argue that just such a scene gives the sport its biggest boost.
In the final moments of the 1979 Daytona 500, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough first collided while in their cars and then once when they got out of them. The fight that ensued was made for television.
We even got to see a third party, Allison’s brother Bobby, join in the melee.
For folks in the North who were forced to stay indoors by a snowstorm, it was great theatre.
It was as if the Hatfields and McCoys had put down their guns and jumped inside stock cars to play demolition derby. And when the cars stopped running the fists began to fly.
NASCAR as a sport took off soon after that as people tuned into to watch what was next.
This is not to blame the sport itself, but rather show past generations have made certain reactions accepted.
It is the sport Stewart loves and the one Ward hoped to become famous in one day. It only makes sense that when the young man felt Stewart had taken him out, he wanted his ounce of flesh.
It is what he had seen from his elders.
Auto racing will go on. Fights will happen and people will watch. It is the nature of the sport and the viewing public.
Let’s just hope that one lesson is passed on from this mess, one that NASCAR claims is at the center of a its sport.
Safety must come first.
That means even over ratings and dollars.