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A Tragic Racing Moment

August 14, 2014

So much of what happened Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park was common. A collision between two cars. The victim, after being spun out, was upset. Upset to the point that his reaction was also quite common. It is becoming normal within the sport for the victim of a spin out to exit their car and walk on the track to confront the driver they feel caused the misfortune. This all occurred Saturday night before it all went tragically wrong. 

The victim of the spin out was Kevin Ward, Jr. After his car came to rest against the wall, he chose to display his disgust to the driver who triggered the wreck, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. Wearing a black fire suit and black helmet, the 20-year-old Ward unbuckled himself, climbed out of the car into the night and defiantly walked onto the track. 

Ward was nearly hit by another passing car as he pointed with his right arm in Stewart’s direction. As he confronted Stewart in his passing car, disaster struck. 

Ward was standing to the right of Stewart’s familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit him. According to video and witness accounts, Ward’s body was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror. 

Ward did not survive the impact and Stewart dropped out of Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, hours after Saturday’s crash. And the sport was left reeling from a tragedy that will have ripple effects from the biggest stock car series down to local weeknight dirt track racing. 

Tribute flowers at the death track

Within minutes, the tragedy and the story went viral. A criminal investigation was also opened. 

Authorities questioned the 43-year-old Stewart once on Saturday night and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again Sunday. They described him as “visibly shaken” after the crash and said he was cooperative. On Sunday, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said that investigators also don’t have any evidence at this point in the investigation to support criminal intent. But he also said that criminal charges have not been ruled out. 

The tragedy has brought several questions out in the open: Will Ward’s death cause drivers to think twice about on-track confrontations? Did Stewart try and send his own message by buzzing Ward, the young driver, only to have his risky move turn fatal? Or did Ward simply take his life into his own hands by stepping into traffic in a black fire suit on a dark track? 

There already are rules in place regarding leaving the car. But it does not stop the occurrence from happening in virtually every race ran across the country. Regarding what Stewart was thinking, the only one who may have that answer is Stewart. And yes, Ward did risk his own safety by going out on the track. 

Over the years, these confrontations are called just a part of racing. Even your so-called mild-mannered drivers like Jeff Gordon have ventured out onto the track to show their displeasure. Heck, I have even seen Danica Patrick do it. The confrontations are part of the sport’s allure: Fans love it and cheer wildly from the stands. Stewart, who has a reputation for being a hothead nicknamed “Smoke,” once tossed his helmet like a fastball at Matt Kenseth’s windshield. I have to admit. When I do see this type of encounter, the alleged perpetrator will try to speed past the driver as they are being approached. That’s what it appeared, to me at least, what Stewart did Saturday night. 

Others do not agree. I spent some time on the Internet viewing comments from racing fans. 

There are those who feel Ward put his life in jeopardy when he broke the rules by stepping out of his car and walking right into on-coming traffic. They spoke of how the car in front of Stewart had to swerve to miss Ward and how Stewart had little time to react to the dark-suited driver who appeared in front of him. 

And there are those who are talking murder while talking of Stewart’s temper. They talk of how Stewart wanting to get as close to Ward as possible before gassing his car to scare the younger, less experienced driver. There were numerous comments stating that a person cannot be as experienced as Stewart and not know how his car will react to anything he does with it. 

The crash also raised questions about whether Stewart will continue with his hobby of racing on small tracks along side of the big-money NASCAR races. He has long defended his participation in racing on tracks like the one where the crash happened, even as accidents and injury have put his day job in NASCAR at risk. 

Saturday’s crash came almost exactly a year after Stewart suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa. The injury cost him the second half of the NASCAR season and sidelined him during NASCAR’s important Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Stewart only returned to sprint track racing last month. 

The crash site is the same track where Stewart was involved in a July 2013 accident that seriously injured a 19-year-old driver. He later took responsibility for his car making contact with another and triggering the 15-car accident that left Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back. Regardless of the subplots this incident has provided, it was a tragedy that should have been avoided and one that hopefully does not occur again at any level of racing.   

O’Bannon Ruling Impact 

I spoke in these pages a few weeks back that the Ed O’Bannon ruling would be forthcoming soon and that it would likely lead to major changes within college athletics. Well, it came out late last week and the NCAA, as it is currently constituted, is reeling. 

The decision by US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken basically ruled that the NCAA violates antitrust law by preventing football and men’s basketball players from being paid for use of their names, images and likenesses. 

Judge Wilken has confirmed what many people have stated for decades. College football and men’s basketball are not amateur sports, they’re big business. Her ruling also laid the groundwork for how football and basketball players will be paid. 

The NCAA can’t ban schools from creating a trust fund to pay players equal shares. For the trust fund, the NCAA and schools are allowed to cap the amount, but it can’t be lower than $5,000 for every year an athlete remains academically eligible. 

Ed O’bannon wins

Wilken’s injunction was a win for the O’Bannon plaintiffs. But it could have been worse for the NCAA. The $5,000 number could have been higher. Plus, the injunction doesn’t allow athletes to receive money for endorsements, citing efforts by the NCAA and its schools to protect against “commercial exploitation.” 

Wilken’s decision won’t go into effect until the next recruiting cycle, meaning it would start to impact recruits who enroll in college after July 1, 2016. 

You know the potential of this new money will become recruiting issues for coaches and affect where players attend school. Parents will examine the differences between conferences or schools on what they pay post-graduation. 

Many have wondered, myself included, how this sort of ruling would affect the other college sports. We are still going to have to wonder as Wilken’s decision does not apply to non-revenue athletes, leaving that in the hands of the NCAA, conferences and schools to figure out. 

You can count on future lawsuits. Especially in regard to Title IX. If schools don’t provide new money to female athletes, someone will undoubtedly bring a Title IX claim about this issue. 

It is still too early to see how the NCAA reacts to the ruling. But we will start viewing the ramifications of the decision real soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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