The Safest Place on a Race Track

We are reactionary creatures.

Politicians know (and love) this about us. Present something as a “crisis” and the people react, sometimes against their own best interest.

Rodney King. OJ. Columbine. 9/11. When something tragic or controversial happens, we tend to have strong emotional reactions that sometimes or in some ways betray the human intellect.

The recent tragedy involving a young driver recently is no different. If you’ve been hiding under a rock – at a dirt track in New York, NASCAR veteran driver Tony Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr, after Ward jumped out of his car on a hot racetrack to confront Tony after being spun into the wall.

While it’s not clear exactly why Stewart struck Ward, it’s practically impossible to believe that Tony would ever do anything like that intentionally. Sure he has a reputation as being a little hot-headed about racing sometimes, but let’s get real here. He’s human, not a monster. Most likely, Stewart did not see Ward until it was too late. Things happen fast on the track and you’re often looking down the track and into the next turn or two, or focusing on traffic around you. As well, it’s been pointed out that the track was not well lit in that area, Ward was dressed in all-black, and the background was a dark tire wall. Making it even more difficult for drivers to see him in the track.

It’s sad to see a young man lose his life. But it was avoidable, which makes this all the more horrible for Ward, his family and friends, and for Tony Stewart. Take three key lessons from this

Lesson 1 - Don’t get out of the car on a hot (active) race track.

Unless the car is on fire, upside down in the water, or you are otherwise under some immediate threat to your life, stay buckled in with your helmet on until a safety worker arrives and gives you further instruction. Inside that cage is probably the safest place on the track. And if you have a legit reason to eject before help arrives, get as far away from the track as possible, or preferably, into a corner station.

Lesson 2 – Losing your temper on track is dangerous to you and those around you. Ward was obviously upset with Stewart and his anger got him killed.

Lesson 3 – Don’t overreact. There are already petitions floating around the interwebs calling for all organizations and tracks to institute multi-race bans on drivers who get out of their cars on track. Resist the urge for emotionally-fueled overkill. Keep this in mind – it’s been common practice in road racing to teach drivers to stay buckled in unless the car is on fire. It seems that in the more rough-and-tumble world of dirt track, maybe that’s not the case. So while that segment of racing might need an attitude adjustment, a broad, sweeping mandate is not necessary. And mandatory penalties, while sometimes useful, take away officials discretion. Officials should have leeway to assess a stiffer penalty for a repeat or especially stupid violation, but cut an otherwise squeaky clean competitor a break for a minor, momentary lapse of reason. In short, we probably need “Ward Awareness” more than a “Ward Rule”.

No one knows what Kevin Ward Jr. was thinking that night. But we do know this: He was liked and loved by people and they will have to live with the pain of this tragedy every day. As will Tony Stewart.

Stay in the damned car. .

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