To be honest, most of us have a hard time simply understanding the context of last week’s car racing death of Kevin Ward Jr., who was killed during a bizarre confrontation on a dirt track in Canandaigua, NY. After crashing out of the race, Ward left his car and walked onto the track in a confrontational manner. After narrowly missing being hit by one vehicle, he was struck to his eventual death by one driven by NASCAR star driver Tony Stewart, who himself has a reputation for hostility at the race track. Ward was hit by the rear wheel of Stewart’s car, leading to the blunt force trauma medical examiners have now listed as the cause of his death.
So this much is relatively clear, if still odd. What’s almost as confusing are the players. For example, what’s a sprint track, and who races there? And what does this have to do with NASCAR? And why was Stewart heading to Watkins Glen? All of these are part of the maze of professional and semi-pro auto racing, which is far more cryptic than other major American sports. While NASCAR is the big kahuna of stock car racing, the league with big sponsors and stadium like tracks, there’s more underbelly in racing than you’d find in a mob movie. There’s the Automobile Racing Club of America, which also holds stock car races. There’s cart racing. Then there’s sprint cars, like the one that killed Ward, which race on pavement or dirt under a long list of governing bodies. And that’s not even counting open wheel racing or things like truck racing, including the high profile NASCAR series. This is all in contrast to sports like basketball and football, where massive corporations connect seamlessly to college feeder systems. In other words, you’d never see LeBron James playing in an outdoor semi-pro league on his days off.
That’s essentially the case of Tony Stewart, who had originally planned to go straight from the minor-league dirt track in Canandaigua to a big time NASCAR event in Watkins Glen. That changed, although not instantly, after Ward’s death. Stewarts’ return depends on direction the police, who might still file manslaughter charges and determine if Stewart’s collision was accidental or intentional, which will be about as simple as figuring out your dog’s favorite opera. Race car driving operates in a constant state of aggression, where the line between your job and homicidal road rage is hard to define. And no matter your opinion on this case, it’s safe to say both drivers share some of the blame. For all the critique of Stewart, it’s beyond foolish to walk out onto a dirt track to confront testosterone fueled athletes driving what amounts to loaded weapons. The blame here can go far and wide, extending to the countless fans that cheer the aggressive tendencies at the core of the sport.
Auto racing has long had to explain its existential question. Is it safe, are drivers put in undue risk, and even are fans kept from harm’s way. Those quandaries aren’t entirely different than other violent sports in this country, most notably football, which deals with life altering injury on a daily basis. But what football has, and auto racing certainly doesn’t, is governing bodies that don’t leave its future to chance. The NFL is about as planned as a Kardashian wedding. The league controls its input, its output, and is talking to US Senators before we even know there’s a problem. In contrast, auto racing is a bunch of fiefdoms that seem to work together, although not always. That’s how NASCAR has become the expansive empire it has – by leveraging the work of other organizations that feed into it, organizations over which they have absolutely no control.
That might not work anymore, with now one of their star athletes possibly on the hook for manslaughter while driving a race car on his day off. If NASCAR wants to be America’s fourth sport, they’ll have to start playing like it. That means real rules for its athletes, including staying away from dirt tracks in upstate New York. And it means behavior that looks more corporate than playground, something the other pro sports leagues in this country figured out a long time ago. NASCAR can’t inherently control what’s happening outside its events, but it can make sure it’s not part of it.
None of that will necessarily make auto racing safer, and it certainly won’t bring back Kevin Ward Jr., who’s another victim of the aggressive sports complex. But perhaps it will at least make this sport, and the violence that comes with it, a bit easier to understand.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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