Auto racing needs to stop celebrating road rage



The words are chilling.

They are from a homemade video shot from the grandstands, the first commentary on the death of young Kevin Ward, who was only 20, who climbed from his car and ran onto the track — right into the racing groove, practically — to wag his finger at Tony Stewart.

The two had collided in a dirt track race in upstate New York on Saturday night. Wheels had touched, putting Kevin Ward’s sprint car into the wall. Tony Stewart’s kept going.

It was just “one them racin’ deals” at first.

That’s what they usually say in NASCAR, where the hard-charging Stewart has become famous for his talent, which is considerable, and his fuse, which is short. People who follow certain types of auto racing admire guys with short fuses. A.J. Foyt had a short fuse; people worshiped him.

A.J. Foyt was Tony Stewart’s idol. They even drove with the same car number (14).

Kevin Ward’s car number was 13.

In the video, the No. 13 spins around and comes to rest against the wall. Its right rear tire is flat; its race, run. Young Kevin Ward gets out of his car to wag a finger at the No. 14. He gets too close to the other cars circling the track under the caution flag. Another car, white with purple trim, No. 45, swerves to avoid him.

The No. 14 car, following closely behind, does not swerve.

This is where the video becomes graphic.

And yet, this, too, was one of them racin’ deals. The terrible, unthinkable result of one of them racin’ deals.

How many times have you seen a driver climb out of a crumpled race car and wag his finger at another driver on the ESPN highlights? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

How many times have you seen Tony Stewart do it?

You might have been watching in 2012 when Stewart climbed out his car to fling his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car as it rolled down the pit lane. You might have even chuckled when Stewart did that.

Finger waggin’ is what put NASCAR on the map.

After the 1979 Daytona 500, the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, and Cale Yarborough wagged fingers at one another. Then they threw punches, on national TV. People would call this “the most profound event in stock car history.” That’s exactly what the announcer says on one of the YouTube videos.

So a guy wags his finger at another guy, and now the finger wagger — just a kid, really — is dead because of it. And whereas no way, no how do I believe it was Tony Stewart’s purpose to mow down young Kevin Ward, one easily could come to the conclusion that Stewart might have been trying to intimidate the youngster by tossing mud clots at him. Because this is what Stewart does.

But it’s complicated when forming opinions about Tony Stewart, because off the track, he can be engaging, a helluva nice guy. Even with the media. Even when you ask a silly question, such as what color tuxedo did he wear to his high school prom. Which is what I once asked him.

He smiled and answered that I did not really want to know what color tux he wore, and he did not wag a finger.

Only Stewart knows how much, if any, malice was involved in this terrible deal with Kevin Ward, and I’ll bet it’s going to be a good, long while before the man they call Smoke talks about it. Because this may be one of those case files that never gets closed.

If fate hadn’t intervened, one could envision Kevin Ward sitting around with his buddies at the speed shop today, or wherever he hung out with pals, and they’d be talking about Kevin waggin’ his finger at the great Tony Stewart. And Kevin would be a hero for having done that, because it takes a certain amount of moxie to wag one’s finger at the visiting NASCAR superstar.

Sadly, fate did intervene, as fate sometimes does.

Was Kevin Ward a fool for getting out his car and getting too close to the racing groove to wag his finger at Tony Stewart?

Yes, the kid was foolish for doing that. If testosterone could be transformed into intelligence, the world probably would be a lot better place to raise kids.

But I suspect there’s going to be a moratorium on NASCAR saying “Have at it, boys,” which is what the sanctioning body has been espousing to encourage more finger waggin’ among the boys on the racetrack. Because finger waggin’ is good for attendance and TV ratings.

There probably will be a new rule prohibiting guys from getting out of their cars to confront other guys. Not just in NASCAR, but in all the series. People in racing may call it the Kevin Ward rule, and then some good, some tiny good, may have come from this.

The first official announcements on Sunday said only that Tony Stewart had been involved in a tragedy on the racetrack in which “another driver” had been killed. The name of the other driver wasn’t even mentioned.

On Monday morning, I went on Kevin Ward’s website to learn a little more about him.

Under “Latest News” there was a story about Kevin winning his qualifier at the Yates County Speedway before developing engine problems in the main event while running second.

The story was dated Aug. 6. The headline said that young Kevin Ward couldn’t catch a break.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

WARNING: The video below contains graphic language and is graphic in nature.