During the 1979 Daytona 500, a highlight of the motor racing calendar even then, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough collided. The pair’s race ended on the spot but the drama was yet to come: the two drivers, neither particularly willing to back down from confrontation, proceeded to knock seven bells out of each other. It was visceral; it was pure passionate emotion and it was excellent.
It highlighted that the sometimes faceless men behind the helmets were real people, with real emotions. The televisions cameras loved it, the crowd lapped it up and to this day the Allison/Yarborough boxing match stands as a highlight of NASCAR’s long history.
Consider also the modern day equivalent – Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani’s scuffle at San Jose in 2006. The on-track incident was shocking enough but away from the track the pair’s altercation culminated in them rolling about on the floor, a marvellously entertaining bout of fury – encouraged all the way by the American commentators – that proved more interesting than the race itself.
Aside from the more common on-track battles, a spot of track-side fisty cuffs never goes a miss, so should this sort of reaction from an aggrieved driver be encouraged?
Based on events at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Saturday night, no.
American Dirt Track racing gets few headlines outside of the USA; it’s very much a national sport that doesn’t feature at all on the international stage. With the death of 20 year-old Kevin Ward Jnr however, the sport has received international publicity it certainly wouldn’t have wanted.
It’s always a sensitive subject when the dangers of motor racing present themselves and claim the life of a young man, but the circumstances of Kevin Ward’s death are unique and altogether more concerning. That the event involved Tony Stewart, three-time NASCAR Champion and one of the biggest names in American motor sport, only exacerbates the situation.
Stewart and Ward shared an incident on track whilst racing each other side-by-side around one of the track’s two dirt covered corners. Ward came off worse as Stewart squeezed him to the outside wall where Ward’s car made light contact and spun before settling, damaged and unable to continue.
Ward, infuriated by Stewart’s tactics, jumped from his car and approached the oncoming racers who had been slowed due to the full course caution owing to Ward’s stationary car. As Stewart approached Ward made clear his displeasure by gesticulating toward the NASCAR champion. Stewart’s car struck Ward and dragged him 20 feet before depositing him on the ground.
Medics were on the scene as quick as possible and Ward was taken to hospital, but succumbed to his injuries on the way.
The immediate aftermath was concern for Ward’s friends and family, but now the situation has turned bitter, and turned straight at Tony Stewart. Many are accusing Stewart of hitting Ward intentionally. Whatever the outcome of any ensuing investigations, it has certainly been a dark period for the sport.
Incidents such as those involving Allison and Yarborough, Tracy and Tagliani make for entertaining viewing, sure, but the Ward/Stewart incident highlights how easily those sort of actions can have tragic consequences.
More than anyone, I encourage racers to show emotion, to show passion and anger; it benefits ‘the show’ element of motor sport and allows us fans to easily pick our heroes and villains, but thinking of poor Kevin Ward Junior and his family, perhaps the tempers should be tempered sometimes.