There’s no denying that last week’s tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York is horrific. For those of you who don’t know, Tony Stewart, a very good sprint car and NASCAR driver, had an on-track collision with a fellow sprint car driver, Kevin Ward, Jr. Ward’s car spun out, hit the wall, and suffered a flat tire. Ward then proceeded to climb out of his car and stride down the track pointing his finger at Stewart. As Stewart’s car went by, Ward was struck by the rear right wheel of Stewart’s car, sending him flying a good 20 feet down the track. Health officials said that Ward was killed on impact. The result? A massive internet phenomenon where just about every internet user has become an “expert” on sprint cars overnight. While I’m not a sprint car expert either, I do find them fascinating. The reason for this post being almost a week behind the tragedy is that I wanted to put some time behind the incident to gather more information and let everybody cool off.
Here’s what happened – Tony Stewart grew up driving sprint cars until his mid-20’s, when he became heavily involved in NASCAR and IndyCar. He still drove sprint cars for fun. After he got out of IndyCar around 2005, Stewart went full-time into NASCAR. He went into NASCAR’s prestigious Sprint Cup Series, where he won three Cups. He has won many, many races in NASCAR, sprint cars, and IndyCar. He may have a reputation for having a temper, but he’s calmed down in the last few years. According to those who know him and have interviewed him, the man has a heart of gold, but can act impulsively. When Danica Patrick came to Stewart-Haas racing, Tony personally started coaching her. He’s been a driving force in sprint car safety measures ever since he suffered a severely broken leg last year in a sprint car race in Iowa. His broken leg was so bad that it forced him to go around in a mobility scooter for a good 4 months. He had to miss the rest of the NASCAR season, making him ineligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
This year, Tony’s been back with an eye on the prize. He’s already gotten one pole at a race, and started in the Top 5 4 times. But, the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. last weekend shook him. He was scheduled to race the next day at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the Cheez-it 355, but decided not to race after the tragedy the night before. On Thursday, he released a statement saying that he will not be racing at Michigan International Speedway, and that Jeff Burton will continue to drive his No. 14 Chevrolet SS for the indefinite future.
Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle both grew up driving sprint cars on dirt tracks. Many drivers like Stewart have humble beginnings on short tracks, or start off in go-karts. Mostly in NASCAR, it’s the former. For Tony Stewart, driving sprint cars is just a fun hobby that he does for fun occasionally. However, he does have a couple of drivers driving sprint cars under his direction from Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart (no relation to Tony Stewart), who is still an off-road motorsports legend. Ivan grew up riding motorcycles, and he enjoys riding them across the country with friends when he’s not helping Toyota Racing Development (TRD) with new off-road race trucks. Back to Tony Stewart. The tragedy obviously shook him to his core, and I think that he just needs to take a break from racing all together for a while to reorient himself. I don’t think that he will ever recover from accidentally killing a fellow driver, especially a 20-year-old. I don’t think that anybody can.
In the aftermath of the tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, NASCAR has released new on-track protocols for drivers following a wreck. In a nutshell, drivers are not supposed to exit their car after a wreck unless instructed to by a safety official. Drivers are prohibited from going onto the track or towards other cars under all circumstances unless it is a safety vehicle. The reason for this is that some NASCAR superspeedways like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead-Miami are big enough for cars to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph. When a caution happens in NASCAR, drivers are only supposed to let off the gas and coast until the pace car comes on the track. If a driver exited their car at Daytona and started striding towards another car, the result could be disastrous. Drivers are safer inside of their cars. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars are built to withstand multiple impacts of 200 mph or greater, and still allow the driver to live. The driver might have an injury like a broken leg or arm, but they will be far better off than dead. These rules might seem foolish, but they are really only common sense. There is no logical reason for a driver to approach another car on foot.
Now, let’s talk about sprint cars. These little things that look like they belong on a WWII fighter plane are tricky and super cool. Sprint car racing is different than midget car racing. Midget cars are essentially go-karts with semi-powerful engines (usually a Ford flathead V8 or a GMC “Jimmy” inline-six-cylinder) and dirt or asphalt tires. They are freakishly fast and unsafe. Sprint cars are the next step up from that. These cars define insanity.
There are a couple of different classes of sprint cars: The craziest class is World of Outlaws, started in 1978. These cars use a 410 cubic-inch naturally-aspirated V8 (6.7 liters) that can produce anywhere from 900-1,100 horsepower. These cars do not have a starter, transmission, clutch, or battery. This means that these cars must get a push from a start truck to get going. They simply use a driveshaft directly from the engine to the rear axle. Their left rear tire is 335 millimeters wide (that’s as wide as the rear tires on a SRT Viper!), and their massive right rear tire is 380 millimeters wide. The class that Tony Stewart races in is called the United Racing Company. These sprint cars use a 360 cubic-inch V8 (5.9 liters) that is based off of a Dodge/Plymouth design. That’s where the similarities to the Big 3 end. These engines are capable of producing anywhere from 700-900 horsepower. Again, these cars don’t use transmissions, clutches, batteries, or starters.
In recent years, sprint car safety has greatly increased. Roll cages are now mandatory, as well as fully tubbed chassis’. Fuel tank bladders prevent fuel leakages, and alcohol-infused fuel is now used. Six or seven-point safety harnesses are now standard, and drivers are now required to wear a 2-layer fire suit and Nomex gloves. Full helmets, arm restraint devices, right headrests, and a 1/8 inch-thick rock/debris screen on the front of the roll cage. Plus, World of Outlaws and United Racing Company require head and neck restraints (HANS devices).
Winged sprint cars are much safer than non-winged sprint cars, due to the fact that the aluminum wings are capable of absorbing a good deal of impact. When crashes happen, they are often violent, and debilitating injuries in non-winged sprint cars are commonplace. The safety of winged sprint cars was shown in 2013 when Tony Stewart’s sprint car flipped and hit a safety fence before hitting the ground upside down. Tony was able to walk away from the crash with only a severely broken leg (okay, maybe hop away).
Any sprint car is capable of reaching speeds of 140 mph or more. With winged sprint cars, the wings add hundreds of pounds of downforce at speed, making the car easier to control. Surprisingly, sprint cars are easier to control at higher speeds, thanks to the added downforce. Sprint cars are mainly steered with the throttle, which is why they are almost always sideways. They are built to turn left 99% of the time, and side visibility is almost nothing. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Greg Biffle also grew up driving sprint cars, and he has said multiple times in interviews that sprint cars need to have better side visibility. The wings on the sides go down to about head level of the driver, and shorter drivers have no problem with visibility. What needs to happen with sprint cars is simple:
- Drivers should NOT exit their car unless it’s on fire. This would alleviate any repeats of the Ward/Stewart tragedy. When a car spins out or hits the wall, a caution is called. Drivers let off the gas, but they still are travelling pretty fast. Tony Stewart was going about 40 mph when he hit Kevin Ward, Jr. Even if he was in a street car, Ward would still be dead. Safety officials can be anywhere on a track like Canandaigua in seconds. Watch the video, and you’ll see that the safety truck was at the site where Ward was killed in under 10 seconds. The truck was heading out to help Ward’s car get back to the pits when the accident happened.
- The wings on the side NEED to be raised about 6-10 inches higher for better visibility. It won’t make the cars more unstable. Look at Can-Am McLaren’s of the 1960’s and 1970’s – their wings got higher and higher. It actually HELPED the car’s stability and downforce! Sprint cars could benefit from that. Plus, it will make the cars safer, as there will be more space between the wall/catch fence/ground and the driver.
- Drivers need to wait until after a caution to talk to race officials about who was at fault in the accident. It was clear in the Ward/Stewart incident the lap before Ward was killed that Ward bumped Stewart’s car and hit the wall as a result. Ward was clearly at fault in the accident, but Stewart also used his car to shove Ward’s away from his so that both cars didn’t spin. It’s a simple maneuver, yet it proved to be ultimately fatal. Race officials know who did what when, and they will assign points and/or penalties accordingly. I know that drivers become furious when their car is wrecked, but walking towards the car that wrecked yours is simply not a smart or good way to take your anger out.
I think that in the coming months, many sanctioning bodies of various motorsports will enact rules telling drivers to not exit their vehicles until told to do so by safety officials. Let me be perfectly clear: Crew chiefs and spotters are NOT safety officials. They are there to make sure that you stay out of accidents and win a race. They are not a track safety official telling you to get out of the car. I know that humans make mistakes, but Kevin Ward, Jr.’s mistake proved fatal. There’s no taking back what happened that night, but we can prevent it from happening again. It’s sad, and my thoughts go out to Kevin Ward, Jr.’s family and to Tony Stewart. I can’t even begin to fathom how sad Tony Stewart must feel about what happened that night.
I have attached the video of Tony Stewart killing Kevin Ward, Jr. Please do not watch this video if you felt at all uncomfortable reading this post. I had trouble watching the video, but I feel that it is important for you to see it. Viewer discretion is advised when watching this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5JNNXXdqM4