My guess is that most people who read about the death of race car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in the New York Times over their breakfast this morning have never been to Canandaigua Motorsports Park, the upstate New York race track where he died.
The circumstances of Ward’s death were notable because while the track calls itself “The Land of Legends,” most of the drivers there are not superstars, or even full time racers. But that night, there did happen to be a big whoop racer on the track, NASCAR’s Tony Stewart. He was “getting back to his roots” on a local track, “known for his hot temper” and so as the night went on there inevitably was a crash, Ward got out of his car to confront Stewart, and it seems that Stewart accidentally ran him over. An investigation is underway
It is tragic. And it also has all the makings of a classic tragedy which is why the national media is all over it. I’m sure a made-for-TV movie is being pitched at this very moment.
As I read about this accident in my apartment in Greenwich Village, I remembered the nights that I spent at Canandaigua. I’m quite sure that most people did not arrive for the races as I did: armed with a container filled with vegetable curry and a copy of Vogue. In what should have been an early sign of incompatibility that would not fully play itself out for another couple of decades, my college boyfriend was in the pits enthusiastically preparing a friend’s race car. I was there being a good girlfriend. After it got too dark to read, I would spend the first of many nights trying to find something of interest in the evening’s proceedings.
This was not a minor passion of this man I’d hitched up with, he thought about racing constantly, watched it obsessively, could think of nothing better to do on a summer Saturday than spend it at the track. I tried to get it, and to be supportive. I sometimes accomplished this with more or less grace.
Anyway, whether it was Formula One, NASCAR, or the dirt tracks of upstate New York, like Canandaigua, during the hours and hours of my life that I spent at the races, I would fight deep boredom and discomfort. These races stretch on for multiple hours, they are loud – ear plugs are a good idea – and if it’s a dirt track, messy. If you open your mouth to yawn or speak, by the end of the night your teeth will be coated with fine grit. In the early parts of the night, I could entertain myself by observing the brightly colored paint jobs on the cars, but once they started moving and dissolved into a noisy giant blur I would retreat into my own thoughts, and keep an eye on the lap counter, calculating how much longer it would be until we could go home.
Racing is obviously popular and has many true fans – I’m sure no one in those grandstands was ever as bored as I was. But upon learning of my then-husband’s passion, almost every other person we ever met in an urban context would struggle to understand what he found so fascinating about cars going around in circles on a track. I struggled to explain, but my best answer is this: when I spoke to less sophisticated people about what they enjoyed about auto racing, they’d often acknowledge that what they found most interesting about the sport was the crashes.
I’m not arguing that racing is a snuff sport, but this is why some of the handwringing that goes on post-driver-fatality, as is happening today, strikes me as disingenuous. Crashes are not an anomaly in motorsports, but a part of the plan. Drivers count on a certain number of “cautions” – periods of time post-accident when the racing stops and the cars creep around the track while the debris is cleared – to handle their routine car maintenance during an event.
Any fan that lives a considered life would have to realize that the practical guarantee to witness a crash and its aftermath during a night of racing is part of the reason why they buy a ticket. Driving is the most dangerous activity most of us will ever do in life — and we humans are inveterate rubberneckers, fascinated by what might take us out.
During a race, the crash is classic Aristotelian catharsis, the release of powerful emotions through a build up of pity and fear. Ordinary life is disrupted when the cars collide, often spectacularly, with a car flipping or catching fire or seemingly disintegrating into tiny crumpled pieces of sheet metal. (I learned over the years that the worst the car looks, the better off the driver, since the car absorbed the impact.) The moments after the crash occurs, people in the stands tell each other what happened, while the white clad track officials and safety officials in yellow run towards the afflicted car or cars. The crowd hushes if the ambulance which is always on hand flips on its lights, or cheers if the driver climbs out of the window unscathed and waves at the crowd.
It’s beyond dispute that the governing organizations of these race series give safety a lot of thought. The drivers wear fireproof underwear, they have various different head and neck restraints and complicated seat belts, to say nothing of the way the cars themselves re designed. But none of this prevents accidents, or fatal ones, and no safety measures really help if you get out of your car and walk on the track, as Ward did on Saturday night in Canandaigua.
But that, too, is part of the ongoing drama, part of the appeal of watching the cars go ‘round in their circles. The rage the drivers feel upon being hit, the way that they fight after – who hasn’t wanted to throw a punch at a person who cuts them off on the highway? Part of the outrage is the risk the accident poses to the driver; part of what’s at stake is life itself. No one who went to Canandaigua last Saturday night hoping to see a kid get killed – in fact, they wanted to watch everyone tempt death, evade it and go home safe. But the chance that it might happen is at least an important part of racing’s appeal. As this Stewart/ Ward drama plays out, that’s important to acknowledge.