It all just seems so senseless. One driver is dead, another’s life changed forever. I doubt we will ever truly understand what happened. But, in search of answers, I spoke with Rick Salem, founder and president of United Rebel Racing Series, which sanctions sprint cars, similar to the one Tony Stewart was driving, in the state of Kansas. He didn't want to go into specifics about the Stewart incident, but he did give me some important background and information about these fascinating pieces of equipment called Sprint Cars.
“They have no gears in them,” said Salem. “You have to kick it out of gear to keep it running if you are going to stop the car. And the only way you can start it again is if you shut the motor off put it back in gear and have somebody push you.”
Which means even under caution, these cars can be going close to 50 mph depending on the track.
“At smaller race tracks you can get by with maybe 30 miles per hour,” said Salem. “But there’s a certain speed you have to keep going.”
The wings can make it difficult to see out of the vehicle sometimes.
“If a car happens to dodge one direction and move to keep from hitting something, you may not see it 'til it’s too late,” said Salem.
And even after a crash, safety is still on his mind. Although his series has no protocol as to whether or not the driver can get out of the car, Salem says it's usually good practice stay in the car until emergency workers arrive.
“As a rule most drivers are not going to get out until things slow down,” said Salem. “And it’s best to sit there a little bit and make sure cars are slowed down and stopped before you unbuckle and get out.”
Salem tells me the most important thing is that you want people to reserve judgment on exactly what happened in this incident until all the facts are revealed.
Marty Clark is a driver in the IMCA modified series, which is different than the Sprint Car Stewart was driving. But he says, drivers, no matter what the series, are not trained to look for people on the track.
“People don't realize when you are on that track and you're not looking for people you are looking for cars,” said Clark. “You don’t think people will be out on the track, I’ve had it happen in lineup situations where there's a guy in the lineup and you don't see him and you're like, 'Holy cow!' I almost hit and I think that's probably what happened.”
Of course, this is not the first time a driver has gotten out his car in anger and approached a driver under caution, Tony Stewart has done it himself. But it is the first time that I'm aware of that a driver has died. Many people say Kevin Ward, Jr. should have stayed in his car, others blame Tony Stewart saying he was trying to scare Ward or throw mud on him and misjudged how close he was. From the video though, it's really hard to tell what exactly happened and Stewart is probably the only one that knows for sure.