Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Watkins Glen
So often when people look at tragedy they forget its human cost. Rarely are incidents involving death clear-cut — a battle of good versus evil like we read about as children. No one, with any shred of conscience, deserves to bear the guilt of killing a man, a catastrophe they carry the rest of their lives regardless of accident or intention. It’s a punishment worse than any court can impose, a daily nightmare where one can never hit the “Stop” button. Most importantly, there’s the victim, through which the word “recovery” is impossible. No one deserves to die in vain the way a 20-year-old young man named Kevin Ward Jr. did while walking down the track at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park Saturday night.
It’s the disgusting way it happened, a gut-wrenching video as easily accessed as clicking on YouTube that gives so many chills this Monday morning. It’s made an otherwise enjoyable NASCAR race at Watkins Glen virtually irrelevant, and a heartwarming victory by a driver who deserved it rings hollow. Death has a way of doing that. Its impact is the prescription for conquering joy while leaving all involved in various states of grief.
That’s where we focus right now while awaiting the results of an investigation that could take weeks. You have a young man, his whole life in front of him, taken down on a track he loved not because of a wreck or a safety malfunction, but by taking a few small steps into traffic. A talent will never be realized, but a life will also never be lived. There will be no happy marriage, no children, no adventures to one day tell the family on the rocking chair.
There are people connected to Ward, including his parents, who were in the stands that fateful Saturday night. There to cheer on their son, what they saw instead was a scene no parent should ever have to witness. It’s hard enough to endure the loss of a child; just ask those within the world of motorsports like Kyle Petty. But to watch that death unfold while sitting next to random strangers is a scenario for which there are no words, only tears.
But in this type of tragedy, where intention is forever unclear, it’s both sides that feel the hurt. For those accusing Tony Stewart of a callous heart, the victims of last February’s horrible Nationwide Series crash at Daytona think otherwise. Stewart visited those fans in the hospital, unsolicited, and has checked in to ensure some of their lives are back on track. The countless kids whose lives he’s touched through charitable endeavors pursued when the cameras are off are feeling the pain of a hero turned human. Stewart is single, but he has a family too, all of whom are helping heal the guilt that is overwhelming and will never completely disappear.
There are countless employees of Stewart-Haas Racing and Tony Stewart Racing whose grief this morning takes on many forms. They’re mourning their boss, who has a hands-on nature and know most in the shop so personally. One half of their brain asks how they can help a fallen leader as the other rational half produces fears of worry. Millions of dollars are on the line here, and the ruination of Stewart could mean the fall of SHR, TSR and hundreds of people losing jobs. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, thrust into the role of replacement leader, has the difficult balance of playing emotional therapist while sitting in the boardroom of emotionless corporate damage control.
There’s a reason why so many in NASCAR Nation have gone one, perhaps two days without sleep. It’s the type of horror that makes you go home, hug your loved ones and remember what’s really important in life. Remember the perfection of now because the imperfection of tomorrow is always lurking.
In life, joy is finite. Kevin Ward Jr. taught us all in just a few small steps.
FIRST GEAR: The latest on Stewart-Haas Racing
Before transitioning to the race itself, how could we ignore the goings-on at the No. 14 Chevrolet? Stewart, who pulled out of the race Sunday morning, was replaced by Regan Smith, JR Motorsports’ full-time Nationwide Series driver who flew up to Watkins Glen with Sprint Cup owner Rick Hendrick. Arriving an hour before race time with no practice and an unfamiliar crew, Smith did an admirable job under the circumstances. Charging from the rear, he was a potential top-10 car until a late-race accident left him an innocent victim en route to 37th.
Hendrick, arguably the most powerful car owner in Cup, clearly flew up from North Carolina on a mission. PR spin, with the impact still blossoming, is the school of thought as an investigation continues into Ward’s death. Sponsors must be assured it’s a tragic accident; anything less, from either the police or doubtful minds, put Stewart’s expansive economic empire in jeopardy. Those who back his Cup car could bolt, along with those supporting one of NASCAR’s few bright spots these days in Eldora Speedway. Stewart’s absence, more pronounced than breaking his leg one year ago, will be felt far and wide across the spectrum of racing.
As for what happens next? It’s hard to say for sure. Some believe Stewart is a shoe-in to be behind the wheel again Sunday at Michigan. I find that, as well as a brief decision to race at the Glen until more rational heads prevailed, incredibly hard to get behind. With many fans jumping to guilt over innocence how can Stewart focus enough to be effective inside the car? The security surrounding him, with fans angrily shouting “murderer” like they did on Twitter this weekend, would have to be unprecedented in nature. NASCAR, for the time being, has said there’s nothing precluding the driver from competing but I have a feeling that’s going to change by Sunday.
By the way, has anyone heard from Brian France, the most powerful racing commissioner in America? Someone should tell him one of his sport’s biggest names is the lead story on every news station in the country. He might want to step up and say something soon. Just a thought.
SECOND GEAR: A heartwarming victory amongst the madness
Two years ago, AJ Allmendinger was out of NASCAR, serving a suspension for a failed drug test while his racing career sat on life support. Squandering a top-tier opportunity with Penske Racing, the question was not when but if he’d race in the big leagues again. Rarely do 30-something drivers sans a Sprint Cup victory come back to the table armed with a second opportunity.
However, Allmendinger proved Sunday that he’s a very special case. Outfitted with an infectious personality — the type you can’t help but like — the California driver has charmed the pants off so many. It’s to the point former boss Roger Penske himself wound up giving out Nationwide and IndyCar rides to the ‘Dinger a year after said suspension.
JTG-Daugherty Racing, a single-car team with years of middling success, then got convinced to take a flyer on a guy who has always seemed filled with potential. It’s a decision they won’t soon regret, as the road course ace manhandled their No. 47 Chevrolet to the front in what was one of, if not the best, finish to a Cup race all year.
In the closing laps, it was Allmendinger versus Marcos Ambrose — the sport’s finest road course racer — with a bid to the postseason squarely on the line. Win? You’re in the Chase. Lose? You’re almost certainly out of it. The side-by-side, wheel-banging action over the final 10 laps brought fans to their feet and ended with a driver getting the race-life redemption he thought might never be achieved.
“It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened,” Allmendinger said. “I hope I win a lot more, but if I don’t, to be able to remember it like this, it’s pretty awesome. (A) dream come true.”
Even his Australian rival, whose loss may confirm a trip back Down Under in 2015, admitted Allmendinger deserved this victory, the first Cup win for JTG-Daugherty Racing. It was also the first single-car Cup win in three years with a team that was largely out of contention with former driver Bobby Labonte. Now, they’re in the Chase, a reality like heavyweights Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle can’t say quite yet.
THIRD GEAR: Safety at Watkins Glen must be addressed
The other enduring incident from the weekend not involving Stewart or Ward will be a mid-race accident on Sunday that nearly split Michael McDowell’s car in two. Occurring off the dangerous carousel turn at Watkins Glen, a slip by Greg Biffle caused Ryan Newman to lose control, bounce off an Armco barrier and pinball into McDowell at high speed. The resulting debris field, along with damage to the fence, clearly showed one of the hardest hits for any driver to have taken all season.
“The SAFER Barrier doesn’t exist here, there are no concrete walls,” Newman said during an extended red flag to clean up the mess. “It’s just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR’s standards. It’s a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it. Hopefully, something will change the next time we come back with our Caterpillar Chevrolet.”
Newman made a fair point that NASCAR, through its track arm International Speedway Corp., is spending $400 million to renovate Daytona International Speedway’s grandstand area, but refuses to spend a few million at tracks like the Glen to ensure these SAFER Barriers are at key portions of the track. One would think the key stakeholders would learn from the Ward incident Saturday night, tragic in nature, but real in the damage an on-track death does to the court of public opinion. NASCAR can’t risk another Dale Earnhardt moment — and it’s come too close at the Glen with both this wreck and Sam Hornish Jr.’s vicious crash out of the same corner three years ago. NASCAR has some smart people, and they need to come up with a solution for 2015.
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Larson’s sneaky fourth-place finish
Kevin Harvick may be NASCAR’s “closer,” but there’s something about Kyle Larson these days. His charge from around 10th to fourth by the final lap at Watkins Glen was akin to his out-of-nowhere jump to second at Fontana in March. To do what the rookie did at a road course where he has limited experience showcases the type of range only a few in this sport will ever possess. To me, Larson’s first year is shaping up very much like Jeff Gordon’s did in 1993; come close to a few wins, make a big impression and get yourself set up for year two. Everyone knows what happened to Gordon, as by year three, he was holding a championship trophy.
The way Larson drives, a title by year three wouldn’t surprise me either.
Jimmie Johnson’s late wreck gave him yet another disappointing finish over the summer. But keep in mind that in 2010, Johnson went seven straight races in July-August with finishes of 10th or worse. And last season he averaged a 36th-place finish in the regular season’s final four events. On both occasions he came back to win the series title. … Kyle Busch’s inconsistency continued at the Glen after a mechanical failure led to several laps inside the garage. Over the last six races, he now has three second-place finishes, two DNFs and Sunday’s 40th-place result. … Two red flags pushed the total race time of the Glen to well over four hours. While the racing was fantastic, fans were again forced to stick around through a season of rain delays and extended stoppages. It’s a level of patience fewer are having the time to squeeze into their busy lives; can the sport evolve in line with America’s short attention span? … Dale Earnhardt Jr. now holds the Sprint Cup Series points lead after Jeff Gordon suffered mechanical problems at the Glen. That hasn’t happened this late in a season since 2004.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.