Greg Cote

Greg Cote: NASCAR tragedy a result of auto racing culture

The 65-second video is horrible and hard to watch because you know you are seeing a young man in the last seconds of his life. We all accept that auto racing can be dangerous and that the risk can even be deadly, but not like this. This jars the senses. You can’t believe what you are seeing.

A car is run into a wall. It’s one of those small sprint cars with the wings on top. It’s a dirt track at night. You see the driver step from his wrecked car onto the dimly lit track as other cars fly noisily past. He is walking and pointing his right arm toward the car that spun him as it approaches on the next lap. He steps to his right, toward traffic, as if he means for the car to stop so he can confront the driver.

The car does not stop.

Next you see the man who’d been pointing laying flat on his back near the wall, motionless.

“Oh, he hit him!” you hear a race fan shout, maybe the guy shooting the video. A woman in the background is screaming. “Tony Stewart just hit that guy! Holy s---!”

That guy, Kevin Ward Jr., was 20, little-known beyond the loved ones now grieving.

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR season champion, is one of the most famous race-car drivers in the world.

This happened Saturday night in upstate Canandaigua, N.Y. Why Stewart still sometimes runs in small-purse races on dirt tracks is strange to some, but also not the point here.

Stewart withdrew from the following day’s NASCAR race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., even though the race was important to him as he scrambles against odds to still qualify for the Chase for the Cup culminating in Homestead in November.

“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel,” Stewart said in a statement.

Not racing Sunday was a proper show of respect, and wise, if only for appearances.

Especially because there has been speculation Stewart perhaps could have avoided striking Ward, leading to an investigation that has found Stewart cooperative and has not produced criminal charges.

And especially because his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, initially had said he would compete, with the team’s Greg Zipadelli callously calling it “business as usual.”

NASCAR also went tone-deaf on Twitter with this Sunday tweet later deleted: “With heavy hearts we turn our attention to today’s #CheezIt355.”

It strikes us as an unfair leap to believe Stewart willfully hit the other driver — even if you factor in the episodes of temper in Stewart’s past. It seems as plausible he didn’t see the man he hit, or at least not in time, considering Ward wore a black helmet and black fire-suit as he wandered on a poorly lit track. There are shades of possible gray, though. Might Stewart have slightly swerved toward Ward not intending to hit him but to make a point? Only Stewart will ever know.

Ward’s death is no less tragic to also suggest his own role in it. He placed himself in a calamitous situation the moment he stepped onto a live track among speeding race-cars.

It may be strange, but one of my first reactions when hearing about this tragedy was that it was just a matter of time. Even inevitable, perhaps.

Confrontation — what apparently led Ward to do what got him killed — is a part of the culture of auto racing. It certainly is in NASCAR, and that trickles down to local dirt tracks like Canandaigua the same way low-minor-league ballplayers are more likely to chew tobacco if they see major-leaguers doing it on TV.

Kevin Harvick and Kurt and Kyle Busch can hardly go a month without embroiling themselves in some sort of dust-up. Nice guy Jeff Gordon once was fined $100,000 for ignoring a black flag and ramming intentionally someone. Juan Montoya and Ryan Newman exchanged punches. Carl Edwards has had his episodes. Stewart, too, of course, such as the time he heaved his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car.

It isn’t new. Cale Yarborough infamously brawled on camera with Bobby and Donnie Allison at the 1979 Daytona 500 and some see that as a watershed that helped introduce NASCAR to a broader audience.

Feuds are good for business. They engage fans. They attract media. They make the sport “colorful.” They represent “passion.” Only when the confrontational aspect of racing contributes to a tragedy like Saturday’s do we pause to consider the potential combustion when you mix hot tempers and high speeds.

Confrontations on pit row and in the garage area are routine in NASCAR as machismo boils. They happen before and after races. They happen during them on the track as cars “trade paint,” somebody causing a wreck, somebody else retaliating.

They haven’t happened before like this — an angry driver killed on the track while out of his car and agitating a confrontation — but it isn’t altogether shocking that it finally did.

NASCAR has become a soap opera at 180 mph, full of bravado, tempers and testosterone, feuds at a steady simmer, always ready to boil. Think about it. You know how the smallest sudden lane change or fender bender on Interstate 95 can lead to escalating exchanges and a drawn gun? NASCAR is road rage at triple the speed. No guns (yet), but the cars are just as dangerous.

So Saturday in upstate New York, a big NASCAR star on a small dirt track bumped a local sprint-car driver into a wall, and that driver got out of his car ready for angry confrontation – such a very NASCAR thing to do.

It’s all there in 65 seconds of surreal video I wish I’d never seen.