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Random Lugnuts: I Call Bullshit on NASCAR Fans

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward, Jr.
What is Random Lugnuts?  It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan.  The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop:  you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Random Lugnuts: I Call Bullshit on NASCAR Fans

Bill Crittenden
August 16, 2014

So it's been almost a week since promising local sprint car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. was tragically killed in a race in New York.

In that time so many have come out of the woodwork to say that as sad as it was, it was all Kevin's own fault for getting out of his car and approaching the track.  Tony's even a bit of a victim here, because some of the media are saying that Tony might have had something to do with it!


First a little background...

It's basic psychology at work when you see a home crowd boo a good call that goes against the home team or cheer a call that go against the away team, regardless of how fair the call was.

Racing isn't all about fast cars and loud noise.  Otherwise Barrett-Jackson and the NHRA would be tops in the ratings.  Personalities matter, we watch for the struggle of our beloved favorite drivers as they compete on the racetrack against a field of drivers we also kinda like, feel indifferent about, or hate.

Almost every form of racing thrives on this personal struggle, NASCAR in particular.  NASCAR's own video promos include clips of drivers out of their cars, on the racetrack, sometimes throwing helmets.  The fight after the 1979 Daytona 500 has been constantly promoted as one of the racing form's all-time highlights.  We've raised a generation of racers who are conditioned to take immediate action or risk being seen as weak, and those who aren't afraid to get in a tussle (or approach a moving vehicle) are rewarded with the respect of the fans.  Drivers who stay in their cars and calmly walk away aren't.

So now, speaking of the incident at hand, Kevin Ward, Jr. did exactly what growing up as a race car driver had conditioned him to do: take no shit.  Don't just tuck tail and shuffle back to the trailer, that's what weak drivers do.  Show your anger!

But Mr. Ward is just one part of the equation.  The other, of course, is Tony Stewart.

Most of the time, when you see a driver approach a moving vehicle, the other vehicle stays in line with the car ahead or gives the pissed-off pedestrian plenty of room.  After all, who needs a broken part causing a black flag & taking them out of the race?

But other times, the driver still in a rolling vehicle is just as pissed off, and they'll attempt what can be considered racing's equivalent of a brushback pitch.  In baseball, a pitcher can send a message to a batter standing too close to the plate with a fast pitch close to the batter.  Sometimes, though, fingers slip, and batters get beaned.

The same thing happens in race cars.  A blip of the throttle, a rev of the engines, or a spin of the tires is an effective way of saying "back the fuck off" to a driver approaching a moving race car.  And on a low-traction surface, precision isn't guaranteed, even to a driver like Stewart.

Tony could have stayed low on the track, hugging the bottom as the car ahead of him did.  No amount of "you need the throttle to steer" or "dirt tracks are slippery" caused Tony to come into the camera view well above the bottom of the track.  To paraphrase Harry Hogge both in words and tone, "there were a dozen other assholes out there who DIDN'T drive up the race track in that turn."

You'd have to be the kind of person who doesn't know a sprint car from the Sprint Cup to be oblivious to the fact that Tony Stewart has an active temper and a masterful grasp of car control.  That car was where it was because Tony put it there.

But once that car was there, well, nobody's perfect.  Otherwise, NASCAR would bore the hillbillies out of the infield with caution-free racing.

I'm sure as I can possibly be that what happened next was purely unintentional.  As much of a hardass as Tony was as a competitor, his overall character is one of a person who puts the good of the sport and its competitors above his own interests.  A racing incident in a minor off-series event that left his car seemingly fully operable and took his competitor out doesn't seem enough to make Tony snap into a murderous rage when the stresses of running his own team in the Sprint Cup couldn't do it.

But there's a dividing line in criminal right and wrong, and it doesn't end at intent.  Obvious, purposeful recklessness can be be criminally wrong, especially if the unintended consequences involve a person dying.

Either one of them could have avoided the situation.  Kevin, by staying back behind his car.  Tony, by avoiding Kevin.  The outcome wasn't intentional, but recklessness on the part of both resulted in the death of Ward.  Punishment for Kevin Ward, Jr. is, now, a moot point.  I'm still waiting for Tony Stewart's.

I know it's not an opinion most share for the highly respected and widely loved three time champion.  But take away that widely loved and highly respected three time champion part, and would fans still be judging this based on their impressions of the Tony Stewart they think they know from television and sponsor appearances?

Back to the psychology of the average NASCAR fan: "Tony Stewart is, well, he's Tony Motherfucking Stewart!  And who the hell was this Ward kid?  Kids, I tell ya, they do stupid shit, don't they?  Oh, man, I can't believe Tony had to have that happen to him, and now everybody's being mean to him about it."

To the people saying that Tony deserves no blame whatsoever for this incident, I have my standard litmus test for all things NASCAR: change the drivers in the story.  If the driver killed had been Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the car that hit him was driven by Kyle Busch, and the same grainy video was the only available to the public, would you still be blaming Dale and throwing around #SupportKyle and #StandWithRowdy hashtags?

If you're honest with yourself, you'll realize that that's how I know your arguments that Tony's a victim here are complete and utter bullshit.

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