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Auto racing: Local track leaders react to Stewart-Ward tragedy

Sprint Car drivers clear a turn during last year’s Northern Nationals at Amsoil Speedway in Superior. Kevin Ward Jr. was killed in a Sprint Car accident involving NASCAR star Tony Stewart on Saturday in Canandaigua, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Tom Krob, Amsoil Speedway

Longtime local racing official Crash Carlson saw video of the Sprint Car accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. on Saturday and involved NASCAR star Tony Stewart, and he didn’t need to see it again.

It was all too familiar.

Carlson, 75, remembers being in Superior about 50 years ago and seeing a similar tragedy, with the driver getting out of his car before getting hit. It is the only death Carlson recalls at Superior and Proctor speedways.

“The guy had a carburetor fire,” Carlson recalled. “He got out, and in those days, the pits were in the infield, and the drivers wore white. There was race track between his car and the pits, and he tried to get to the pits. He got hit by two different cars and he went through the air like a flying carpet. He was immediately dead.”

Carlson feels accidents like that helped lead to changes at local tracks — including moving the pits outside the track walls — and that this latest tragedy could lead to changes, too.

Ward, 20, was killed after he got out of his wrecked car after getting spun out by Stewart. As the cars came around during the caution flag, Ward approached them on foot and appeared to be pointing at Stewart, who appeared to speed up just before his car hit Ward and then dragged him down the track.

Racing can get heated, and the sound in the video appears to corroborate that Stewart revved his engine just before impact. Given Stewart’s bad-boy reputation, one could accuse the temperamental driver of doing it on purpose.

Carlson, himself a former driver, said “no way.”

“I heard attorneys talking like Stewart should get 15 years for murder, but they don’t understand. There ain’t nobody in the world that is racing who would purposely attack somebody who is standing on the track. I guarantee you that,” Carlson said. “Tony had no reason to be mad. The other guy was supposed to be mad.”

Joe Stariha, a board member at Amsoil Speedway in Superior and Proctor Speedway, agreed.

Sprint Cars don’t race in the area on a regular basis, but are occasionally part of special shows each summer.

Stewart has been known to race a variety of cars at dirt tracks across the country when he can work around his NASCAR schedule. There was speculation Stewart would race in Superior in August 2011, but it never happened.

To the casual observer, Stewart’s apparent reaction appears to fly in the face of conventional wisdom of how to avoid an accident, but with their powerful engines, open wheels and winged tops, Sprint Cars are a different animal.

“I saw the video, and initially when I heard that engine rev, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s not good,’ but I’m not a Sprint Car expert,” Stariha said. “When you start listening to the experts, it sounds like if you hit the brakes with a Sprint Car, it goes right up to the wall, but if you accelerate, than it goes down toward the infield. So if Stewart all of the sudden saw him at the last second and tried to go down to avoid it, then it starts to make more sense. But the only one who knows for sure is Tony Stewart and the good Lord, I think.”

Stariha also feels this latest racing tragedy will lead to changes at the grassroots level.

“There is a lot of chatter about it, there definitely is,” Stariha said. “I think you could see a lot more stringent rules put in place for a driver who gets out of the car because the racing world can’t have something like this happen. It’s just a black eye.”

Wissota, the Midwest governing body that sanctions the Northland’s five dirt tracks, already has rules to disqualify a driver who gets out of his car — something Stariha said happens about twice a year — but it’s only for the race in which the infraction occurs. Suspensions could be put in place.

There could also eventually be changes to improve visibility. Ward was wearing a black racing suit. Drivers wear racing helmets that give them tunnel vision, and for winged Sprint Cars, the visibility can be even worse.

“With every helmet, your eyes are about four inches from the front of the helmet,” Carlson said. “Look through a pair of binoculars and pull your hands out and see how far it takes before you can see your hands.”

The lights at tracks also can be improved.

Carlson said the lights at Proctor, Hibbing, Grand Rapids and Ashland speedways are all good, while Superior is hoping to implement a $50,000 upgrade by the Northern Nationals in September.

But Carlson said that in terms of racing safety, staying in the car might be rule No. 1. It’s something Carlson learned first-hand as a driver and saw, when broken, end in tragedy 50 years ago.

“I saw the same situation 50 years ago,” Carlson said. “That guy got out because his carburetor was on fire. He really didn’t have to get out, because the fire wasn’t that bad, the race would have stopped and we would have put the fire out. I hit the wall one time and my car was burning. The motor came into the cab with me, and I was facing the traffic and I unbuckled and was getting out of the car. That’s when I found out that I’d rather burn than get run over.”