Commentary

A blunt reminder of racing reality

Dirt-track tragedy pushes inherent violence in motorsports to the forefront

Updated: August 13, 2014, 1:36 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

For a moment, I forgot there was a chance we could die.

It was April 14, 2013, and I'd let the adrenaline and excitement of the racetrack rob me of my common sense. It was a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the Rockingham Speedway, my hometown track and the place where I first fell in love with motorsports. Now my 8-year-old daughter was there, attending her first race, and just as enamored with it all as I had been. And why not? That morning she'd taken pictures with Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace and "all the girls in the race." She'd been on the grid for "drivers, start your engines" and then gripped my arm as the field lurched to life under the green flag.

It had been a great day. Downright magical.

As the race's first pit stops began, I was quick to hustle her down to pit road. We went into an empty pit stall and joined several other fans who'd taken up spots along the knee-high wall to watch as a truck slid in sideways, just a few feet away. The crew dove into action, slinging hoses and tires and then ... a chill suddenly slinked down my spine ... hey, wait ... Ryan ... what the hell are you doing?

I looked at my beaming little girl, her ponytail bracketed by her big, pink ear coverings. She was leaning over the wall, just as I had done hundreds of times. But this was different. Suddenly a light came on. It was as if two decades of veneer had been stripped from my eyes. I no longer saw a race truck. I saw a 3,400-pound, growling, smoking machine. I didn't see tire changers. I saw lug nuts zinging through the air like bullets. I saw fire extinguishers ... I saw ambulances ... I saw shredded tires ... a guy with his arm in a sling. I saw flashbacks to the night at Hickory Motor Speedway when I was nearly run over by a car that lost control and drove into the pit box. I suddenly remembered the heat I'd felt on my face from a flash fire that exploded in an IndyCar pit beside me. My mind saw the welts left on my back when I'd been pelted with flying lug nuts, identical to the ones whistling by now.

I no longer saw racing. I saw violence.

So I grabbed my little girl by the back of her T-shirt, yanked her out of there and took her to the media center roof, safely two stories above it all.

How could I have been so stupid? So insensitive? So oblivious? Because I have been around it all so much over the past 20 years that I take it for granted. Because I truly do love it. I have faith in the people who build and race these machines. Many are my friends and I have long stood in awe of what they do.

However, during the weekly grind of the longest season in professional sports, it becomes easy to dismiss the danger, for both those who watch and those who participate. Much of that, as it was for me at Rockingham, is a compliment. A belief that everyone around you is so good at what they do that they can keep it all in line.

But at some point faith becomes comfort. Then comfort becomes complacency. You lose sight of the fact you are constantly surrounded by industrial-strength violence. The kind of forces that lull you into believing that you have them under control, but in reality can hurt you whenever they damn well please. A sort of mechanical "Jurassic Park."

A few years ago my colleague Nate Ryan of USA Today wrote a piece titled "Did NASCAR go too far promoting driver safety?" As tends to happen these days, people reacted more to the headline than to the actual piece. But within that piece was a message being sent by veteran racers such as Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, men who survived the relative rattletrap race cars of the 1970s, as well as the fatalities of the late '90s that led to most of today's safety innovations. "Our cars would kill you," Waltrip told Ryan. "You kissed your wife goodbye and drove down pit road, looking in the mirror and waving, because there was always doubt that, 'If something goes wrong, I might not be back.'"

Those veterans, no matter what series they raced in, openly worry about younger generations taking safety for granted. The equipment is better. The racetracks are better. Racing-related deaths are now seldom and shocking instead of business as usual. But the beast will never be completely declawed.

"You can't allow yourself to get comfortable," Johnny Rutherford explained to me during a conversation in 1999. The three-time Indy 500 champion was the pace car driver and driving coach for the fledgling Indy Racing League, a series filled with unproven youngsters. "We're all guilty of it, but youngsters today are a video-game generation. Danger can feel not real. You can get real brave when the brave thing to do is not to do it. But if there's one truth in auto racing, it's that whenever we allow ourselves to take it for granted, something will happen to remind us of how stupid we were to do so."

Then Lone Star JR sat up in his chair for emphasis. "You can't dare this sport but so long," he said.

I thought about Rutherford's words in September 2005, when an angry Robby Gordon strolled squarely out into traffic on the New Hampshire backstretch to throw his helmet at Michael Waltrip's car after a crash. Gordon assumed that the field, slowed by the caution flag (but still traveling above your city's speed limit), would weave around him while he completed his toss. But, man, what a stupid dare.

What if the throttle on one of the 20-plus cars easing toward him under caution suddenly stuck? What if a steering wheel had come loose in someone's hands as they weaved back and forth? What if a tire had suddenly exploded under one of the cars and sent it out of control? C'mon, man, that stuff never happens!

Yes, it does. I've seen it all with my own eyes. It happens all the time. And that's why I should have known better when I put my daughter in harm's way at Rockingham. That's why Gordon should have known better at Loudon. That's why Kurt Busch should have known better at Indianapolis in 2003. Or Tony Stewart at Bristol in 2012. Or Shawn Monahan at the Waterford Speedbowl last Saturday night. The list goes on and on, every weekend.

Any one of them could have been Kevin Ward Jr.

And that's why they -- we -- need to use Saturday night's tragedy at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park as a reminder that the violence of motorsports might feel dormant. But it's not. It never is.

When I watch the video of Ward exploding out of his race car, I see a kid with a burning passion for his sport. I see the emotion of a racer who believed he had a chance to win and had that chance taken away. I see a youngster who no doubt grew up watching his heroes walk out onto racetracks to express their displeasure with a rival, danger be damned, and thusly felt he could do the same.

But Ward made the same mistake that they all did. He made the same mistake that I did. He put his faith in the people and the equipment roaring around him. He assumed they could control forces that don't want to be controlled. But loving racing isn't an excuse to forget the dangers of it.

For a moment, he forgot there was a chance he could die.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.