Tragedy overshadows big weekend of auto racing at MIS

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brad Keselowski’s Checkered Flag Foundation, which provides support and entertainment for a wide range of groups assisting veterans and first-responders, is the sponsor of the NASCAR Careers for Veterans 200 Camping World Truck Series race Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

Participating in a national conference call, semi-officially kicking off race week in Brooklyn, Keselowski (Rochester Hills) was eager to talk about the Pure Michigan 400, the Sprint Cup season and helping former soldiers sailors, police, firefighters and others.

But a significant event, the death of young driver Kevin Ward Jr. — which will keep the three-time former champion racer Tony Stewart from driving Sunday — competed with Keselowski’s intentions, just as it is likely to provide some distraction for other drivers and racing teams this weekend.

Stewart-Haas Racing, of which Stewart is part-owner, announced Thursday the driver, currently 21st in the Sprint Cup standings, with no wins on the year, will not race Sunday and his future participation is to be determined. A county sheriff in upstate New York is investigating the on-track incident in which Stewart’s car struck Ward, who had left his wrecked car to approach Stewart, who was involved in the crash.

The sheriff, Philip Povero, said as recently as Tuesday that the probe had not yielded evidence of criminality, and that Stewart had been both cooperative and upset after the incident.

In his remarks, Keselowski began by talking about his considerable involvement in Brooklyn.

“This is such a huge weekend for us,” Keselowski said, referring to his highly competitive season for Penske Racing near the top of the Sprint Cup standings and his charity sponsoring the truck race.

Then he downshifted.

“First off, I want to say thank you to all the media attending and listening,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on right now.

“I want to say thank you for being here and tip an acknowledgment to everything that’s going on, the tragedy there in New York. So I want to say thank you for taking the time.”

Sports musts sometime digress, to make certain birthrights are secure.

When an NBA owner utters dreadful intolerance and it becomes public, it has consequences. When the NFL or MLB grapples with widespread use of performance enhancers, the dangers of concussion or criminal activity of players, it may require resolution, explanation and marketing.

And when a death occurs on a track amid a dispute among racers, it obliges attention and responsiveness throughout motor sports.

Of the 20 questions Keselowski was asked, eight were related to “the incident” and its possible impact on NASCAR rules. Later in the week, of the 14 questions the media asked of driver Greg Biffle, two were about the incident involving Stewart and the 20-year-old Ward, who was buried Thursday.

While the races and show will go on this weekend and are likely to remain the central focus, everyone connected with NASCAR expects questions about what occurred Saturday, when Stewart’s dirt track Sprint racer struck and killed Ward, who had walked down the track to approach Stewart’s moving car. Gauging the need for new rules on the behavior of drivers who leave their cars during a race to take issue with other drivers is a prime topic.

With Stewart not racing, others are likely to be cast as surrogates for explanation and suggested remedies, whether that is entirely fair or not.

Racing is technical stuff, and fans like to be educated about what occurs, beyond mere information. Many fans also would prefer to watch a sport in which the participants are not needlessly exposed to casualties.

This weekend, critical points in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide and Truck Series standings will be decided. And NASCAR and MIS will tout their wares, including a new scoring system determining the results — all amid some evidence of declining popularity of stock car racing.

But the racing incident in faraway Canandaigua, New York, last Saturday night requires consideration.

It is especially true when news breaks, like Ward’s father accusing Stewart of acting purposefully, after his son left his car to confront Stewart, driving inside his racer during a yellow flag.

Or when driver J.J. Yeley, who has raced for NASCAR and on dirt tracks, publicly says there is a simple explanation for why Stewart may have gunned his car just before it struck Ward — it is the way the Sprint cars race on the dirt tracks.

With no rear differential, Yeley pointed out, drivers often accelerate to help steer.

Stewart may have been trying to avoid Ward with the help of a sudden acceleration, said both Yeley and Cory Sparks, a sprint car driver who said he witnessed the incident.

Biffle, who is in 12th in the Sprint Cup standings and close to the bubble four races before the Chase, is still looking for his first win of the season. MIS figures to be a good place for it.

“Biff” has won four times, in Brooklyn.

He was asked about that, and, before Stewart canceled, “Is there any way to comprehend what Tony will try to go through, if he competes this weekend?”

As many in NASCAR have already said, and are likely to continue to say, it is difficult to talk about Stewart when he has not spoken about the investigation and when it is conducted in largely without public knowledge.

The incident also is difficult to discuss, because precisely what occurred is nearly impossible to discern from the video available, and none of the NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs or owners, except for Stewart, were there.

“It would be hard for me to comment on Tony’s situation and what he’d be facing, but, let’s face it, it’s a tough situation altogether,” Biffle said.

“Nobody wants to deal with something like that and we support Tony in whatever decision he makes. He has to personally make a decision on what he wants to do and we absolutely support that 100 percent.

“Let’s face it, the obvious thing is it’s an accident and unfortunately accidents happen. No matter what, accidents happen, and we have to at some point move on.

“It’s a tragedy for the Ward family and everyone involved.”