The disturbing footage of Tony Stewart’s race car hitting and killing fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last Saturday night has been viewed by millions worldwide on the Internet and television. But Mike Paz still hasn’t seen the videos that went viral, and he hopes he never does.
“I have no desire to see somebody getting killed,” says Paz, a longtime Rochester radio personality who has spent parts of three decades as the track announcer for major racing events at Watkins Glen International Speedway.
Paz, 61, has witnessed death at a racetrack before. In fact, he was the public address announcer at the Daytona 500—the Super Bowl of auto racing—in 2001 when one of the most famous drivers of all time, Dale Earnhardt Sr., died of severe head injuries suffered in crashing against a wall on the race’s final turn.
“Any driver that straps on a helmet and gets behind that wheel understands that he or she may die before the end of the race,” Paz says. “That’s part of the risk you sign up for in this business. But it’s still pretty rare.”
What makes Ward’s death so tragic is that it was preventable. It didn’t need to happen. Auto racing is one of the most competitive and dangerous sports, with men, women and machines often barreling down and around tracks at harrowing speeds in close quarters. Drivers are always operating on the edge, always pushing the accelerator.
“It’s an incredible adrenaline rush for them,” Paz explains. “And sometimes that desire to be first can get the better of them.”
Occasionally, they bump or nudge an opponent’s car to gain or maintain the lead. Sometimes, though, they do so out of anger. They try to retaliate. And that’s when things can get really dangerous, even tragic.
We probably will never know what really happened Saturday night. But this much we do know: Stewart’s car nudged Ward’s car, sending it crashing into the wall. Ward was OK until he decided to get out of his vehicle while cars were still zooming around the track. He agitatedly pointed at Stewart’s car, was hit by it and went flying through the air. Ward, 20, died almost instantly.
Some longtime racing observers speculated that Stewart had been trying to “dust” Ward, drive close enough to him to spray dirt on Ward’s shoes, give him a scare. There is no proof of that. And it should be stressed that as I write this, no charges have been filed against Stewart, though an investigation is continuing.
One of the reasons for such speculation is Stewart’s reputation as a hothead. He has long been a polarizing figure—a racer fans either love or hate, with no middle ground. There is a video from another race showing him throwing his helmet at a competing car. And since Saturday night’s tragedy, we’ve viewed footage of other drivers being confrontational, some coming to blows.
“Sometimes Tony’s competitive emotions just get the better of him,” Paz says. “He can be tightly wound, especially behind that wheel. But I must say this: I’ve interviewed him on numerous occasions and I’ve been around him when the tape isn’t rolling, and I’ve found the guy to be very likable. He has a great sense of humor. And he’s given an awful lot back to his sport and charitable causes through his foundation. I have no idea what happened Saturday night. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, people can be ruled by their emotions.”
This is difficult to write, especially at a time of tragedy, but Ward is culpable here, too. Getting out of one’s car while other cars are hurtling by on a racetrack is beyond risky.
“Unless, your car is on fire, you should never leave it in that situation,” Paz says. “That would be like you wandering across a busy interstate. But this, by no means, is the first time I’ve heard of this occurring. I’ve been at several races where it’s happened, and it’s just plain foolish. I feel terribly for Kevin Ward Jr. and his family. I know he was probably upset, maybe justifiably so. But you should not leave that car unless you have to.”
Sadly, he did and the world witnessed a tragedy that never should have happened.
Extra points from the world of sports
- I didn’t take part in this week’s RBJ Snap Poll about whom I’d like to see as Buffalo Bills owner, but if I had, my answer would have been “Anybody who will keep the team in Western New York.” Like many, I’m uneasy about the ownership group headed by rocker Jon Bon Jovi. I don’t care what he says; if his group wins, we lose and the team eventually moves to Toronto.
- After visiting each NFL stadium, an author concluded that the Bills have the league’s drunkest fans. It’s not exactly something you build a marketing campaign around. Of course, as one of my friends joked, “If you suffered through four Super Bowl losses and 14 seasons without the playoffs, you’d drink, too.”
- I think a Legends Tour stop would do well in Rochester. Several years ago, Wegmans brought back legendary golfers Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley and JoAnn Carner for a one-day event, and the galleries were huge. A Legends event wouldn’t be as well-received as a major championship, but I think it would do well.
- I grew up devouring Sport, Sporting News and Sports Illustrated and decided to become a sportswriter after reading the magnificent journalism each publication practiced. Sadly, Sport is defunct, Sporting News is all-digital and SI has scaled back its print editions. I guess I’m an old curmudgeon, but I still like to hold a newspaper, magazine or book in my hands. Something about it is more intimate than reading on a computer, iPad or smartphone. SI just turned 60, and I’m hoping they keep printing the magazine for many years to come because they still produce some of the best writing and photography you can get your hands on.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Ptioniak is co-hosting a new radio talk show, “The Press Box,” which airs from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 95.7 FM and AM 990 and online at espnrochester.com.
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