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Commentary: Tragedy often catalyst for meaningful change

It’s the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2012. The moon is out, the lights are on, and Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are racing two wide going into turn three.

Coming off of turn four, they’re still side by side when Kenseth’s car slides up, Stewart’s car veers down, and they wreck coming across the front stretch.

Kenseth drives away from the inner retaining wall and down pit road for repairs; Stewart climbs out of his car and waits with his helmet in hand on pit road.

As Kenseth is exiting pit road, Stewart slings his helmet and lands a bullseye on the hood of the passing car.

The crowd roars its approval and Stewart pumps his fist in the air before climbing into an ambulance.

Racing fans love confrontations like this. The television networks enjoy it too — incidents like this make for great highlights on Sportscenter.

Tony Stewart isn’t the only driver who exhibits this sort of behavior. It’s a common occurrence that has happened frequently throughout NASCAR history.

After hearing about the tragic death of Kevin Ward during a sprint-car race on Saturday night, I began to reflect on a culture that’s pervaded in racing for years: drivers needlessly get out of their car to confront other drivers on the track.

On Internet message boards, people were quick to say Ward was an “idiot” and it’s “common sense” not to chase down a speeding car.

And while there might be validity in these callous words, Ward was simply emulating the actions of the top tier NASCAR drivers.

This doesn’t absolve Ward from responsibility. He made the choice to confront Stewart on a dimly lit dirt racetrack.

But I still believe it’s up to NASCAR to lead the change — it’s the most popular racing series in America.

NASCAR already briefs drivers to stay in their cars after a crash, unless they’re in imminent danger, and wait for emergency personnel to arrive. But it needs to be more strict with doling out punishments for drivers who needlessly break this rule.

A small fine isn't going to work.

This will lower the drama factor that fans and television networks both crave, but there’s plenty of opportunity to confront a driver in the garage after the race. The cameras will still be rolling.

For years, drivers — Ayrton Senna, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. to name a few — had been dying due to basilar skull fractures.

And even though the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device had been proven to lessen “the energy exerted on the head and neck by some 80 percent,” it didn’t become mandatory in NASCAR until after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

Now it’s become a standard safety device in almost every racing series.

Ironically, Earnhardt was a vocal opponent against the mandatory use of the HANS device. But tragedy is often the catalyst for meaningful change in racing.

Kitsana Dounglomchan, an 11-year Air Force veteran, writes about his life and times for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:

[email protected]

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