Despite being one of the top spectator sports in America, NASCAR seems to make the national news only when the news is bad. The sprint-car wreck that claimed the life of driver Kevin Ward Jr. this past weekend has the mainstream media again peering through the window into the auto-racing world, attempting to understand what the sport is all about. However, their coverage of the tragedy highlights their persistent negative bias against the sport while unfairly maligning both three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, whose car hit an on-foot Ward, and auto racing as a whole.
Stewart was taking part in a Saturday night sprint-car race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. After Stewart’s car tangled with Ward’s halfway through the 25-lap race, Ward exited his car and walked across the track to confront Stewart. As Stewart passed, his right rear tire caught Ward, dragging and throwing the 20-year-old driver. Ward succumbed to his injuries. Videos of the accident have amassed millions of YouTube views, with comments bitterly debating whether Stewart meant to hit Ward. The auto-racing community has withheld judgment, treating the accident as an unintended tragedy.
The New York Times showed no such restraint, instead seizing on the tragedy to condemn the sport as a whole. Juliet Macur wrote that Ward’s death was the latest instance of violence in a sport whose history has been marked by aggression — an aggression that ought to be embarrassing to NASCAR. Anger and confrontation have been a part of NASCAR since it was founded more than 65 years ago, she said, and if NASCAR had any power over Stewart’s decision to sit out the Sunday Sprint Cup race at nearby Watkins Glen, “the sport, on all of its levels, should throw those kinds of punches more often.” (The article included a cheap shot at auto racing: Macur wrote that Ward’s decision to get out of his car and walk toward Stewart, who was still in a moving car, “might seem crazier than driving a racecar in the first place.”)
According to Macur, Stewart “has been NASCAR’s resident hothead” for nearly ten years and has often exhibited “aggressive behavior” both in and out of his car, even suggesting that Stewart’s own short fuse may have inspired Ward to exit his car and confront Stewart that night. Ontario County law enforcement see no grounds for any criminal charges against Stewart, and Sheriff Philip Povero repeatedly admonished fans and the media not to jump to conclusions about Stewart or the nature of the on-track investigation following the accident. But it seems as if many in the media are more than willing to indict Stewart, or at least indict the sport in which he makes his career.
The New York Times was not alone in suggesting that a history of confrontation in NASCAR was to blame for the accident: The Washington Post also raced to echo conventional media wisdom. Mike Wise asserted that “the twisted, accepted culture of road rage” in racing was responsible for Ward’s death and that anyone who viewed Ward’s exiting his car to confront Stewart as “just a regular Saturday night at the track” was guilty of a “warped mind-set.” As a matter of fact, on-track gesturing is a fairly frequent occurrence in NASCAR. Danica Patrick’s done it recently. So has 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. But is this sort of anger unique to auto racing? How would one characterize bench-clearing brawls in baseball, or on-ice fighting in hockey? If racing has an anger-management problem, then, well, all sports do. That’s not to say that efforts to intentionally hurt another competitor ought to be tolerated but that emotion and risk are intrinsic parts of sports. There is a difference between the emotion that arises in the heat of competition and the extreme anger that indicates a deep-seated problem with the sport itself. In this case, too many in the media are confusing the two.
Macur is correct in saying that Stewart is a throwback to the earlier days of NASCAR. Like NASCAR’s legends, Stewart is bold, outspoken, talented, and adventurous on the track, and that’s what many fans love about him. But it is completely off-base to say that NASCAR and/or auto racing have a temperament problem that would be ameliorated if the roots of the sport were abandoned. Close, tough, daring competition is inherent to racing and to the roots of NASCAR; dangerously hot tempers are not. As in any sport, tempers do flare, but this is not unique to auto racing.
Painting Stewart as a villain who intentionally took the life of a fellow competitor because of uncontrolled road rage is blatantly unfair to the driver himself, but it does fit a negative narrative than many in the mainstream media perpetuate about racing. Efforts to characterize the accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. as part of a pattern of over-aggressiveness in racing assure that the sport remains misunderstood.
— Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.