Murto: ‘Madhouse’ mentality must end

The Tony Stewart situation proves that the “Madhouse” mentality prevalent in racing today must end.

The Madhouse is North Carolina’s Bowman Gray Stadium. It was also the name of the cable television show that brought the reckless weekly antics at one of America’s most successful short tracks into millions of homes. Drivers throw helmets, chase each other in their cars for retaliation, fight, jump on competitors’ cars’ hoods; it seems every week somebody is escorted off the track by local law enforcement. It’s all part of the show, and it brings 10,000 fans back every week to watch the circus, to experience the Madhouse.

But it’s not racing. It’s dangerous. And it fosters an atmosphere of reckless behavior for the sake of the show; drivers are encouraged to allow their tempers to flare for the entertainment of the fans.

By now you know that Tony Stewart’s 360 Sprint Car struck and killed 20-year-old racer Kevin Ward Jr. at New York’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park during an Empire Super Sprint Series race. Ward, a two-time feature winner in the series last year, hit the wall after Stewart appeared to try a pass that failed. Ward was angry and got out of his wrecked car, waving his arms, pointing and running across the track to confront Stewart.

The video shows that when Stewart comes by on the next lap, Ward was struck by the right rear tire of Stewart’s car.

It’s easy to think that Stewart meant to spray a bit of dirt on Ward as he drove by. After all, Stewart has a reputation as a hot head. And such a reaction — a slight gun of the throttle to spray dirt on an adversary — plays out 100 times each week on dirt tracks across the country.

But it’s also possible Stewart blipped the throttle to get away from Ward, who could not have been easy to see in his black driving suit on a dimly lit short track. It appears that Ward was almost struck by the car ahead of Stewart, in which case Stewart may not have seen Ward until the last moment. Sprint Cars steer off the rear tires; the perceived gunning of the throttle was likely an attempt to avoid Ward. I believe that Stewart didn’t see Ward until it was too late.

Either way, Stewart did not do anything wrong, and he certainly did not intend to strike Ward, let alone kill him. Some media outlets have been despicable in their coverage, trying Stewart in the press with a jury that knows nothing about the sport. One Tampa Bay TV station reportedly has been replaying the video of the tragedy and playing a Tony Stewart sound bite from years ago (completely out of context) in which he states, “I’ll run over him all season long.” Is there any wonder why Americans hate the media?

The fact of the matter is that Ward should never have left his car and run across the track in front of a pack of race cars to confront Stewart. But the confrontation — as well as the possible spraying of dirt right back at him — are all part of the Madhouse mentality.

If an SCCA racer runs onto the racing surface to confront another competitor, he or she will find they no longer have a competition license. If a motorcycle road racer does it he or she will be banned from the sport. In the case of auto racing competitors, the only excuse for leaving your car after a wreck before safety workers arrive is fire. Don’t leave your car unless your shoes are melting.

When racers are angry, they are at their most vulnerable. They leave the relatively safe confines of their cars and give in to the adrenaline-fueled temper. Some places — such as the Madhouse, Bowman Gray Stadium — encourage these activities to provide the show and sell tickets.

But the Madhouse mentality needs to end. Drivers need to stay in their cars until safety workers arrive, and then they need to follow the commands of those safety workers. Tracks and series need to impose penalties — fines and suspensions — for drivers who don’t follow the new rules. We need to protect angry drivers from themselves, not encourage them to act out in anger for the entertainment of fans.

Racing suffered a true tragedy on Saturday night, one that never should have happened. Pray for Kevin Ward, his family and friends. Pray for Tony Stewart; nobody can possibly know how gutted he feels or how he’ll get through this situation. But also pray that tracks and series realize the need to end this Madhouse mentality.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.