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Opinion

Time to lay off Tony Stewart

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sports,Mark Tapscott

I drove race cars for three years. I know race cars and race car drivers. It's time to lay off Tony Stewart.

Don't get me wrong. Whatever should be said about him as a human being, Stewart is a phenomenally talented race car driver, likely one of the all-time greats of motorsports.

By comparison, my racing was infinitely more humble, including three years of competition in the Sports Car Club of America and the International Motorsports Association — i.e. club and semi-pro — levels.

I raced on asphalt road courses, including Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta and Summit Point, with left and right turns, never on super-speedways or dirt tracks with only left turns.

But here's the thing: The physics of driving a race car are the same whether you are going 130 mph in a Formula Ford in the rain on a road course, 190 mph in a NASCAR stocker on a bright sunny day at Daytona's superspeedway or 100 mph at night on a little dirt track bullring in Canandaigua, New York.

Race cars intentionally have high horsepower-to-weight ratios, so they accelerate, corner and brake far faster than anything 99.9 percent of the people reading this will ever experience.

The sprint car that Stewart was driving accentuates those characteristics because it has a huge amount of horsepower, a very short wheelbase and a suspension setup that requires steering primarily with the throttle.

Everything about the car is calibrated to make it turn left. The driver quickly steers to the right while punching the throttle, which makes the car turn left, with the rear wheels sliding constantly toward the outside of the track.

Drivers know that technique as "turning right to go left" in a sprint car. On asphalt, it's rarely the fastest way through a corner. On dirt, it's the only way.

So the physics gave Stewart no avenue of escape in the agonizing milliseconds after his recognition that the black form suddenly standing directly in front of him on the track was driver Kevin Ward Jr.

If he mashed the throttle, the rear end would have come around. If he jumped off the throttle, it would have done the same thing.

Either way, barring divine intervention, Stewart's car would have hit Ward, regardless whether it happened at 40 mph under a caution flag or at 100 mph under a green flag.

Think of yourself trying to miss the child who darts out into traffic from between parked cars and you begin to get an idea of what confronted Stewart.

Further complicating things was the likelihood that in the instant before the collision Stewart was looking down, checking his gauges during the yellow flag, or pulling his racing harness tighter. That's what drivers do during caution periods.

What he would never expect at such a moment would be a driver in a black helmet and driving suit standing in the middle of the track.

Remember, a racing sprint car is steered almost entirely with the gas pedal, not the steering wheel. Not even a great driver like Stewart could have avoided Ward, who sadly put himself in the most dangerous place he could possibly be in that moment.

Those of us who love racing grieve any time any driver — or crew member, or spectator — dies, regardless of the circumstances. It's a sickening thing.

But it's also sickening to read and hear the macabre sensationalization, vituperation and character assassination being heaped on Stewart, especially by journalists and sports commentators, hardly any of whom have ever raced competitively at any level.

It's bad enough that the ambulance-chasers will have a field day in the court system for years to come with this case. Nobody but the lawyers will win, regardless of the verdicts.

But it's absolutely nauseating to listen to click-hounds posing as experts who obviously have no clue what they are talking about.

There has been much discussion, for example, about "road-rage" among NASCAR drivers like Stewart. There have indeed been well-publicized incidents, including angry drivers tossing helmets at competitors and melees in the pits involving drivers and crew members.

But since the nationally televised fisticuffs between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarbrough at Daytona in 1979, there have been thousands of events run by legions of NASCAR drivers who collectively covered millions of laps during practice, qualifying and races.

It's simply preposterous to turn a dozen finger-pointing, helmet-tossing incidents during those millions of laps into what the Washington Post's Mike Wise called "the twisted, accepted culture of road-rage" that he blindly sees as racing.

I don't recall Wise branding Major League Baseball a mob culture because a dozen times during the typical season somebody gets beaned and bench-clearing brawls ensue.

That Stewart has been a hot-head on and off the track has zero relevance to the situation in New York, though its irresistible to some professional journalists who are supposedly paid to get the facts.

The fact is that even if Stewart had instead been a saint all of those years, it is all but certain he still would not have been able to avoid hitting Ward.

That's not a crime, nor is it road rage. It's a tragedy.

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