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Questions Linger Over Fatal Race Involving NASCAR's Stewart


Let's spend a few minutes on sports as we often do on Wednesdays. And we begin with a horrific scene at a dirt racetrack in New York State. Last weekend NASCAR driver Tony Stewart was driving what's known as a sprint car. The event was smaller than the big races we often see him in. Stewart's car made contact with a car driven by a 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.; Ward's car crashed. Ward then got out of his car, apparently to confront Stewart as his car made another pass. The younger driver was struck by Stewart's car and killed. We reached Nate Ryan. He covers auto racing for USA Today, and he talked about why it's actually common for drivers to get out of their cars to confront each other.

NATE RYAN: I think that it's become somewhat part of the entertainment component of auto racing. The sport is very much marketed on emotion and the personalities of its stars as much as the cars they're driving. And one of the ways that that emotion is expressed is when drivers feel like their aggrieved and spun out by another driver and crash. Often under caution they will walk towards the line of circling cars under a yellow flag or a caution and, you know, shake their fist or express some sort of anger to let the driver know who spun them that they're upset. And that's what Kevin Ward Jr. was doing in this case with Tony Stewart.

GREENE: Well, just from what you're saying, I mean, if it's part of the marketing to get out of your car and be on the track, that obviously puts a driver in a dangerous environment. In this case Tony Stewart then hits this man on the track, ends up killing him. Are you suggesting that, you know, even something that extreme, someone dying - some people would say that's part of the NASCAR car culture?

RYAN: Definitely not. In racing, people are accustomed to see crashes between drivers when both drivers are in their cars, and that's what really separates this incident from others. And it's very rare for a driver to hit another driver when he or she is outside their cars. That's why I think you're going to see a lot of series, a lot of track taking a look at - are there rules that can be instituted to keep drivers in their cars under caution. I think that practice is definitely heavily under review. Even though it is, again, part of what fans like about racing, I think they like that display of emotion, I think this incident has given everyone a lot of pause and is going to cause the racing industry to reconsider it.

GREENE: There seems to be a larger question here about sports. I mean the NHL, the National Hockey League, has been criticized for marketing fights on the ice and some people have said these are actual criminal acts that are taking place. I mean, where's the line crossed on the field or on a track and when something becomes criminal?

RYAN: I think that's what everyone is certainly waiting on to unfold. I mean, this is an ongoing investigation by the Ontario County sheriff's department in New York and while they have said that there has been no evidence yet that would warrant bringing any criminal charges against Tony Stewart and there's been no evidence yet even to determine any intent on his part during this incident, they've also really stressed that and emphasized that this is an ongoing investigation, it's not closed, that it's going to take at least two weeks to be completed. They're doing a forensic recreation of the incident and what led to it. And that's going to take a while to complete and until it is, I think there are going to be a lot of questions - to the regard you just mentioned, David, about, you know, what happens when you have this sort of incident in a racing event and how does the law apply.

GREENE: Nate Ryan covers auto racing for USA Today. Nate, thanks a lot.

RYAN: Thanks very much for having me, Dave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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