My family and I were on our way home from dinner, taking a back-roads path to our place in neighboring Farmington. The parking lot at the speedway was packed, with cars parked along the shoulder of County Route 10. I marveled at the ability of these small town dirt tracks to draw big crowds, not realizing that Tony Stewart was racing there that night.
Which made this morning's awful news surreal to me.
I'm not going to pretend this story has had a huge impact on me. I didn't know Kevin Ward. Jr., the young man killed, or his family, though my thoughts and prayers are with them. The diner where I took my daughter to breakfast today was not abuzz with the news of the crash (not that I could tell, anyway).
It's just always a weird feeling to see your small town in the national headlines.
Local motorsports are a big deal in Central and Western New York and Northeast Pennsylvania. A staple of my weekend sports writing work was taking race results from the tracks that dot the farmland and hills in this area. Several years ago, when I worked in Binghamton, I covered Kenny Shrader when he made an appearance at the Kirkwood Motorsports Park. Stewart himself appeared for a signing at a Home Depot near Binghamton, and covering that signing was one of my favorite assignments (the story included the sentence, "pity the poor guy who just needed to buy a hammer."). At all of these tracks, the racing community is a close, tight-knit one. They take this racing seriously, and they take care of each other. This is a sad day for that community.
Of course, the talk on Sunday morning revolved more around Stewart's plans to race at nearby Watkins Glen. At first, Stewart's camp said that he was going to race as scheduled - "business as usual" was the quote from his manager. By mid-morning, Stewart had changed his mind and announced he wouldn't race.
The existence of the debate at all - because of course Stewart shouldn't race 12 hours after killing someone in an accident - shows the strength of The Sport Ethic. As my friend Jimmy Sanderson pointed out:
Stewart just microcosm of larger iss, expecting athletes to play over birth of kids, family deaths, etc has to stop being expectation— Jimmy Sanderson (@Jimmy_Sanderson) August 10, 2014
One of the cornerstones of The Sport Ethic is the importance of The Game over everything else. Nothing is more important for an athlete than The Game. Stewart's initial desire to race in spite of being involved in a accident demonstrates the power of The Sport Ethic.
What was interesting to me was how widely criticized Stewart's initial decision was among media types. Granted, it's a small sample based upon who I follow on Twitter. I don't follow many NASCAR reporters or fans. But while one of my working hypotheses is that sports media reinforce The Sport Ethic through their reliance on players and coaches as sources, it was interesting to see so many media members take the anti-Sport Ethic approach here. Maybe it's because it involved a sport many media members are not very familiar with. Maybe it was the severity of the accident. Maybe the existence of video made everything even more real.
But for the day at least, common sense seems to have overridden The Sport Ethic. And it's probably best that it did.