Somewhat hidden in the announcement that Tony Stewart would not face charges from the Grand Jury in the death of Kevin Ward, was a disturbing nugget of news that has curiously flown a little bit under the radar – at least from the mainstream media. That is the fact that Ward was racing with traces of marijuana in his system – at levels considered to be enough to impair judgment.
This rant may come across to some as pious and self-serving. That is not my intent.
I realize that I am in the vast minority of today’s society with what I am about to say, but here it goes – I don’t use illegal drugs. I never have. There, I’ve said it. Most will now tune me out or simply stop reading because they figure that I have no credibility to speak on a subject that most people have at least experienced a few times, or still do on a regular basis.
Let me get this out there, also – so that I won’t be considered a high-and-mighty, above-it-all prude. In my college days and up until my early-thirties, I could pound down beer and other alcoholic beverages with the best of them. It was never a life-altering problem, and I had no epiphany moment that forced me to stop or curtail my drinking. I just reached an age, where my body took longer to recover the next day, and the trade-off was no longer worth it to me. Plus, having kids growing up in front of you can shift your priorities.
I still enjoy an adult beverage or two, now and then (mostly beer) – but now, I may go several weeks in between times when a single drop of alcohol enters my body. And it is usually in the confines of my own home.
But even in college, I was sort of the misfit – especially in the later years. I didn’t smoke pot or use other drugs. Maybe at first, it was simply because I knew if I ever did and got caught – my college career and possibly my life would be over – my father would have killed me. Both of my parents would have been absolutely embarrassed and mortified. In a small-town in Tennessee in the mid-seventies, such news would have been scandalous. I would have quickly become homeless, and that is no exaggeration.
As time went on, I was around many people while they were smoking pot. It smelled terrible and using a bong looked ridiculous, at best. Spilled bong-water was perhaps the grossest thing I’d ever seen or smelled, and my friends acted like idiots when they were high. Even back then, I could tell those that used it on a constant basis, were acting different even when they weren’t high. They were stoners before such a term had become invented. I preferred to stick with my beer. Plus, it was legal.
Peer pressure was not as strong then, as it is now. There were several like me. Those that smoked pot were in the minority and they kept it under wraps. Nowadays, someone like me would be ridiculed. Check out the Facebook page of someone under twenty-five. They flaunt it as a badge of honor. It has become as accepted in their culture, as beer was in mine. Perhaps they don’t realize that employers check Facebook pages of potential and current employees.
During a typical college weekend, I had two main goals – drink a lot of beer and chase girls. That was pretty typical of most twenty year-olds that I knew. Notice I said “chase” girls, because I did more chasing than getting – but that’s beside the point. I knew a limited number of guys that preferred to sit around on their couch and fire up a few joints for the weekend, and either get stupid or philosophy about life. Neither of those appealed to me.
Today, that stoner mentality among young adults seems to be more prevalent than the one I exhibited. Maybe sex is so common these days, it’s not even a goal. In fact, a lack of any goals is a common thread. But for whatever reason, it seems we’ve raised a generation of stoners that don’t have much interest in much at all. They don’t seem to care much for auto-racing, sports in general or even world events. I try not to paint with such a broad stroke, but I’ve not seen too much from those under the age of twenty-five to convince me otherwise.
So, getting back to Kevin Ward – I’ll admit I was shocked to learn the toxicology reports. It’s not that I was shocked that a twenty-year-old would use marijuana, but I thought that even twenty year-olds had enough sense, responsibility and professionalism to not get behind the wheel of a race car and compete with others on the track. I was also more than a little surprised at the relative lack of attention this has gotten.
When it was announced that Stewart would not be charged, all I heard and read was that there was no evidence of any malicious intent on Stewart’s part. It wasn’t until the next day that I was reading an article about it in our local paper that I found out that Ward had marijuana in his system. This was not revealed in the headline of the article – it was sort of an “…oh, by the way” type mention.
Am I insensitive to be outraged by this news? Are we to consider the feelings of the Ward family and not comment on this? Am I being too “old-school” and showing how out of touch I am with today’s society by thinking this is a big deal?
Tony Stewart was vilified for days right after the unfortunate event took place. His career as a racer and car-owner has been greatly effected and he has now acknowledged that he may never get over this personally. I can’t blame him.
But now that we have found out that this kid got high before climbing into a race car – no one seems to really take notice.
Knowing how this generation considers it their God-given right to get high at any time, it has always frightened me to be on the road at any time of day. It is not uncommon to hear about a fatality, and learn that the driver that caused it had marijuana in their system. It’s unfortunate, but impaired drivers have become a way of life on our roadways.
But not in a million years, did I ever think that it would become something that racers had to contend with. Is Kevin Ward the first to violate this code? No. We all remember Jeremy Mayfield. His rapid fall from grace was quick and well-deserved. AJ Allmendinger risked his own career by taking Adderall. It was apparently a one-time offense, and his career suffered. It worked out as it should have. He should have been punished, his future was justifiably in doubt; but he also took ownership of his actions and received a well-deserved second chance – one that he has taken full advantage of.
Allmendinger pleaded ignorance for the whole situation. Whether or not he was totally innocent in not knowing Adderall was not allowed in NASCAR is debatable, but he maintains he was unaware. Kevin Ward smoking pot before racing however, is inexcusable – plain and simple. He was putting every driver, crew member, racing official and even fans in jeopardy by choosing to get high before he raced.
My not being a user comes into play here. I don’t know how long it was before the race that Ward used marijuana, nor do I know how long the high lasts. But according to the toxicology report, the amount of marijuana in Ward’s system at the time of death was enough to cause impairment. I don’t know if that means his motor skills were impaired to where he couldn’t properly control his car, or if it caused him to use bad judgment – like charging towards a line of cars on a hot race track. Whatever the case, I’d say that Kevin Ward used bad judgment when he chose to use marijuana knowing he would soon be climbing into a race car. It cost him his life.
Am I naïve enough to think that there is not one single driver in the IndyCar paddock that has never used an illegal drug? No. I’m sure that in the early stages of the offseason, that more than one has chosen to imbibe in an illegal substance in order to relax and unwind from the stress of the season. But they are smart and professional enough to not do it when they are going to be doing some offseason testing. I know IndyCar does random drug testing of any participant that is involved with a car, whether it is a driver or a mechanic entrusted with putting a car together. It is my understanding that the series that Kevin Ward raced in does not do drug-testing. If that is the case, then that needs to change.
As much as I supported Tony Stewart in the aftermath of the accident, I could not help but feel terrible for Kevin Ward and the Ward family. I still do to some extent, but I’ll admit that my sympathy has waned somewhat. Kevin Ward did not deserve to die. But any driver that chooses to be racing while impaired is taking unnecessary chances. Any driver that straps themselves into a race car knows that there can be devastating consequences at any time. Those should not be increased by drivers making foolish and childish choices.
Now is the time for Kevin Ward, Sr. to allow his son to rest in peace with dignity. Now that he knows that no criminal charges against Tony Stewart will be forthcoming, he has vowed that this is not over. That means we can expect a civil suit against Tony Stewart – which I interpret as cashing in on his son’s death. If I thought for a moment that Stewart acted with malice, I would be outraged with no criminal charges and would think that a civil suit was justified. But based strictly on video evidence and the circumstances of that tragic evening regarding poor lighting, the nuances and poor visibility of a sprint car – the Grand Jury decided there was no case.
So, excuse me if I have sounded self-righteous throughout this long and extended rant. That was not my intention, but it is what I fully believe. With the evidence that Ward had marijuana in his system at the time, I will have very little sympathy for the Ward family if they continue to sully their son’s name and reputation – just for the pursuit of a big payday. There is no case and it will only get uglier as it drags on. My request to the Ward family is to please allow Kevin Ward, Jr. to now rest in peace and allow Tony Stewart to begin to put his own life back together.