No Excuses For Racing While Impaired

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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.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “No Excuses For Racing While Impaired”

  1. You’re not the only one; I’ve never used illegal substances either, George. Never liked the smell of pot or the thought of being busted.

    Regarding the toxicology report: I did read about it in several sources, especially the newspapers local to where the accident occurred, and they did make much greater mention of the Pot then the lame-stream press. Why? My theory is that, since Ward was a nobody, they couldn’t crucify him like they could a big name star like Stewart. So, they buried the story.

    A bigger part of the story is a quote that was in the local paper to the track. The sheriff was quoted as saying that he didn’t believe there was any criminal case, but, to avoid any appierence of bias, he and the DA sent the case to a full Grand Jury. All evidence was presented there, similar to a criminal trial. All that is needed for charges to be brought is for a majority of the Grand Jurers to vote for prosecution, which in this case would have needed nine votes.

    Apparently none of the Grand Jurers voted for prosecution. None.

    I understand that Ward’s family have suffered a great loss and are grieving. No one should have to go through the loss of a child. However, now that there has been a thorough investigation and not only the sheriff, but the Grand Jury have spoken and said that no crime was comitted, and, most importantly, that Ward was impaired and responsible for the accident, I only hear one thing from his family:

    “CHA-CHING!!”

  2. James T Suel Says:

    George I think you got just right. It does not matter if you have never used drugs, theres no place for pot in racing.i dont think there civil suit will get very far.

  3. elmondohummus Says:

    Some people out there are under the impression that weed doesn’t affect you negatively. And I admit, it’s not the same sort of impairment that alcohol induces. But to think there’s no negative effect whatsoever is self delusion. Being “functional” doesn’t mean being on top of your game, and when you’re driving a race car, that’s exactly where you need to be – on top of your game – else you’re not only not competitive, you’re also a risk on the track.

    It’s not that I want to lay into Ward here. It’s just that too many people engage in too much deliberate ignorance on too many things. And weed is one of those them.

  4. This regrettable situation is one of those in which a crude-but-common abbreviation can (and should) be used…appropriately and without hesitation:

    It’s now well past time for the Ward family to STFU.

  5. If you took everything from our media at face value, you would think all the kids are doing this. They are not. There are people with an agenda and you are seeing some of this play out in the press.

    I never used drugs either although I had some good friends who did. I knew if I messed up, there was no one to save my behind. Others had rich Dad’s or other family contacts that could bail them out.

    My kids are teenagers right now and so far so good. I don’t think they would consider it, but I am right there to skin them alive if they even try.

    As I have gotten older I have developed less tolerance for drug use. I have seen too many people damage their lives and had two friends who committed suicide who I believe would not have if they had not dabbled in drugs.

    To drive a race car under the influence of any drug, legal or illegal, is the height of folly. Kevin Ward was a fool for running down in the middle of a hot track. We now may understand better why he did something so foolish. Which leads back to the question at hand.

  6. Hopefully, using drugs and/or texting while driving will continue to be the exception in racing sports.

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    The only reason I can possibly fathom that the family would or should even consider a civil lawsuit for some monetary award is that they may believe they have some shred of evidence that Stewart did attempt to scare/threaten Ward and through his negligence, killed Ward with his car that somehow the ‘non-racers’ of the D.A.’s office and Grand Jury missed, regardless of Ward’s biochemical state.

    From my distant vantage point, this all seems unlikely in the extreme and agree in light of the evidence noted, this case as we know it and Kevin Ward Jr., should simply be put to rest.

    The Ward family will never be the same, neither will Stewart’s family, nor the entire racing community.

  8. George,
    Thanks for writing this. I also noticed the reference to marijuana in Ward’s system and was immediately outraged that he had put the lives of everyone at the track in jeopardy.
    I was also disappointed that that aspect of the Grand Jury report was reported as a minor finding.
    Kevin Ward paid the price that others might have paid for his decision.
    His family needs to accept that and let this go.
    Another of the major ills of this society is that so many people try to make others responsible by suing almost anybody for almost anything, especially public figures who have large incomes.
    There is an answer for that problem and I hope Tony Stewart has it.

  9. I am somewhat conflicted. When one reads that Ward had marijuana “in his system,” it would be wise to note the marijuana STAYS in your system for thirty days or so, one reason that professional athletes abstain during any period where they are subject to testing. Hence, Ward could have fired up a blunt twenty days or so earlier, and would still test positive, even though the effects would have subsided long earlier.

    (To be fair, I did use weed in my younger days and I am familiar with the effects.) It would be FOOLISH to attempt to race under the influence of an “active” high.

    As to the civil matter, considering the contributory negligence displayed by Ward in getting out of his car and approaching Stewart’s on the track, I would consider this a somewhat frivolous lawsuit, but that’s just me. We live in a somewhat litigious society, where anyone can be sued for almost anything.

    • Phil Kaiser Says:

      You are wrong, sir! Pot does NOT stay in IMPAIRING quantities (which is what the toxicology report states… read it) for very long in the adult human body. TRACES of pot can stay in the body for weeks as you say, but in impairing quantities NOT.

      The FACT is Ward would’ve had to have smoked right before that race to have THC in “impairing quantities” in his system at the time of the autopsy. Do some research before spouting please….

  10. Of course they should file a lawsuit and pray Stewart wants to settle it quickly. The likelihood of them winning is a different matter as Ward was the one with drugs in his system who got out of his car and moved towards moving race cars. I am not about to research NY tort law, but it would seem to me that he is at least 51% at fault which means he cannot win any money or at the very best his judgement would decrease by whatever % Ward was at fault. It doesn’t appear to me like there will be mich cashing in.

    Thank you for the refresher as I prepare for the Ohio Bar exam:) I never much enjoyed Torts, though my professor did work for IMS back in the day and worked on the tire in the last row accident.

  11. Funny how it was not mentioned that Ward was high until now. Isn’t it amazing something like that could be left out of the story especially as the drive by media goes nuts attacking Tony Stewart. Do you think the drive by medial is going to follow up with this new evidence and condemn Ward for being high while wrestling around a 800 hp sprint car. I think the reasonable among us know the answer to that question.

  12. I will weigh in with this, the DA said that the toxicology report revealed that young Ward was “under the influence” of marijuana. If he is wrong then that is a different story, but he isn’t. These tests reveal how much is in your system and how much will impaire a person.

    Now, Ward’s aunt asks in her open letter, when, in pot-leagal states, will someone’s “drivers license be taken away when they are stoned?” Well, they will take the license away when someone is found intoxicated from drinking beer, whiskey or other spirits which are purchased legally in each of our 50 states.

    I hate it for the kid, but what he did bit him in the ass.

    By the way, I have seen plenty of mad as hell drivers raise their fis or, in Smokes case, helmet, but i think this is the first time I have seen a driver race down the track to go after a car that was cruising at 60 mph. That, in and of itself, is pretty stupid.

  13. I would like to point out something here. And that is stress. I personally can’t imagine the level of stress any driver feels before the start of a race. Even a small league race at a local dirt track. Add in the fact that Kevin Ward was racing against Tony Stewart, in addition to the normal crowd, who could make or break a (potential) career with a casual comment. So the level of stress Kevin Ward could have been under might have been nothing or unimaginably high.

    Various people have different ways of dealing with stress, James Hunt got so stressed he threw up before every race, a point graphically illustrated in Rush. We don’t know Kevin Ward’s method of handling stress, it could have been to light up a joint, it could have been to light up hours ahead of time and use the tail end of the high to deal with the stress pre-race, it could have been puking, or it could have been push-ups.

    This isn’t to condone Kevin Ward’s actions, just to point out that stress is largely dealt with at a personal level and self-medicated with various legal and illegal drugs; and junk food and bad television, can’t forget those.

    There’s an article that’s become fairly common reading in introductory anthropology classes, its called “Baseball Magic” or “Magic and Baseball” or something like that. It links the rituals and routines of professional baseball players to religious and magical acts in less developed areas. I’ve always wondered way the authors didn’t do a string of articles on other major sports, and especially racing since the consequences can be so much more extreme. Maybe it’s time that it got written.

    • Rituals like not stepping on the foul line, ect.., is one thing, but toking on a joint is completely different and that is not fair for the other drivers who want to trust their fellow racers. Same with the driver who takes a shot of whiskey before a race to deal with their stress. If you need to do that then stay out of the car.

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