By DERON SNYDER
The first TV story that caught my eye Sunday morning, before I absorbed the scroll about a racing accident in upstate New York, was about a guy named Lonnie Bissonnette.
He recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his BASE jump off the Perrine Bridge, in Twin Falls, Idaho, by returning to the scene for another leap. Except this time he was in the wheelchair he’s been in ever since the first visit left him paralyzed when his parachute malfunctioned.
Crazy, right? Whatever it is that causes someone to voluntarily fling himself off a structure 500 feet high, I’m glad it’s not contagious.
After watching Bissonnette’s successful jump – wheelchair and all – I focused on the news from Canandaigua, N.Y., where 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed during a sprint car race. That sounded normal enough until realizing that Ward was a pedestrian when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart struck him.
Auto racing is another extreme-type sport in which the thrill (and danger) of participation seems to be reward enough for competitors. We’ve come to accept the fact that death is a realistic outcome in such activities, whether it’s crashing to earth or crashing into a wall.
Though both sports require a person to be, you know, a little nuts by normal standards, BASE jumping lives primarily on YouTube. Auto racing is on cable and free TV constantly.
The loss of life on a racetrack is tragic under any circumstances, but this instance is particularly sad because it has nothing to do with racing, per se. Instead, it has everything to do with the macho, tough-guy posturing that exists in the sport’s undercurrent.
That’s what led Ward to leave his vehicle after a wreck and walk onto the track to express his displeasure with Stewart.
But we’ll probably never know whether Stewart’s own emotions played a role in the accident.
Surely he didn’t mean to strike the young driver. Yet, no would be surprised if Stewart was trying to “buzz” him, maybe trying to throw some dirt and a scare, but got closer than intended. Stewart’s nickname is “Smoke” for a reason, namely the figurative cloud that arises when hotheads gets steamed.
In his final act on this earth, Ward showed signs of Stewart’s fiery side. When Stewart was wrecked by Matt Kenseth during a NASCAR race a couple of years ago, Stewart stormed onto the track and hurled his helmet, bouncing it off the hood of Kenseth’s car.
Interestingly, Stewart wasn’t disciplined for that act of road rage, although he picked up an official reprimand for a similar incident in 1999, when his threw his gloves at Kenny Irwin and reached inside the passenger side window before Irwin sped off.
It’s a shame that NASCAR hasn’t been sterner when drivers behave like children.
The sport is dangerous enough without bringing tempers into play. Anger clouds judgment and there’s not much room for error in cars travelling at high rates of speed.
If Stewart’s right rear tire was a few inches more to the left, Ward would still be alive.
He also would be alive if he didn’t venture into oncoming traffic. Or if he reconsidered after another car swerved to avoid him seconds earlier. Or if he decided to race remote-controlled cars instead of sprint cars.
But Ward loved what he did from the time he began to his fateful end. According to his website, he was 4 when he began racing go-karts and he finished second in his initial race. By the time he was 12, he had won six track championships and about 250 races.
Racing was in his blood and he was unlikely to quit on his own. Maybe he was destined to be a lifer stuck on the minor circuits, far from the bright lights and big tracks, but he seemed determined to reach the highest level.
Or perhaps die trying.
Most of us don’t understand the passion that leads Bissonnette to continue jumping in his wheelchair and leads Stewart to continue racing on dirt tracks in his spare time. But the need for clear-headed thinking and adherence to every safety measure during extreme sports is a necessity.
Accidents happen, with and without reckless behavior being a factor. Bissonnette’s mistake 10 years ago was miscalculating his speed on a flip, opening his chute too early and watching it become entangled on his leg.
Ward’s lapse – and maybe Stewart’s, too – was letting emotion get the best of him in the midst of a dangerous situation.
Stewart will have to live with the outcome for the rest of his life.
Here’s hoping the lesson learned saves another driver’s life in the future.