PLYMOUTH, Ind. — Close to the pits at a dirt track nestled next to cornfields, more than 70 drivers gathered for the pre-race meeting. No one mentioned the notable absent driver, but his presence was felt.
Tony Stewart was supposed to be here.
Stewart withdrew from his scheduled appearance after the death of Kevin Ward Jr., killed a week ago after he exited his spun-out car on a New York dirt track to confront Stewart and was hit by the car Stewart was driving. Though Stewart was not on the track, the tragedy was felt during a weekend of racing and reflection in Indiana — at Plymouth Speedway, where the Bob Newton Classic went on without him, and at Bloomington Speedway, where Stewart used to race early in his career.
Ward's death has brought new scrutiny to the sport – and tighter rules. At Plymouth Speedway, drivers learned they will be suspended for the remainder of the season if they violate a new rule that prohibits them from exiting their cars on the track unless the car is on fire. At Bloomington Speedway, drivers learned such an offense will lead to a lifetime ban from the track.
"We're all just walking on eggshells right now, trying to do the right thing,'' said Dave Darland, a veteran sprint car driver who has competed against Stewart. "It's an unfortunate situation for our sport. It's another black eye for our sport, which we don't need.''
Darland and his competitors listened quietly Friday night as a Bloomington track official addressed the situation without ever referring to Stewart or Ward by name.
"Everybody's staring at the sport,'' flagman Mo Will told them. "It's your sport. Protect it.''
It is also Stewart's sport — staged on small dirt tracks, more than 300 across the country, with names such as Atomic Speedway, Bubba Raceway Park, Cowtown Speedway and Lady Luck Speedway. And Eldora Speedway, a half-mile track in Rossburg, Ohio, that Stewart owns. He also sponsors four sprint-car drivers and another small-track driver.
How much does Stewart love dirt racing? Well, less than 24 hours after winning the prestigious Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007, he was watching sprint car racing at a dirt track in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
"He is a dirt track legend,'' said Justin Graham, a track employee at Bloomington Speedway, "and I don't know if he will ever be the same.''
CROWDS TURN OUT
An hour before the races began at Plymouth Speedway Saturday night, the main parking lot was full. Fans were still parking in an auxiliary lot when the races started at 7 p.m., and a longtime spectator estimated the crowd at 1,000 — a bit better than average and perhaps only 100 fewer than expected after Stewart, a big name, decided not to race. In Bloomington, Friday's racing drew a solid crowd stimated at more than 2,000 fans.
Phil Loy, a retired professor from Upland, offered his prediction of how the incident on the New York track will affect the sport.
"People who haven't seen a sprint car race, they're probably not going to see one," Loy said. "And people like us, who go to spring car racing, it's not going to stop us.''
It was hard to spot any Tony Stewart T-shirts or hats in the crowd at either track. Many spectators donned T-shirts in tribute to their favorite dirt track drivers — Kenny "The Madmen'' Madsen, Kyle Cummins and Josh Burton, who died in an accident at Bloomington Speedway in 2013.
Danny Hall, wearing a bright orange Garrison racing T-shirt, sipped on a beer next to his wife and stepdaughter as he considered his feelings about Stewart and noted the Bloomington crowd was a bit smaller this week than usual.
"I don't think the wreck affected the crowd,'' he said, "I don't think the wreck is going to affect racing. I think the only one it's going to affect is Tony Stewart, and the family of that kid.''
Dave Burgess, who owns a construction company, in nearby Plymouth, was among a smattering of fans wearing Tony Stewart T-shirts at the track in Plymouth on Saturday night. He said he was wearing it in the grocery store earlier in the day when a man he'd never met approached him.
"Stewart should be in jail,'' Burgess said the man told him.
"What?'' Burgess said.
"Stewart ran the guy over intentionally,'' the man continued.
Replied Burgess, "That guy should have never been out of his car.''
Recalling the exchange, Burgess said, "It don't bother me. I'm a Tony Stewart fan. I'll be with him the whole way… But I'd still come to watch here regardless.''
The real stars: the high-powered sprint cars that reach 100 miles per hour in the straightaways and, with their fat back tires, slide into the turns and spray dirt. As they rumbled onto the track at Plymouth Speedway Saturday night, the P.A. announcer intoned, "How many fans are ready to go sod sprint racing here at the Playground of Power?"
The crowd roared.
'SHOW MUST GO ON'
The mood was more somber among the drivers before the races.
Facing strict enforcement of rules mandating they stay in their cars, the drivers discussed the tragedy that triggered the changes.
Randy Tarter, a driver sponsored by McClaren Pest Control in Bloomington, was among several people at the track who heard speculation that Stewart, 43, might retire – an unsubstantiated rumor – and the fatal accident a week earlier was still stirring debate about Stewart's intent.
"Everybody I've talked to, half of them say, 'He'd never do it on purpose,' '' Tarter said. "And the other half is, 'I heard him burp the throttle.'
"Looked to me like he was going to throw a little dirt on him. Everybody knows he's got a little temper in him. …Tempers flare at the racetrack.''
Or as veteran driver Lee Hobbs said of Ward getting out of his car to confront Stewart, "I've done the same thing. … I've been barred from several tracks. That's just racing.''
Adhering to the new rules, the drivers looked as aggressive as ever. At Bloomington, on the very first lap of the feature sprint car race, three cars got tangled on the first turn and out came the caution flag.
On lap two, on the same turn, a car flipped upside down. On lap five, a car sailed over the bank of the same turn.
"Race fans, do you like this feature so far?'' the P.A. announcer said shortly thereafter. The crowd cheered.
Fans roared again when, on the last lap, Kyle Cummins' car made contact with Brett Beauchamp's car and sped under the checkered flag for the victory. "I'm a little disgusted,'' Beauchamp grumbled, and later he went looking for Cummins.
Cummins was standing by his trailer when Beauchamp approached.
"You've got to do what you've got to do for the win,'' Beauchamp said, shaking Cummins' hand while holding an envelope stuffed with prize money.
Nearby, Loris Helfrich, who with her husband Tom owns the Midwest Sprint Car Series – was helping pay the drivers their prize money in $20 bills – $3,000 for the winner, $1,500 for second, $1,000 for third, a total purse of $12,075.
The payouts at Plymouth Speedway, where Irish Saunders' two sons raced on Saturday, were similarly modest. Saunders' son Eric was paralyzed from the chest down during a motocross accident in 2010 and last year resumed racing with a modified car that enables him to drive.
Tony Stewart provided Eric Saunders the support he needed – financial and emotional – to return to the track, Irish Saunders said. Noting locals fans had flocked to Plymouth Speedway again, a week after the tragedy and despite Stewart pulling out, Saunders said simply, "The show must go on.''