Billy Thomas has spent a lifetime in and around racing.
His father, Jimmy, built and operated East Alabama Motor Speedway between Phenix City and Crawford. Today, he is the president of the 3/8th-mile family-owned dirt track. For 30 years Billy Thomas raced on tracks — long and short — across the Southeast, East and Midwest.
Like everyone, he watched in disbelief as short-track driver Kevin Ward Jr., 20, died Saturday from injuries suffered in a race incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Upstate New York.
Billy Thomas, 61, puts the blame on Ward and not NASCAR veteran Tony Stewart, who was driving the Sprint car that struck Ward.
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“I thought the young kid was wrong for walking down the racetrack,” Thomas said.
Ward’s car crashed after being touched by the car Stewart was driving. Ward got out of his car and started pointing a finger in Stewart’s direction as Stewart circled back around the track. A car in front of Stewart missed Ward, but the right rear tire on Stewart’s car caught Ward and violently pulled him to the ground.
Thomas understands Ward’s anger over the crash, but he said Ward was wrong for getting out of the car and moving toward the traffic.
“I have been in that situation — anyone who has raced has been in that situation — at one time or another,” Thomas said of one driver being angry with another because of a crash. “But you don’t walk toward moving race cars. You don’t do it. The kid put himself in harm’s way.”
Thomas is quick to call it “unfortunate and horrible.” But he is adamant that the responsibility for what happened does not rest with Stewart, a star driver who was moonlighting on the night before a Sunday NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Thomas, who raced in the ARCA series and other minor-league circuits that shared tracks with the NASCAR stars on race weekend, knows what it’s like for a local racer to get a chance to rub up against the sport’s big names. He has raced on short tracks against Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace.
“Racers enjoy racing, so it makes sense for Tony to run these tracks,” Thomas said. “And it is good for the fans at these short tracks to see these guys race. It may be the only time some of them will ever see them.”
The sport is dealing with the fallout from Ward’s death. And that fallout will reach the small tracks like East Alabama.
Drivers who run at East Alabama must use RACEceiver radios. This allows the race director to communicate with the drivers during the race.
“The race director can warn the drivers what is happening or tell one to get back in the car,” Thomas said.
They will be racing at East Alabama Motor Speedway on Saturday. Thomas said they will take time to make certain the local drivers understand the track’s policy.
“The policy at most tracks, including ours, is if you get out of the car on the track you are disqualified,” Thomas said. “You stay in the car unless it’s on fire or some other kind of hazard.”
But Thomas keeps coming back to how the situation that left Ward dead started.
“When you get out of that race car, it is dangerous,” Thomas said. “That car is your protection.”