Sprint Car champion and NASCAR crew chief weighs in on Canandaigua tragedy

Frank Kerr hopes the motorsports community, pundits "learn" from racing accident

Sprint Car champion and NASCAR crew chief weighs in on Canandaigua tragedy
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Crew chief Frank Kerr and Marcos Ambrose
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Frank Kerr was forced to retire from Sprint Car racing 14 years ago.

It’s wasn’t due to injuries. Kerr raced with a broken right leg. Yes, that’s correct – the leg that controls the throttle. He made sure when the doctor applied the cast he could still use his ankle.

And his broken back? Kerr was back in the Sprint Car the following week.

“Once you put on your helmet, you don’t even know it,” Kerr says. “You don’t feel it until you stop.”

A champion's resume

Kerr, 53, started his career in quarter midgets when he was six. At 15, he moved to big block Modifieds and toured through his native Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for the next seven years until he discovered Sprint Cars.

For Kerr, it was love at first ride. He won four track championships at Eldora Speedway, four All-Star championships and five Ohio Speed Week championships. He collected over 250 trophies and been inducted into the Pennsylvania Sprint Car Hall of Fame.

After Kerr’s children were born, his search for stability led him to NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series. He’s currently a crew chief at Front Row Motorsports.

A tragic turn

Mention Sprint Cars to Kerr and he immediate lights up. On Sunday, after hearing the news of Tony Stewart’s tragic accident that cost Kevin Ward Jr. his life, the twinkle temporarily faded.

“My knowledge of Sprint Car racing and racing period is better than most people,” Kerr told Motorsports.com. “The smallest track I raced on was Macon, Illinois in a Sprint Car one-eighth mile track. The biggest track was Syracuse (NY) in a Sprint Car one-mile track.”

He’s raced the larger Silver Crown cars at two NASCAR sanctioned tracks – Phoenix International Raceway and Richmond International Raceway – where the 3,400-pound Sprint Cup cars compete on asphalt twice a year. And yes, Kerr has raced Sprint Cars on the dirt at Canandaigua, the half-mile track nestled north of Watkins Glen in upstate New York where Ward lost his life.

“At most of your smaller race tracks, it is hard to see in a lot of spots on a track due to the dust,” Kerr said. “Whether it has dark clay or not they all have the dark spots. It’s dusty and there are very few tracks that have the greatest lighting.

"Remember, it is still night time. I can’t say what there lighting is now but when I ran there it was just like most dirt short tracks they all have dark spots and there is glare from the lights and looking though the dust and a dirty visor on your helmet at times.”

When I ran there it was just like most dirt short tracks they all have dark spots and there is glare from the lights and looking though the dust and a dirty visor on your helmet at times.

Frank Kerr

Different track, different dirt

No, Kerr was not at Canandaigua last Saturday night. But he’s been to just about every dirt track east of the Mississippi and many out West. He’s acquainted with the different compositions of dirt due to the geographic location of the track and the maintenance of the surface.

“There are two kinds of slick race tracks,” Kerr said. “They can be ‘greasy slick’, which is when a dirt track is just watered down and it is really slick for cars and people. Then there is the term a ‘slick track’, where the track gets shinny and it is worse for the race car than a person on that kind of surface have traction.”

In either case, Kerr feels it could have been difficult for Ward to maintain his footing after he climbed from the car or for Stewart to come to an immediate stop as the young driver descended closer to the moving race cars.

Blind spots

But given the conditions and blind spots out of the right side of Sprint Cars, Kerr doesn’t believe Stewart saw Ward after he climbed from his vehicle, particularly since the 20-year-old was dressed in black from head to toe.

“Sprint Cars are very hard to see out of,” Kerr said. “You have limited vision to the right because of the right side board of the wing and with the new safety rules. With the safety head rest they run now it is even worse to see out the right side you can’t see your front tires sitting in a sprint car you just judge where they are and with a wing, it is darker in the cockpit and you are looking out into the light and glare and dust.

“When you’re racing at speed, you are looking two to four cars ahead of you to look for your next lane you are going to try and pass the competition around you. But when a caution comes out, you are worried about not running into the cars around you or them running over you some drivers let out of the gas sooner than others.

“When a yellow comes out, I have seen a lot of wrecks after a yellow comes out so as you are slowing down. You're trying not to get run over and your looking to see where the car or cars are sitting on the track the last thing you would ever see in the 10 to 12 seconds after a yellow flag comes out is a black uniform and a black helmet standing in front of you before even a corner worker can react to get to the wreck or stalled car which are in bright colors.”

The last thing you would ever see in the 10 to 12 seconds after a yellow flag comes out is a black uniform and a black helmet standing in front of you before even a corner worker can react.

Frank Kerr 

Minor League

Just as the entire racing community is mourning the loss of 20-year-old Ward, Kerr and others are trying to understand what went wrong. Kerr doesn’t believe the two cars ever made contact. What he witnessed was an error of judgment on Ward’s part.

“I can’t imagine what the Ward family is going through and I truly don’t wish that on anyone,” Kerr said. “But having raced for as long as I have and winning as much as I did looking at as many videos out there to look at, the wreck would have never happened if Kevin Ward would have lifted off the gas and turned the car down the race track and drove back by Tony’s car off of the corner. But he didn’t. That move comes with experience.

“Then to get out of the car that fast when cars are still at a good rate of speed is only someone not thinking about his actions he was about to do. On the video you see Kevin walk toward the cars and almost get hit by the car in front of Tony’s car. Then he walks down the track even more and it looks like the right tire catches Kevin’s leg and this then turns the wheel on the car. Your natural instinct is to straighten out the wheel which in turn makes the back of the car fish tale some.

“On a different video, it looks like Kevin grabbed the right side board of the wing which would also make the car go to the right and again the back of the car would fish tale trying to straighten the car out. Track was every slick and with not much wing speed these cars don’t have much traction. Remember the gas pedals in this type of works up and down not back and forth like a normal car so any bump or movement in the car your foot could be forced to move the throttle pedal some making the motor go up in RPM.”

NASCAR addressed the media this morning, announcing a new set of rules forbidding drivers from exiting their cars until instructed after an accident. Kerr is just hoping that his experience can add perspective – one that comes from behind the wheel and off the track.

“We can all learn from this tragedy and people that don’t even know anything about racing are making comments and accusations without knowing all of the facts or the people involved,” Kerr said. “Tony Stewart has giving more back to short track racing than any other person I know.”

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