Blankley: Lessons from Auto Racing

Guest blogger Kristen Blankley (Nebraska) provides the following insights from the recent racing incident involving NASCAR legend Tony Stewart who killed a fellow driver Kevin Ward after Ward’s car crashed and Ward got out of his car and walked onto the race track.  For some press stories about the incident go here and here.


Many of you may know that I am a huge sports fan.  At times it seems contradictory – I am a fan of something that cannot ever be mediated!  Sports games and matches have winners and losers, and no one can negotiate (within the bounds of the rules) the final outcome.  That said, sports are also full of conflict – both on and off the field – including labor relations, player negotiations, salary disputes, cheating, and so on.

One recent incident has had me thinking about a number of my favorite themes to teach in mediation class.  On August 9, 2014, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart fatally hit a fellow racecar driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a Sprint Car race in northern New York.  During the race, Stewart drove perhaps too close to Ward, and Ward’s car crashed into the wall.  Within a span of less than 20 seconds, Ward got out of his car, walked down the racetrack, and Stewart hit Ward, who died from the impact.

Sports media, racing fans, and even casual YouTube watchers all seem to have developed very strong opinions on what happened.  Many state that Stewart intended on scaring (or even hitting) Ward and purposefully drove too close to him.  Other claim that Stewart did nothing wrong and, in fact, is the victim.  As mediators, we likely all believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

This incident brings to mind two very important lessons.  The first lesson is perspective and judgment.  Neuroscience teaches us that our brains make judgments in fractions of seconds.  Upon learning a body of facts, our brains automatically filter out “useless” information to help us make snap judgments.  Hearing the same set of facts and watching the same videos has caused people to come to radically different conclusions regarding Stewart’s intent.  The fact remains, however, that none of us were in Stewart’s racecar, saw what he saw, and reacted how he did.  We don’t know the visibility on the track, the best way to move around slowing traffic, or how the car was handling.  Instead, we are rushing to judgment based on an incomplete set of facts.  In mediation and conflict counseling, I try to help clients understand the difference between facts and judgments so that they can move down their ladders of inference and gain valuable perspective.

The second lesson is one on contribution and blame.  The excellent book Difficult Conversations by Douglass Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explains how having the role a person has in a difficult situation (i.e., the “contribution”) is not always blameworthy (i.e., at “fault”).  This concept, while basic, is also novel to most lay persons.  We commonly equate contribution with blame, and yet often times we contribute to a bad situation, even when we are not blameworthy.  For Stewart, he certainly contributed to the accident – he was driving the car that hit Ward.  Ward contributed as well – he exited his racecar and walked down the track.  But is either man blameworthy?  I can’t answer that question, and I do not know if anyone can.  I do, however, use this technique with mediation parties (usually in caucus) so that they can assess how the situation has gotten to the present point.  Even when a party believes they are not “at fault,” they are often more willing to settle once they see how they have become involved in the situation.

Kristen Blankley

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