Here’s what we know.
During an Empire Super Sprint Series race in Canandaigua, N.Y., last Saturday, two cars were battling for position on a dirt track. One of them, driven by little-known Kevin Ward, Jr., spun into the wall after being bumped by the other, driven by the somewhat-legendary Tony Stewart.
Here’s what we see.
Ward quickly exits his car, approaches the track, near under-caution traffic, pointing his finger presumably to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with Stewart’s tactic. A couple cars elude him, but he is struck by Stewart’s car, apparently by the right rear tire, and dragged a ways. Ward is killed, almost immediately.
Here’s where it gets murky.
Like many small-town, dirt tracks, Canandaigua Motorsports Park is tight, congested, and dimly lit. Everything happens quickly. Ward was wearing mostly black and maybe blending in. Open-wheeled sprint cars with their high wings are slow-motion compared to their big-track, big-money brethren, but they are notoriously jumpy and can fishtail. They are fidgety race cars.
Here’s what we don’t know.
Intent. Only Tony Stewart knows.
The county sheriff was fairly quick to dismiss criminal intent, but the investigation into Ward’s death will continue. No charges have been filed, but anything is possible. Perhaps it is warranted. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps the district attorney aspires to be governor someday.
Either way, this is bound to end up in court, at least with a civil trial where there is a lesser standard of proof than in a criminal court. That’s pretty clear after hearing the words of Kevin Ward, Sr., the racer’s father, in comments made to the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard:
“Apparently, Tony Stewart was the only one driving out there who didn’t see him. … The one person who knows what happened that night is possibly facing 10 years in prison. Is he going to say what he done?”
Only Tony Stewart knows.
He made the right decision yesterday when he announced he would not drive Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400, part of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, at Michigan International Speedway.
Now, granted, it’s easy for me to say he made the right choice, and perhaps hard to hear for a driver with deep-pocketed sponsors to satisfy and, in Stewart’s case, few remaining chances to qualify for the 10-race Chase championship playoff.
But what happened at Canandaigua is still a too-fresh scab and the court of public opinion, the one that knows Stewart has often worn his passion, and his temper, on his sleeve, is chaotic and, in this day and age, viral.
My opinion? I can’t imagine anyone involved in this sport, one that has littered tracks with pain, heartbreak, and death, would intentionally be so callous as to create a scenario that might result in more of the same. That certainly includes Tony Stewart.
But only one man knows.
Auto racing is unique and awkward. Once it is stamped on your DNA, as a racer, a mechanic, a fan, in IndyCar or NASCAR, in go-karts or midgets, on super-speedways or a half-mile ARCA or dirt track, in Daytona or Indianapolis, in Toledo or Canandaigua, its pull is as mighty as the strongest drug.
It’s hard to explain, but it is a close-knit community of sophisticates and rednecks alike, from the people who do it at the highest levels for millions of dollars to the people who do it for pocket change and trophies … or for people like Stewart, and he is just one, who do it for either or both.
Stewart owns Eldora Speedway, a historic dirt track in southwestern Ohio. Those were his roots growing up nearby in Indiana and even three NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and an ownership interest in the big-time, Stewart-Haas team has not diminished his love for grassroots racing. It’s that DNA.
Part of the sport’s allure at all levels is the danger, the tight quarters at high speeds, the smell of fuel in the mist, the way the ground quakes as the pack roars past the grandstand under green. And, yes, the spinouts, the bumps, trading paint, and bending sheet metal. Yes, the crashes.
NASCAR has done much through the years to promote safety to the point the cars became somewhat generic. Modern-day drivers are more buttoned up. There are few or perhaps no King Richards or Foyts or characters like Junior Johnson, first-name guys like Buddy and Cale, no guys known simply as Fireball or The Intimidator. Well, yes, there is Smoke.
So the premier circuit came out a few years ago and said, let’s shake it up; boys, get at it. Bring some personality back to racing. So Tony Stewart climbs from his cockpit and hurls his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car after a wreck at Bristol. It was acceptable. It was marketed.
But nobody wants what happened at Canandaigua. All of racing, publicly and privately, is having trouble coming to grips with it. Short of urgency, like fire, there should be an industry-wide ban on drivers leaving their cars before emergency vehicles arrive and traffic is under complete control of the yellow flag. Because, really, what was Kevin Ward, Jr., in the final seconds of his life, walking out onto that track, possibly thinking? We can only guess.
As for what Stewart was thinking, only Tony knows.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.