Much has been said about NASCAR driver Tony Stewart in the aftermath of the Saturday incident that claimed the life of driver Kevin Ward, Jr. at New York’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
Some of it has been accurate, most has not.
Indisputable is the fact that Ward and Stewart tangled during the running of Saturday’s Empire Super Sprint event, with Ward’s car hitting the Turn Two wall. The 20-year old driver climbed from his damaged racer and attempted to confront Stewart, only to be struck and killed by the right-rear tire of Stewart’s car.
Since then, observers from outside the sport have attempted to categorize Stewart. It’s not an easy job, even for those of us who have known him for years. As Winston Churchill said of a World War II Russian counterpart, Stewart is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion wears his heart on his sleeve and says precisely what he thinks at all times, whether or not the rest of the world agrees.
He is emotional and outspoken, equally likely to hurl a helmet at a fellow competitor, or embrace him in a Victory Lane bear hug.
He can be snarky, abrasive and abrupt, and woe to the media member that asks him a silly question two weeks in a row. He can break you up with a bawdy barroom joke, or deliver insightful commentary that leaves you pondering the meaning of the universe.
He can be brusque and dismissive in one moment, incredibly giving in the next; shooing away adults to spend precious “one on one” time with a terminally ill youngster, despite the pressing demands of race day morning.
He can refer to an ex-girlfriend as “dead weight,” then perform a stunning act of kindness for someone he has never met.
Stewart’s history is littered with periodic instances of boorish (though generally harmless) behavior, and in the court of public opinion, those outbursts make him an easy man to condemn. In the aftermath of Saturday night’s tragedy, terms like “hot head” and “loose cannon” have been bandied about freely, as if tossing a helmet or belittling a reporter somehow equals vehicular homicide.
In the topsy-turvy world of internet expertise, where every anonymous poster is an expert and no statement is too outrageous, it’s easy to paint Stewart as an out-of-control renegade. But nothing in his background -- no on-track crash, no post-race comment or off-track indiscretion – rises to the level of intentionally striking a fellow racer with a 1,375 pound Sprint Car.
Not even close.
None of us will ever know the whole truth about what happened Saturday night in upstate New York. Only two men know for sure, and one of them is dead. Regardless of what the authorities ultimately rule, there will be plenty of blame to go around, and while I have no idea what Tony Stewart was thinking on that fateful moment at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, I can tell you this as surely as I can tell you my own name.
Tony Stewart is no killer.
In the days following Ward’s death, changes are already being made to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. New York’s Brewerton and Fulton Speedways, along with New Jersey’s Bridgeport Speedway have each implemented rules requiring drivers to remain in their cars until released by safety personnel. If a driver exits his/her car, the red flag will immediately be displayed and that driver fined or suspended.
It’s a good start, and hopefully, more tracks will follow suit in the days and weeks to come.
Until then, I will continue to grieve the loss of Kevin Ward, a talented young racer whose future was snuffed out in one moment of unspeakable horror. I will grieve for the Ward family, who now must bury their 20-year old son beneath a mountain of “what ifs.” I will grieve for the drivers and teams of the Empire Super Sprint Series, who lost one of their own in a manner than will surely be seared into their minds and hearts forever. And I will grieve for the fans at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, for whom horror and grief should never have been part of the Saturday night game plan.
And yes, I will continue to grieve for Tony Stewart, a man whose greatest joy in life – driving a fire-breathing Sprint Car on a dusty Saturday night short track – may now be lost forever. Stewart’s colossal heart is most certainly broken today, even as he attempts to find the strength to once again climb behind the wheel of a race car.