A tremendous amount of ink has been spilled, pixels sent and words spoken in the wake of the tragic accident involving NASCAR star Tony Stewart and local driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was killed Saturday night (Aug. 9) during an Empire Super Sprints race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, near Rochester, NY. Unfortunately, much of what’s been written and said, especially on social media, has been judgmental, ill-informed and downright mean-spirited—toward both drivers.
So far I’ve seen only one video angle of the accident, shot apparently by a fan in the stands, showing Stewart taking Ward high while passing him through turns 1 and 2 of the half-mile dirt oval. Though I don’t think the two cars collide, Ward gets forced high enough that he makes contact with the outside wall, flattens his right rear tire and spins a couple of times before coming to a stop facing traffic. A thoroughly typical sprint car incident, to be honest.
Even what happened next, if not typical is not all that uncommon, as Ward quickly unbuckled his seatbelts, climbed from his car, and still wearing his helmet, stormed on foot to express his anger to the three-time Sprint Cup champion the next time he passed by with the field now under caution. Much has been made of Ward’s decision to exit his car, with many people calling it part of a “tantrum” or “road rage,” but the fact is, drivers do that sort of thing in all kinds of racing all the time—and the fans and media eat it up. Yes, it’s decidedly against the rules, but NASCAR and its tracks (and I’m sure other series) give tacit approval by using such incidents in their TV and online promos to demonstrate the passion that motorsports incites among its competitors.
So please online experts and usually-not-interested-in-racing sportscasters, spare me the self-righteous disbelief and criticism. If Ward had simply shaken his fists at Stewart and stormed back to his car—like usually happens, even when the likes of Tony Stewart does it—the incident would’ve made the young driver a local hero and helped sell tickets for the next time Stewart was in town.
Regrettably, however, that’s not what happened. Instead, after one car dodges Ward, who looks to be about the top edge of the racing groove, Stewart is next to arrive on the scene of the wreck, and though the actual impact isn’t caught, the video seems to show the big, right rear tire of Stewart’s sprint car clip Ward and throw him violently to the track, where his body lies prone and motionless until track workers arrive within seconds. Clearly realizing what’s happened, Stewart pulls his car to a stop perhaps a hundred feet or so beyond the accident site.
Let me be honest and admit my initial reaction to the video was to believe Stewart meant to “buzz” Ward, brush him back or even throw a little dirt his way, and it just went horribly, horribly wrong. Not for a second, though, not even a millisecond, did I think Stewart hit Ward on purpose.
But then I watched the sickening footage again. To be honest I felt like the worst kind of voyeur, but I started watching it over and over, trying to discover any tell-tale sign of intent. And really, I don’t think it’s there. I now believe, truly believe, that Stewart simply didn’t see Ward until the last second and any movement from his car reflects only an attempt to avoid hitting him. I’m not even certain he knew Ward had crashed behind him until he reached the scene.
There’s only one person who knows the truth beyond reproach, though, and that’s Tony Stewart. If it was an impetuous decision to teach a youngster a lesson that turned out as bad as it possibly could, well, he will carry that knowledge and guilt and burden to his grave. If it was just a terrible racing accident, no doubt a sense of guilt will remain, but at least Stewart can try to cope with a clear conscience. Either way, this will be a hard thing to live with, I’m sure.
Still, I find it interesting that no professional driver—from any facet of racing—has called out Stewart, instead insisting to a man that an investigation needs to be carried out and demonstrating faith that truth will prevail. Likewise, though many pro drivers agreed Ward was wrong to leave his stricken ride, they also appear hesitant to cast too many stones, most likely realizing they may someday reside in a similar glass house.
Regardless, this incident is high profile enough that changes will undoubtedly follow, most likely starting with reemphasis on drivers remaining strapped inside a crashed car until help arrives—unless fire or some other in-car threat forces them to leave. Certainly sprint car and other open-wheel organizations will take special note, but given Stewart’s affiliations as a driver and team owner, I expect NASCAR to announce severe fines or suspensions for any drivers performing the “I’m-mad-at-you” show in the future and promos celebrating such behavior will become a thing of the past.
So why are you reading about this here, on a drag racing site? Only because I think this accident once more demonstrates the harsh reality of motorsports, whether in sprint cars or stock cars or Funny Cars or any car in between, Death rides along on every lap, every pass.
In racing, things can and will go wrong, sometimes preventable, sometimes not. In this case a promising 20-year-old driver who was no doubt excited about racing against Stewart that night, who just seconds earlier made the ill-fated decision to challenge his more famous competitor’s tactics, is suddenly gone, while Stewart’s life is forever diminished. Both victims of racing’s cruel nature.
(Photo courtesy TonyStewart.com)
WARNING: Video is graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers.