The shocking video account of the incident involving up and coming sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. and racing legend Tony Stewart at Canandaigua Motorsports Park is stunning. Watching it at first in real time, my initial reaction was “my God, Tony, what did you do?” In one instant, a young driver full of promise and passion lies lifeless. A three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, admired in part because of his ferocity, finds himself in many circles, cast as a criminal.
Those prosecuting Stewart- on the airwaves, and on social media- will tell you the evidence is condemning. As a parade of cars proceed under the yellow caution flag, the 20 year old approaches against the traffic. That should make him easy to be seen, right? As the racer approaches closer to passing traffic, the driver of the 45 car appears to move inside as Ward gestures at the 14 car behind him. The video temporarily loses sight of the racer on foot and follows the 45 momentarily. As the camera moves back in on the driver clad in black, we see him walk closer the center and then quickly steps back. As the 14 approaches, the car’s wheels are slightly cut to the right, and for a brief moment, the view of Ward is obscured by Stewart’s car. Then we hear the sound like that of Stewart hitting the gas, and the rear of his car making a swerving motion. In an instant, Ward re-emerges from the rear of the car, having seemingly been pulled under and dragged by Stewart, until his body is hurled from behind and comes to rest in a chilling scene.
Was Stewart so angry he lost control, and in a blind rage, went for the young upstart? Was he just trying to get close enough to “buzz” Ward with a little dirt, sending a message of “don’t mess with me, son” and he got too close? Did the 43 year old who has run thousands of races not see the approaching competitor? How is it possible that one of the best racers EVER put himself in this position? Further hurting Stewart’s case is his long-standing reputation as a hothead. Smoke has gone toe-to-toe with an all-star cast featuring everyone from Joey Logano to Jeff Gordon. Do you ever wonder if the debate would be as fierce if it had been a Mark Martin or a Matt Kenseth?
Stewart’s has his defenders, and that includes those who know the nuances of dirt track racing. A friend of mine who raced in events just like this for years described what he saw this way, drawing from his experiences and knowledge: “The visibility for a driver is much worse….. the right side of a sprint car is heavily shielded to protect from high velocity flying mud. The wing also hangs down quite low making the field of vision on that side limited. Typically there would be mud on the driver’s face shield until he removes a “tear off” just prior to resuming the race. A poorly lit track, the all black suit Ward was wearing and the likelihood that Tony wasn’t expecting to see a driver on the track all add to a sort of “perfect storm”. It is why drivers are expected to stay in their car.” He adds, “I saw nothing to indicate any kind of “swerve” or unusual (accelerating) by Stewart. Because the rear tires are dramatically different sizes, your steering wheel is turned to the right just to go straight. These cars are designed to be drive-able (turning left) at extreme high speed using your throttle to maneuver them. At low speed…. not so maneuverable …especially to the right. NO driver likes pedestrians anywhere near the track and every driver has had close calls with them.” Onne thing I know, is every former racer, crew member and anyone else who is familiar with racing tell me that big mistake number one was Kevin Ward Jr. leaving his car. Plenty of drivers do what Ward did, but as we have learned, the potential repercussions can be deadly.
What was Stewart’s intent? What happened that we cannot see on that video? We don’t know. None of us read minds. In time, we will hear Stewart’s version of the story. While there is much unknown, we are certain of this: Kevin Ward Jr. is gone forever; his parents and extended family experiencing an unfathomable pain. A champion’s life and legacy will never be the same. All the rest will take time to process. Until the dust clears, may we allow the facts to be gathered, may we refrain from vicious attacks on either racer, and may we never forget- racing is dangerous. A driver needs a cool head in the heat of the moment, and may those who observe understand there’s a lot happening in the race that may not be as obvious as it appears.