Flat Spot On: A Captive of Success, Fame, Fortune
I’ve never felt sorrier for a race car driver during his career than I feel for Tony Stewart. Usually, it’s an injury keeping a driver out of his race car or ending his career that prompts this sort of response, especially if he got hurt due to no fault of his own.
In Stewart’s case, I believe his career has suffered a big hurt through no fault of his own. Under circumstances largely out of his own control– and no one has been able to demonstrate any other circumstance – Stewart’s sprint car ran over and killed a young man.
That’s a gruesome fate for the surviving driver to cope with. But in Stewart’s case, the personal empire he built by virtue of his accomplishments as a race car driver totter in the wind. And for what? Because a young hot head followed the path of too many young men who put risk aside in favor of bravado and lose their lives as a result.
It’s the kind of circumstance people within motor racing are deeply concerned about, because public opinion can alter the landscape of the sport in a heartbeat when it comes to sensational and tragic deaths. But with the exception of a reprobate or two with access to a keyboard and an Internet web site, the reporting, opinions and comments from the racing media have been laudably circumspect in an absence of facts in the aftermath of one dark night on a dirt track in upstate New York.
I am relieved to see the media outside of motor racing don’t perceive a short track death to be of large enough scope to become scandalous – the type of media members who are sometimes numb-skulled about racing but when the stage is big enough feel compelled to explore tragedy despite a lack of experience. I’m also glad to see that it’s become an occasion for some in the racing media to write about deaths on short tracks, how often they occur and what can be done by promoters and drivers to make them safer – starting now. (Stay in your car after an accident. Get a head restraint just like they wear in the big leagues.)
None of this is helping Stewart, who must remain out of the public eye to avoid comment that might be used against him in a criminal or civil court. I find this outrageous, because Stewart’s accomplishments and recognition, in the absence of any hard evidence, are being held over his head by a sheriff who appears to be trying to avoid showing favoritism toward a big racing star.
And what about Stewart’s own reputation as a hothead? Having covered his major league career since he first began in open wheel machinery 20 years ago, I’ve witnessed Stewart curse on national television during the Indy 500, slap a recorder out of a reporter’s hand, physically need to be restrained by team owner Joe Gibbs when arguing with NASCAR officials, and dismiss his crew angrily from his cockpit via radio. Then there’s the left-handed helmet slam at Bristol two years ago. (Who knew Tony was a southpaw?)
But I don’t recall Stewart’s car being driven maliciously. Like his mentor A.J. Foyt, also famed for all-round talent and a ferocious temper, even when angry Stewart has kept his head while driving out of respect for himself, others on the track and respect for the inherent danger of the equipment at his command.
In the circumstances that unfolded on this tragic night, Stewart made a successful overtaking maneuver on Kevin Ward Jr. as he had so many times before and had no reason to be unhappy, upset or angry about the other driver involved. (Stewart may have bumped him, but it’s not entirely clear why Ward Jr. lost control of his vehicle and ended up stalled and against the fence.)
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Stewart was respectful and helpful to the sheriff’s investigation. He has shown respect to the family of Ward Jr. by not immediately resuming racing. And, by remaining in seclusion, he has elected to spare his various teams, companies and sponsors the inevitable negative publicity as long as that investigation remains open.
It’s not possible to gauge the depth or extent of any one person’s grief or sorrow. But we all know one of the best ways to move on is to resume what brings us purpose and satisfaction – which in Stewart’s case is driving race cars and all that goes with it, including enjoying time at the racetrack with teammates and other racers.
On the subject of Stewart’s culpability, it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that during a caution period a driver in a black driving suit and dark helmet unexpectedly stepped up and tried to jab his arm and hand in front of Stewart’s face. If the driver turns left in avoidance, a dirt track sprint car’s suspension will inevitably make the rear end loose. If he turns right, he hits the person – because that person has put himself in harm’s way with disregard for himself and his fellow drivers.
It is the beginning of cruel irony that it’s unlikely this young man would have reacted as he did unless a star driver had been the one to make a successful pass that left him against the fence and out of the race, quite likely due to his own lack of racing experience.
I look forward to the day when Stewart can come forward on a race weekend and tell his side of the story and then go racing. I anticipate he’ll handle that situation with poise and class – as will the regular media in the Sprint Cup – and without anger toward the media for doing its job.
The funeral is over and we’ve all learned something about safety and respect for the sport. The case should be closed in the absence of hard evidence and all of us be allowed to take the steps necessary to move on, especially Stewart.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments