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Flat Spot On: A Captive of Success, Fame, Fortune

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 23 2014

Tony Stewart is also a victim of an incident on a dark track in upstate New York. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

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 jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 23 2014
19 Comments

19 Comments »

  • mike lee says:

    I’m human. So if you wanna call me a hippocrit by saying; God should be the only one judging; go ahead. I also know and feel. What’s right is right. And wrong is wrong
    . if you can prove to me; money isn’t the issue. I will retract my statement. Secondly; it was a forum where opinions were given. And Christians have freedom of speech; last time I looked

  • mike lee says:

    I agree with another comment made. You sign a waiver. Sprint cup racing(in my opinion) is the dangerous. Some drivers have from 10,20 grand,in some cases more. All that horsepower and a light car. Go to sprint car races; at the end of the night; count the torn up cars. Two things. Teresa Earnhardt or Dale Jr. Didn’t sue Sterling. And it wasn’t tony; and was a regular driver,case would be closed. I prayed for the ward family for the good lord to answer their prayers;and prayed for Tony. God is the only one who knows. And to have a sheriffs department investing a accident that they have never done before is insane. NASCAR should make up; or whoever. A panel of previous dirt trackers with experience and current to investigate. The one thing that hasn’t changed; he stayed in the car; would be alive. Undebatable. God; should be the only one judging period.

  • Ken says:

    For those who keep bad mouthing tony, something bad needs to happen to you also and see how your able to deal with life, to all you criticizes , I wish bad luck to you, your opinion are are like ass holes, every one has one, come on tony let’s go racing! !!!!!!!!!

  • socal says:

    You lost me at “no fault of his own”
    Wow Jonathan, really? I’ll make sure to stay away from anything you ever write in the future.

  • c edwaeds says:

    Thank you for stating the obvious. Tony needw to get back on the track.

  • linda says:

    My heart breaks for both the Ward family & Tony Stewart. I can not imagine the pain thry are going through. Prayers continues. ..

  • doug says:

    Tony has no class !!!

  • Ken says:

    Tony get back to doing what you do best, race!!!! If it would have been a local driver, it would have been overlooked. But because it was a awesome driver such as tony Stewart they see dollar $$$$ wrongful death suit is ubsurd!!! The kid put his life in his own hands by being stupid, you sign a waiver whenever you race, every one knows the risk, but when you ignore safety, fate will get you!!! Sorry for the loss to the ward’s but it was just stupid luck. Did Teresa Earnhardt sue sterlin marlin for the lossame of dale

    Just move on, I hate when people try to get a head at other people’s expenses

  • Paul Herbert says:

    Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone evolved. Let’s get back to racing.

  • Paul Herbert says:

    I am deeply saddened by the events and the untimely death of a young driver. I must admit that I’m more affected by this than any one occurrence in my 65 years on this planet. I have been a race fan my entire life. Attended every type of racing imaginable. My best friends father is a racing legend in his own right and they are friends of the Stewart family. They have not been able to find the words to express their sorrow. I must say that I’m right there myself. Please let’s get back to racing again. What happened is something every driver knows can happen every time they get behind the wheel. Let us not forget this and don’t allow this to discourage one of our family from continuing their accomplished career.

  • matt says:

    Just one year earlier, at this very track, Stewart put 14 cars on a hook and injured a female driver when he made a mistake on a restart and caused a huge chain-reaction wreck. He had to have felt terrible for that and that’s not something you forget very soon…especially if you’re the caliber of driver that Tony Stewart is…. Now, one year later, with that incident still fresh in his and many other peoples minds, he’s involved in another incident, in front of the same crowd, and in front of the same drivers, and is being confronted and blamed by a very angry young driver. Its not a stretch of my reasoning to think this all could have played a part in Stewart ‘possibly’ becoming angry himself.

  • matt says:

    You say Stewart had no reason to be upset with Ward on the caution lap. If Stewart thought he was being blamed for Ward being in the wall…which he clearly was…that would be enough reason for Stewart to be angry. An exerpt from Sheriff Phil Povero’s first presser: “…and not to get into specifics, but ya know he(Stewart)did acknowledge that there was an ontrack collision…with his car and the deceased drivers…” what is Stewart acknowledging here if he isn’t admitting to have known about it when it happened?

  • Jonathan Ingram says:

    Hi Dawg,

    Let’s take it a step further, so to speak.

    If Ward Jr. walks down the track far enough so that the first driver to encounter him has to take evasive action, what happens if, emboldened, he doesn’t break stride and takes two more steps? It is very less likely that the following driver can avoid contact.

    What happens if he simply stands his ground and the following driver, due to Ward Jr. not moving, doesn’t see him?

    That interim between the first car that passed and Stewart’s arrival remains a mystery to outsiders until Stewart can talk about it in public — so one has to piece together all the parts of the puzzle. To believe a professional race car driver would intentionally run over a driver standing on the track simply doesn’t fit. Not being able to avoid him does.

    This is just as true for Stewart as any other driver in, say, the Sprint Cup.

    It’s the one-year anniversary of Scott Dixon hitting a crewmen from rival Will Power in the pits at Sonoma. It was, as Dixon said afterwards, “a dick move” by the crewman to slow Dixon’s exit from the pits by carrying a tire on his hip instead of in front of him to make Dixon’s exit more difficult. Did Dixon try to hit him on purpose? He did his best to avoid him and it didn’t happen. No serious injury, thankfully.

    Again, no professional driver I know would intentionally run over an individual with his or her race car. So any individual putting himself in harm’s way bears the responsibility. To continue to belabor this point helps no one.

    If it’s a broken leg and ribs, lots of hurrah, Ward Jr. learns a lesson about his anger and we move on. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as much due to fate as anything else.

    • matt says:

      Are you suggesting Ward took two more steps down the racetrack after the 45 car passed by Ward? There’s no video evidence to support that.

  • Beth Corby says:

    Thank You for writing what I am feeling. Horribly sad Accident brought on by a poor decision but
    no more then that.

  • LindaH says:

    Thank you for a sane article in the midst of all the sensationalism and the craziness of people taking sides.

  • dawg says:

    You seem to have no trouble blaming the victim here.

    At this point, Tony’s the only one who really knows, & I’m sure on advice of council. He’s not saying.

    Regardless of people pointing fingers of blame.

    Or apologists, trying to absolve it.

    Tony’s the one who has to live with it.

  • Josie says:

    Thank you for saying what so mAny of us are feeling. I totally get the anger the Ward family has towards Stewart…. albeit misplaced anger… but at a time you lose a loved one thrashing out at Stewart is all they have left except for memories. Hopefully, with time, the Wards will realize Kevin sealed his own fate by getting out of his car and running around a dark track like a crazed man. Unfortunately, a 20 year old doesn’t perceive death as a reality…. It’s more about chest thumping and being the “BMOC”. I am truly sorry for their loss…and truly sorry for Stewarts loss …both sides have lost something they treasured dearly… There are no winners here..

  • Jack S says:

    True and very well stated. Thank you.