A 20-year-old boy lost his life on the dirt track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last Saturday night. And a 43-year-old man lost his joy of racing. The first part of that statement is fact, the other is just a hunch.
Kevin Ward Jr. is dead and Tony Stewart is grieving. In his only public statement since the accident, Stewart said there aren’t words to describe the sadness he feels. He says Ward’s name. He personalizes the event that will bind the two race drivers together forever.
An irate Ward got out of his wrecked car and hurried onto the track to vent his anger at Stewart whom he believed was to blame. In the blink of an eye, the right rear wheel on Stewart’s car hit Ward, sucked him underneath and flung his body onto the track.
Local police in this part of New York between Rochester and Syracuse said Tuesday they have found no criminal behavior or probable cause of a criminal act. The investigation continues. Stewart took himself out of last Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at nearby Watkins Glen. He canceled his race appearance at another small track in Indiana this Saturday. He may not race in this weekend’s Sprint Cup race in Michigan.
You might see the hands of lawyers and publicists all over Stewart’s decision to seclude himself. I don’t. Since Stewart arrived in NASCAR full time in 1999 he has been one of the few elite drivers who doesn’t use a media rep to filter his comments. He doesn’t suffer fools and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fellow driver, a member of the media or a fan.
Stewart’s passion burns as hot as his compassion. I’m guessing Stewart has watched the cellphone video of Saturday’s confrontation. The irony is horrible: Stewart is Ward, separated by age and circumstances but the same angry man shaking his fist at a racing injustice.
No one can know with certainty what happened that left a young driver dead. Maybe not even Stewart. To a driver, a racetrack is home. Where you see danger or chaos, they see something quite different.
From Stewart to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ricky Craven from the tiny Maine town of Newburgh, I’ve listened to NASCAR’s best drivers say they feel more confident racing at 200 mph than pushing 75 on an interstate.
Did that confidence mix with anger to cause one man to lose his life? I don’t know.
Stewart is co-owner of his own Stewart-Haas Sprint Cup team. He’s a three-time Sprint Cup champion. He’s now a successful man who was born maybe 40 years too late.
He goes to the small country tracks because it’s the racing that hasn’t become so corporate. Canandaigua, like Beech Ridge or Oxford Plains or any of the dozens of short tracks around America, is roots racing. Dirt or worn asphalt, dim lights, maybe a little race dust on your fries. The cheering for local heroes you can hear from your race car.
You can’t imagine being Tom Brady and throwing a 60-yard touchdown pass. Or hitting a home run like David Ortiz. Nearly everyone drives a car or truck. Many like to drive fast. You can imagine being Tony Stewart.
You don’t want to imagine being Kevin Ward Jr., but you could.
Saturday, Stewart heard the worst sounds of racing. Whether he’s legally responsible or not, his car hit and killed someone who shouldn’t have walked onto the track.
In 1978, Jack Tatum of the Raiders tackled Darryl Stingley of the Patriots. The tackle was vicious but legal and put Stingley in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died in 2007. Tatum had no contact with Stingley after the tackle. He wouldn’t personalize the wide receiver he paralyzed.
Stewart was quick to name the driver who died, quick to personalize a tragedy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t return to race the country tracks he loves. He has contractual obligations to his Sprint Cup team but will there be joy when he wins again?
Tony Stewart won’t go into denial. A part of him died Saturday.