On Saturday night, during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart struck and killed a young driver named Kevin Ward Jr. The incident began when both drivers charged in to Turn 2, and Ward’s vehicle hit the wall, cut a tire, and spun out. The caution flag came out, as it does after a wreck, and the rest of the field slowed down to allow Ward time and space to get his wounded car off the track. But instead of firing it back up, Ward exited the vehicle. He appeared to be looking to confront Stewart, who he likely blamed for the wreck. A couple of cars whizzed by the clearly incensed driver, but Stewart’s car hit Ward, sending the 20-year-old to his tragic death.
You can watch what happened in the video clip below, though it’s likely to disturb you and unlikely to give you much clarity on how to assess blame for Ward’s death.
It’s impossible to know, from this clip at least, what Stewart saw and what his intent was in the split second between seeing Ward on the track and making contact with him. Why did Stewart swerve at the last second? It almost seems as if he was speeding up, not slowing down—could that be true?
It’s especially difficult to know what to think of the incident without understanding how sprint car racing works. I’m a NASCAR fan, and I have a pretty decent idea of how cars in that circuit handle, but sprint cars are a different beast. The vehicles are small but high-powered machines, designed for racing on compact ovals. Often, as was the case at Canandaigua, dirt replaces the more manageable hard surfaces you see in NASCAR. Motorsport.com Editor-in-Chief Steven Cole Smith notes in his early account that sprint cars have poor visibility and Ward was wearing an all-black firesuit and helmet. It may not have been as easy as you think, then, for Stewart to see his young counterpart. Smith also points out that sprint car drivers use the throttle as much as the steering wheel to maneuver their vehicles, so any acceleration before the impact could be the reflex of a seasoned driver, not the malice of an irate one.
On the other hand, Tyler Graves, a sprint-car racer and friend of Ward’s who saw the crash from the grandstand, told the Sporting News that he believes Stewart must have seen Ward. “I know Tony could see him. I know how you can see out of these cars. When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways. It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two and then it threw him about 50 yards.”
At least at this hour, the most persuasive statement I’ve heard came from Kasey Kahne, a NASCAR driver who has also driven sprint cars and owns a sprint car team. “I truly don’t understand how in the world it happened and exactly what went on there,” Kahne told ESPN’s Marty Smith. “There’s only a few people who would. There’s no media person that can and there’s no fan that can. There’s too much you can’t see.”
As this story plays out, we should be careful not to lose sight of the man who lost his life. As Yahoo’s Jay Busbee wrote, Kevin Ward Jr. deserves to “be known as more than just a name in a much more famous driver's story.” The bio on Ward’s website notes that he got his start as a 4-year-old, racing go-karts. It goes on to list an impressive run of victories in various racing circuits before ending with a haunting coda: “2014 looks to be an exciting season as well, as Ward Jr. returns for his fifth season with the Empire Super Sprints.”
It’s already clear, though, that Tony Stewart’s role in this tragedy will dominate the news in coming days. The Ontario County, New York, sheriff says his office is conducting an investigation, but no criminal charges are pending. The sheriff has asked anyone who shot video of the race to send it in for review.
Your view of Stewart’s culpability will be colored by your opinion of the driver, and perhaps of auto racing more generally. I am a fan of both, though one whose faith in the man and the sport is shaken today. The things I love about Stewart, and the things so many of his fans love about him, are the very traits that at least set up the conditions for Saturday night’s disastrous wreck.
Stewart is a prickly, hot-headed competitor. That turns a lot of people off—he’s one of the more divisive figures in NASCAR. But for his fans, who make YouTube tributes that highlight his irascibility, that attitude is what makes him great. For nearly a decade, NASCAR has been dominated by Jimmie Johnson, an incredible talent who doesn’t get enough credit for his remarkable run of championships. It’s hard to think of an athlete who has dominated a sport as definitively as Johnson—he’s Lance Armstrong without the doping. But Johnson is also a clean-cut, mild-mannered guy, who smoothly rattles off the names of his sponsors when he emerges from his Chevy in Victory Lane. Stewart, by contrast, is more likely to emerge from his car cursing one of NASCAR’s corporate partners—deriding Goodyear, say, for providing substandard tires. As both a team owner and a driver, he’s as beholden to corporate support as every other driver, but he speaks his mind and shoots from the hip, a refreshing throwback to the ornery icons of stock-car yore.