Sports Nut

Tragedy at the Race Track

Tony Stewart ran over and killed Kevin Ward Jr. Is he responsible for Ward’s death?

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart sits in his car during a NASCAR practice in June 2014. On Aug. 9, Stewart struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York.

Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

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. 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.

Stewart’s cantankerousness also extends to his driving style. Whereas Johnson is cool and calculating, often hanging back in the field and saving his best for the final laps, Stewart drives the paint off his car from the moment the green flag waves. And he doesn’t take kindly to people not playing by the rules, or at least the rules as he interprets them. (Rule No. 1: If my car is faster than yours, get out of my way, or expect a love tap on your rear bumper.) This, too, is old school. In a way, Stewart is the more natural heir to Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s “Intimidator” style of racing than Earnhardt’s own son, the beloved Dale Jr. (Earnhardt Sr., of course, was killed in a tragic on-track accident in 2001.) This makes Stewart exciting to watch, but also a frustrating driver to support: I’ve been to several races where he has taken himself out of contention by getting caught up in some petty competition in the early going of a 300-lap race. I’ve also seen him dazzle with sublime driving. Five years ago, I went to Watkins Glen, the same race he thankfully withdrew from on Sunday morning, to see him compete in one of the two road courses on the NASCAR circuit. Unlike the usual ovals, road courses call on a different set of driving skills, and almost balletic footwork between the gas and brake. Often it’s lesser-known drivers with a lot of open-wheel experience who carry the day in these oddball events. (The otherwise middling driver Marcos Ambrose has taken the last two.) But in 2009, Stewart danced to victory, for a record fifth time at the track.*

Stewart is old school in another way: He always wants to be racing. This, too, is attractive to Stewart’s fans: Unlike some of the more buff and bouffanted drivers on NASCAR’s premier circuit, Stewart remembers his roots, and loves to compete on dirt tracks in small towns where there’s nothing at stake for him but pride. It’s as if Carmelo Anthony, between Knicks games, played pick-up on the Red Hook courts.

As that Carmelo analogy suggests, Stewart’s extracurricular racing makes no sense whatsoever. He is an owner and driver with millions of dollars riding on his ability to compete in NASCAR, and these other races can only imperil that enterprise. Last year, Stewart suffered severe injuries in just this kind of sprint race, breaking his leg so badly that he missed half the NASCAR season; perhaps as a result of that injury, he has also languished in the standings this year. But of course the willingness to race sprint cars in a little town on the eve of a big NASCAR event, and to bring the same competitive drive to that race as he does to the big-money ones, is what makes Stewart who he is.

There is no doubt that Stewart can be a jerk. There is no doubt that he is a short-tempered competitor. I have seen him wreck cars—his own and others—because he believes some unwritten principle of racing, some apocryphal code dating back to Junior Johnson or his hero A.J. Foyt, has been violated. But he’s also a man with a deep understanding of racing and an abiding love for it. I can’t imagine him jeopardizing either the sport or his ability to compete in it by willfully committing an unspeakably heinous act. For all his gruffness, I don’t believe that even in his deepest rage he would want to hurt a fellow driver.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Greg Zipadelli, the competition director for Stewart’s team, said that the driver would race as scheduled—that it was “business as usual,” a statement he’ll surely come to regret if he doesn’t already. A NASCAR spokesman, too, said that “everything that’s been made available to us at this time would not preclude [Stewart] from participating in this event here today.” Thankfully, Stewart and his team changed their minds, with Zipadelli saying “it’s an emotional time right now.” (Update, Aug. 10, 2014, 2:30 p.m.: On Sunday afternoon, Stewart issued a statement on Ward’s death. It reads: “There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It’s a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I’ve decided not to participate in today’s race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”)

A grim irony of Saturday night’s race is that Ward was demonstrating the same fiery commitment to winning that is Stewart’s signature. Walking out onto a race track, even under caution, is an exceptionally dangerous thing to do, and not something you see all that often. The last time I saw it was two years ago, during the August NASCAR race at Bristol, when Stewart, having been wrecked by Matt Kenseth, stormed onto the track and hurled his helmet at his opponent’s oncoming stock car.

I’d like to believe that Stewart, on a Saturday night in Canandaigua, New York, competing in a minor-league race for the love of the sport, would have seen something of himself in Ward. I’d also like to believe that Stewart just didn’t see Ward at all, until it was too late.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2014: This article misspelled the first name of NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose. (Return.)