Tony Stewart Not Too Big To Fail–or Fall

Tony Stewart Not Too Big To Fail–or Fall

If his name were Kevin Harvick instead of Kevin Ward, would we be taking such a blasé approach to his death?

Tony Stewart, after some deliberation, didn’t race Sunday at Watkins Glen. NASCAR’s honchos should consider whether to prohibit the three-time Sprint Cup champion from ever competing under their auspices.

Stewart crashed into Kevin Ward Jr.’s sprint car Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The bump forced Ward into the wall and out of the running with a rear flat. To add injury to insult, Stewart clipped the 20-year-old driver with a right tire when the race fell under a caution flag. Apparently, sinew and bone is more fragile than steel and aluminum. Who knew? Ward died shortly after impact.

Caution doesn’t mean gas it up. Caution doesn’t mean drive recklessly close to the hot-headed, soft-headed pedestrian (a role that Stewart knows well). It means slow down and beware.

Stewart didn’t do this. Whereas one passing vehicle swerved to avoid the infuriated driver, Stewart’s car swerved into the walking Ward. Experienced sprint-car drivers point out that when you suddenly give that vehicle fuel, it tends to kick outward. Stewart, a veteran of thousands of races, surely knew how the car might react to a sudden rush of methanol. He drove dangerously close to the driver he had just squeezed into the wall and then, inexplicably, appeared to push for more fuel.  

“I know Tony could see him,” racer Tyler Graves told the Sporting News. “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.”

Surely Kevin Ward bears great responsibility for his own death. If you want to insult someone, tell them, “Go play in traffic.” The twenty-year-old did just that. Walking in a black racing suit in a black helmet in front of a night-black background on a dirt track as other vehicles whiz by isn’t anyone’s idea of caution. And Ward didn’t just walk on a racing track. He walked toward Tony Stewart’s car coming at him at 35 miles per hour. Before Tony Stewart took a cavalier approach to Kevin Ward’s safety, Kevin Ward did.

This flippancy pervaded the post-race attitude of the reckless driver, whose team initially announced matter-of-factly that the death of another driver underneath Stewart’s wheel wouldn’t slow their roll in competing in the Cheez-It 355 less than 24 hours later. Contrast this impertinence with the sullenly serious–too sullenly serious in some cases–responses to another such sports tragedy that transcended the interests of fans.

For those who came of age during the eighties, the sight of Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim literally fighting to the death on CBS unfortunately won’t go away. Within a year of the bout referee Richard Green and Kim’s mother had killed themselves. The alphabet-soup sanctioning bodies forever changed the ancient sport in response to this one fight by moving to eliminate fifteen-round matches. Boom Boom Mancini, never the same boxer, retired at 23 a few fights later.

How did Stewart’s racing team initially respond to Ward’s death? “Business as usual.” 

Before NASCAR or conscience or common sense grabbed hold, the impulse was to compete–just another day at the races. But just as a Sprint Cup champion has no business racing neophytes as a ringer on a rinky-dink dirt track, a man who just killed a fellow competitor behind the wheel shouldn’t be competing a few hours later. Alas, the same instinct that pushed the world-famous driver to enter an obscure competition the night before a race before an audience of millions compelled him at first to think of racing the day after killing a fellow racer. Should we be surprised that a pro who competes in the bush leagues in his free time could be so, well, bush league?

Racing fans don’t buy tickets to watch a live enactment of Faces of Death. But permitting such recklessness–nobody alleges that Stewart intended to kill Ward–to go unpunished ensures that history will repeat itself in some fashion. Fine drivers who for no good reason leave their cars under caution and punish Tony Stewart severely.

A couple years back, Stewart’s reaction to Matt Kenseth edging him toward the wall on a turn nearly mirrored Ward’s reaction to him on Saturday. After a collision ended Stewart’s day at Bristol, he decided to approach Kenseth’s car on foot under a caution and hurl his helmet at it. The ethically-, temperamentally-, and grammatically-challenged Stewart told an interviewer, “I’m gonna run over him every chance I got from now until the end of the year, every chance I got.” Mercifully, Kenseth didn’t run over Stewart the way Stewart ran over Kevin Ward Jr.

We may never know why Tony Stewart throttled up his engine under caution. We just know that eyewitnesses and video of the event suggest that he did. Isn’t that enough to tell him to take a rest from racing ovals for a lot longer than one Sunday sabbatical?  

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