And as for waiting until the investigation is complete – thanks, but no thanks.
I knew this was coming a few days ago when I was listening to Sirius Speedway on NASCAR’s satellite radio channel. Host Dave Moody was speaking to a woman who was well-schooled in racing in general, sprint cars in particular: She even correctly pronounced the location of the Iowa track where Tony Stewart crashed and broke his leg August 5, 2013 (Oskaloosa).
The conversation was not going well. Finally, Moody forced her into the direction she had been heading. “Do you think Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward on purpose?”
Slight pause, lady: “Yes.”
Slight pause, Moody: “Thank you for calling.”
Moody’s job requires him to answer the phone every 45 seconds or so, and fortunately, mine does not. I am officially removing myself from the did-Tony-do-it-on-purpose debate. Tapping out. That decision was made yesterday after a Skype video interview with two very nice, professional reporters from Fuji TV in Japan. I don’t do many TV interviews – I’m fat, and shave only when I think about it – but I have done plenty of radio and print interviews. None have been unpleasant.
But the fact remains: Other that having driven a 410 sprint car, and having seen dirt sprint car races these past 50 years from Fairbanks, Alaska to Clewiston, Florida to Ascot Park, California to Canandaigua, New York, and having covered Tony Stewart for more than 20 years, I don’t know any more than you do.
Yes, I’ve seen that shaky 65-second video taken from the grandstands at Canandaigua Saturday night that shows Stewart crowding Ward into turn two, and Ward climbing from his car, and Stewart running him down. Odds are you have seen it, too. The appropriately-named Deadspin.com was probably the first to post it – three hours before the sheriff of Ontario County, New York, even confirmed a fatality – and that posting alone is approaching 10 million views. Copies of the video are everywhere.
Those viewing the video seemed to have determined one of three things happened: Stewart didn’t see Ward until it was too late and couldn’t miss him; Stewart saw him and decided to teach him a lesson and drive close and accelerate away; and Stewart saw Ward and ran him down on purpose.
In six days, Motorsport.com has published 23 stories that reference the tragedy. This makes 24. As editor of this site, I make no apologies for that: Unlike so many others who have “reported” on this, we actually cover racing, cover sprint cars, cover the news, good or bad.
And unlike my previous experience with conventional broadcast and print media, where we, as journalists, have to guess what you want to read or watch or hear, you vote for the coverage you want every time you log onto a web site. Just one of our stories on Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr. has been read way over 2 million times, and you have left more than 2,500 comments.
Some are brutal. Many are brutal. While Dave Moody’s job is to answer the phone, part of mine is, I think, to read those comments, and it has often not been easy.
Not because I am friends with Tony Stewart, because I don’t know him well enough to say that. But I have spent time with him one-on-one away from the track. I’ve talked to him in the infield of the Chili Bowl in the dead of winter in Tulsa, including this year, when he was ashen white and could barely walk, but he was so happy to be back among dirt track fans and drivers and crew that it was better therapy than any doctor could offer.
And I know what he has given back to grassroots racing. More than any driver, ever. We spoke earlier this year about the greatest sprint car driver ever, Steve Kinser, who is retiring from full-time racing this year at age 60. Stewart owns Kinser’s World of Outlaws team. Why? “Because a man like Steve Kinser deserves to go out on his own terms, without having to worry about sponsors and finances,” Stewart said.
Listen, I like and respect Jeff Gordon. But when Gordon marries a leggy supermodel and moves to a Manhattan penthouse, he sort of loses his “Man of the People” credentials. Gordon and I used to have plenty to talk about. We don’t so much now, I think. I have always had a lot to talk about with Tony Stewart, and almost none of it was NASCAR.
Stewart bought Eldora Speedway, and part of a couple of other tracks, including one that would be closed now without his investment. He has helped so many charities, both racing and otherwise, that you don’t know about.
Does that make him innocent of running down Kevin Ward, Jr.? Of course not. But I just can’t imagine the Tony Stewart I know – especially fresh from a devastating year of his own recuperation from a sprint car crash – purposely trying to inflict that sort of injury on someone else. Someone I don’t think he knew, and certainly had no grudge against.
Disappointed with fellow drivers
And frankly, I’m disappointed that more of his colleagues haven’t done what Kevin Harvick has – publicly said that the Tony Stewart he knows would not intentionally endanger another driver’s life. The fact that some tracks, and some sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR, have now passed a rule that will hopefully prevent drivers from leaping from their car and playing Frogger with cars on the track is great, but people who need that sort of guidance are the reason why botttles of brake cleaner are labeled “Do not drink.”
And I’m not that impressed with people who say they are withholding comment until the investigation is complete. That means very little to me, and I’ll tell you why: For eight years, I was a member of a huge police force with more than 3,500 sworn officers. Great people. True professionals. But how many of them would I trust to investigate the Stewart-Ward incident, and determine what “really” happened? Zero.
Because this isn’t “CSI: Canandaigua.” There are no fingerprints or blood spatters or recorded phone calls. No black box, no radar tracking. No communication between Stewart and his crew chief, because the sprint car series bans two-way communication. This was Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr.
We will never know what was in the mind of Ward. We may or may not know, at some point, what was in Stewart’s mind. But to me, that is the only bit of forensic evidence that I’m interested in. Regardless of the outcome, some will say that if Stewart is exonerated, it is because he is Tony Stewart, and rich -- his career race earnings alone top $140 million. And if he faces criminal charges, some would say it is because he is Tony Stewart, and rich, and had no business racing at a little track for a $1,500-to-win purse.
But this is my gut feeling, and part of it is based on sitting on the vinyl rear seat of many white Crown Victorias with lots of evil, and fortunately handcuffed, men and women I was taking to jail. It would take an evil man to run down a fellow racer on purpose. And I don’t think Tony Stewart is an evil man.
And that’s it. Feel free to debate among yourselves, but I’m through arguing. And I’m through watching that damned video.