Sunday morning at Watkins Glen dawned sunny and warm, the perfect summer day for racing. Indeed, the Sprint Cup Series was in town, prepping to run under that blue New York sky. AJ Allmendinger won the race, the first victory of his career, earning a long-awaited redemption and cementing his postseason hopes. But racing was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, even as the color and sound of race day hung thick in the air.
Racing was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, and yet racing was the only thing on everyone’s mind.
As news spread about the fatal incident between three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart and local sprint car driver Kevin Ward, Jr., racing became both the focus of the day and, simultaneously, something completely irrelevant.
Saturday night, Stewart was racing, as he often does, in a sprint car race at a local track. Racing in the “A” Main at Canandaigua Speedway, Stewart and Ward tangled on the racetrack, an incident no different than those that take place every night on short tracks everywhere. Ward’s car spun around and came to a stop. The caution flag flew, and the other competitors slowed to the appropriate speed, somewhere around 40 miles per hour. What happened next will forever be imprinted on the minds of everyone who experienced it, either in person or later seeing the videos. An angry Ward exited his car and walked down the track, looking for Stewart, gesturing all the while as a racer does when he’s upset. Drivers always talk with their hands, after all.
A couple cars passed Ward, and as Stewart’s No. 14 car approached, Ward took a couple more steps. Witnesses differ on what happened next. Some said Stewart appeared to see Ward at the last minute and hit the gas in an attempt to swerve away from him. Others said he revved his engine and tried to drive as close to Ward as he could, perhaps making a point. Either way, the right rear wheel of Stewart’s car struck Ward, and the 20-year-old was thrown at least 50 feet up the track, where he lay crumpled and motionless as safety workers gathered around him. Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital a little while later.
The investigation began almost immediately, and so, unfortunately, did the speculation. No charges were pending as of Monday morning (though they may come, depending on what investigators determine after interviewing witnesses and viewing footage of the accident). Stewart is innocent until proven guilty, but in some minds, that’s already happened. And maybe it will be, but as of the time this column was written, the incident was nothing more than a tragic, senseless accident that’s incomprehensible in so many ways.
Racing, by nature, is costly. As much as is made of the high monetary costs of the sport, the human cost is so much greater, and harder, to accept. Today, a family is grieving the loss of a young man whose life and career were only beginning. Yet racing also invokes family, as any racer will surely tell you, so that grief is widespread and painful. Ward’s blood family and his racing family will have to forge a new path without him, and that path will be a difficult one, with ruts and stones to navigate as they try to make sense of the senseless.
Tony Stewart took solace in racing. He’s felt the sting of loss before, and his answer was, unwaveringly, to compete. Racing is a part of Stewart’s core of being; it surrounds and defines him. It’s always been the one aspect of his life he could count on. Yet Stewart couldn’t bring himself to climb into that race car Sunday, couldn’t find it among the pieces of a broken heart to do the one thing that makes him who he is.
Racing, at its best, is about people: drivers, crewmen, owners, and fans. There’s a community there, a brotherhood within the garage. Racers understand other racers. Even bitter rivals have a common ground, though they’d be hard-pressed to admit it sometimes. Racers band together in tragedy, even as they try themselves to sort through the questions, the hows and the whys.
It’s also a dangerous game. Safety has improved vastly in recent years, but tragedy always lurks just beyond the next turn. Racers know that, accept that. They respect death, because it can come in an instant to any of them, anyone they care about. They don’t dwell on it, because that doesn’t make sense, but they all know the reality. Most racers have lost a friend, a rival, a family member, either by blood or by the bonds of the sport. They grieve… but they race on. They do so because the person that was lost would want them to, would demand that they continue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care, that they’re so callous and jaded that they go out and play as if nothing had happened.
On the contrary, they go out and race out of a deep-seeded need. For some, it’s the need for normalcy; for others, it’s the need to focus on something else, or maybe the need to honor that person. So, they race on as they did on Sunday, as they will at Canandaigua Speedway and short tracks across the country in the coming days and weeks.
There are so many questions now for Tony Stewart. It’s possible that when all is said and done, he will be charged with a crime, maybe even tried and convicted. It’s possible that Ward’s death will be ruled an accident. For Stewart, though, no punishment that could be handed to him by a judge and jury will ever be worse than having to live the rest of his life knowing that he killed a fellow racer. Whether it was a split second display of temper or simply a terrible twist of events, Stewart will never, ever be the same.
Ward’s family, team, and fellow racers deserve our thoughts and prayers and sympathy. So does Tony Stewart. The loss of Kevin Ward, Jr. is about racing, because it happened on a racetrack. But it’s also not about racing at all. It’s about human beings. Racing affects human beings on a much deeper level than the entertainment it provides. Racing gives, but it also takes, and it causes unfathomable pain. Right now, many people are feeling that pain from this latest and freshest of wounds. The rest — the legalities and the future and the blame — only matter in that they will be decided. What really matters is people. Racing has always been a sport where the people are everything, and today, they’re all hurting, shaken to the core. Racing means nothing, even as it means everything.