If it were possible to turn back the clock, a tragedy could be avoided. A young man, hot under the collar, would stay in his car; a wily veteran who used to be that kid would be looking for an angry driver. If it were possible to turn back the clock, the young man might still be alive and looking forward to racing this weekend on a late summer evening. The veteran might not be left to forever second-guess his every move that fateful night.
But we can’t turn back the clock, and the night that Kevin Ward, Jr. walked onto the racetrack to confront Tony Stewart will forever alter the lives of many people. Ward’s family lost a promising young man. Tony Stewart lost a future free of “what if.” We all lost our innocence.
It’s been three weeks since Stewart climbed out of that racecar after Ward lost his life in a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. Regan Smith drove Stewart’s No. 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup car at Watkins Glen; veteran Jeff Burton raced it at Michigan and Bristol. Fans wondered aloud if Stewart would ever be back, and nobody would blame him if he never found the desire to climb into a racecar again.
But Stewart announced Thursday that he will be behind the wheel of the No. 14 this weekend in Atlanta. For the first time, he will face the judge, jury and executioner in the form of the media and, because his press conference Friday will air live, the fans. That might be the hardest part of all for Stewart. The racing media understand the situation, for the most part; many others do not. Among media and fans, some minds are made up that Stewart is either guilty as sin of trying to show Ward up in a deadly show of machismo. Stewart will have to face those people this weekend. He’ll have to hear taunts from the stands. Will some fans outright call him a murderer?
If they do, how will it affect Stewart, a driver known for both his short temper and his enormous heart? No doubt, whether he shows it or not, it will cut him to the bone. Stewart killed a man. That’s the cold truth of it all. He killed him, and nobody can change that. Whether it’s ruled an accident or not, whether Stewart is held responsible in a civil trial or not, he has to live with that for the rest of his life. He killed a man. It’s an unalterable, life-changing truth that most people cannot even begin to comprehend.
The weight of all that will be on Stewart’s shoulders as he races this weekend. Surely most people would understand if he didn’t race quite up to his own lofty standards. After all, he’s still coming back from a broken leg he suffered last year. On the other hand, Stewart still has an outside chance to make the Chase if he wins this week or next. He’s excellent at Atlanta, with the best average finish of any active driver on the 1.5-mile speedway.
Can he win? Maybe. Would the emotion behind such a win be almost too much for anyone to bear? That’s a good possibility. How could Stewart celebrate a win after Canandaigua? How could he not celebrate for his team, who has worked tirelessly toward that very goal since February? How might Stewart handle the outpouring of support and the tide of anger that would both roll at him from fans? Both are sure to happen when he does find his next win.
Many fans have rallied behind Stewart, probably more than that have vilified him. He will need their support this weekend. Though there is nothing anyone can say to make him feel better, nothing anyone can do to erase the grief he must still be feeling, sometimes knowing someone’s got your back is deeply comforting.
What about his fellow racers? There will no doubt be words and gestures, but perhaps the best they can do for Stewart is to simply race him hard and clean and let the race play out around them all, as they do every week. A return to normalcy amid the turmoil eases pain. Racers…well, they race. There’s time for friendship later.
No matter what comes of the incident in the future, Stewart’s life is permanently changed. It’s unlikely that any punishment that could be levied in civil or criminal court will come close to what Stewart already feels, what he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life. But his return to the racetrack is right, for Stewart and for everyone in the racing community. Racers honor other racers by racing, not by staying home. Racers want other racers to race even when they can’t.
There is a piece of Kevin Ward in Tony Stewart, because there is a piece of every young, hungry driver in him. It’s why he still races at tracks like Canandaigua. He understands the dream and the reality. We all need to understand that dream and that reality in order to understand why he’s returning to the track. Tony Stewart is a racer. Racers race. That truth is, in the face of tragedy, both simple and almost incomprehensibly complex.
How high can Smoke rise this weekend? That’s still unwritten. The important part is that he’s back, and in being back he honors Kevin Ward, Jr.