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Tony Stewart And NASCAR’s Tragic Monday Morning Reality
Stewart, pictured here at Indianapolis earlier this year, was very emotional as he read his statement. (Credit: CIA)

Tony Stewart And NASCAR’s Tragic Monday Morning Reality

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s an ugly truth, one often buried in a modern reality where political correctness takes center stage. Every mistake can’t be fixed by sensitivity training or an on-screen apology. Sure, people forgive your past but they also never, ever forget when it comes back to haunt you.

It’s a damning truth, one Tony Stewart grapples with Monday morning as he spends the next weeks, months, maybe years of his life asking for a second chance.

2014 Indianapolis CUP Jeff Gordon Tony Stewart CIA

It’ll be a long time before you’ll see Tony Stewart smiling openly in public after a Saturday night tragedy that changed his life forever. Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

Now, anyone who knows racing understands the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. from Stewart’s right rear tire Saturday night, one of the most tragic racing incidents ever witnessed, is far more complex than meets the eye. It’s not as simple as the gruesome 50-second video that will make any person with a shred of emotion sick to their stomach. The most important story right now is the Ward family and supporting them in a time of need that is greater than most any of us could ever imagine. According to sources, Ward’s mother and father were sitting in the stands celebrating their son’s athletic accomplishments. Instead, they saw the nightmare of his death directly unfold in front of them, sitting in the stands while those around them were drinking beers and crunching popcorn.

It’s the depth of that despair, combined with disgust, that gives the story emotional power, trumping any in-depth facts of the case. It’s America in 2014, quick judgments even though I can sit here, for 20 minutes and explain to you the complexities of the crash contained within the previous paragraph. Canandaigua Motorsports Park, where the incident happened is known as a place where it’s difficult to see; Ward was also walking down, dangerously towards the racing groove when Stewart’s car mysteriously sideswiped him. There are a million reasons why it all could have happened, which to racing fans and those who support Tony will matter over the long-term.

But to the majority of people looking at this story, through Sunday and Monday morning none of those details matter. They’re not going to research; they’re not going to take the time to hear excuses; they can’t unsee what they’ve already seen. Instead, they picture themselves, as Mom and Dad, sitting in those stands and watching that gruesome act unfold. How would you feel? It’s an ugly ending, the loss of a human being through a 30-second first impression that ends, factually with one man running another one over and killing them with a heavy-duty sprint car.

That puts Stewart, then in a unenviable position, despite Sunday claims by the County Sheriff no criminal charges are being filed. The handcuffs aren’t there yet, but to so many in the court of public opinion Stewart’s already in jail. A move to race Sunday morning, one which comes straight from the heart of a racer, was met with lynch mob-style resistance, insinuating that his heart was stone cold. National news outlets, short on racing facts but running wild with the central storyline, all seemed to stick to the same general script Sunday night: Angry race driver, after tangling with a younger rival, took out his temper in the form of running over said-youngster and killing him. It’s an angle most people, armed without racing knowledge have already jumped to in their heads, now seeking justice instead of extra facts. That’s reality.

It’s an ugly court of public opinion, one that if the tide is not turned in some way will push NASCAR and corporate sponsors to act regardless of innocence or guilt. Criminal charges are different; they aren’t set in stone, yet because you must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in that moment Stewart hit Ward, he was negligent. Vehicular manslaughter, negligent homicide… they all go by that same general rule. But a civil case, at this point is an absolute certainty because the level of proof is far lower. Stewart, after seeing that video could have made a momentary, tragic mistake when gunning the throttle. None of us will ever truly know, a split-second tragedy only the driver himself can answer to. But that’s going to be enough to haunt him, in the form of out-of-court settlements at best, an ugly lawsuit on the public stage or potentially even that criminal arrest.

And that’s where first impressions build on themselves. The horror of Ward being thrown by a tire, one that any person watching has etched inside their head, is paired with a history of Smoke’s tempestuous on-track incidents. Stewart’s off-track generosity, which has only increased in recent years I’ve covered the sport, will now be lost in a sea of past transgressions. There’s the ugly incident with the photographer in 2002, a camera smacked out of a hand to the point Home Depot said, “Control your anger or we walk.” There’s countless public squabbles with reporters, other drivers, other crews to the point Deadspin created a YouTube library Sunday for thousands of curious onlookers to see. Stewart did most of his charitable work in private; his biggest mistakes, as one of NASCAR’s most influential figures played out across the public stage.

It’s a track record thrown in the face of corporate executives, of whom at least two from companies sponsoring the sport are questioning their future involvement this Monday morning. Sources claim there’s a level of concern with the way both Stewart and NASCAR are handling the incident, similar to the outrage over the “Spingate” scandal eleven months earlier in which a 13th driver wound up added to the Chase. With a public disgusted, some very important people with a whole lot of money want to know if Stewart will be disciplined. They’re worried about the implications of him coming back to race again, next weekend as if nothing has happened when national news outlets have “angry driver killing someone else” as a general theme echoing across the country. From a marketing standpoint, considering how non-racing fans will be haunted by their first impression, there’s some validity to protecting their financial interests. Millions are on the line here.

It’s a tenuous time for NASCAR, considering the importance of Stewart to the sport. Michael Waltrip aside, he’s the most successful young owner, shepherding four Sprint Cup cars into the Chase with money most could only dream of. His racetrack, Eldora Speedway is one of the few “guaranteed” positive success stories in the sport each year. With most other power players well past retirement age, his leadership and decision-making ability was key for NASCAR to weather its current storm.

All of that now hangs in the balance. Step one is even in question; whether one of the toughest men this sport has seen, a driver whose idol is the hard-wired AJ Foyt, can even survive enough to race this Sunday. Can you really envision that right now, Stewart strapping behind the wheel at Michigan while fans are yelling “murderer” as he walks around the garage area? It’s an uncomfortable possibility, but it’s also very real, even if the police exonerate him.

The racing world, Stewart, so many people want to move on from this incident. They want one of their icons to get a second chance. But the truth is, the court of public opinion is rarely so forgiving when it comes to damning first impressions. Forgetting, this Monday morning for so many is impossible when it comes to what just happened.

HENDERSON: Racing’s Human Cost Realized

STAFF: Tony Stewart Timeline Of Events

LUNKENHEIMER: NASCAR Community Responds To Ward Incident

RUTHERFORD: Stewart Runs Over, Kills Competitor Ward At Canandaigua Motorsports Park

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

19 comments

  1. A horrible situation with no winners. Deep pockets + circling buzzards (lawyers) =civil lawsuit!

  2. I’ve watched Tony Stewart race since the early ’90′s in USAC. I firmly believe that his favorite venue of racing is in sprint cars. How ironic that he has done untold albeit unintended harm to sprint car racing and himself in the last year while racing in non-Nascar events. My hope as a sprint car fan is that he will finally step aside from that form of racing.

    Thoughts and continued prayers to the Ward family…

  3. My prayers go out to the Ward family, and Tony Stewart. No matter what happens Stewart will have to live with this for the rest of his life. I hate that this happened, but if a famous person wasn’t involved it would be in other news on some sites, most people wouldn’t ever see anything about it.

  4. Good article!

    Unfortunately in this day and age people do make those snap judgements without looking further than what was force-fed to them by the mainstream media complex.

    We see this with people’s reactions in the political arena as well as with stories like this one and it makes me angry that people are too lazy to look deeper and make up their own minds instead of allowing someone who may not be fully informed make up their minds for them!!

    I was offended by a local newscast in my area where they had a younger sports caster filling in for the regular guy. This “gentleman” talked about the accident happening at speeds and obviously had NO idea what was really going on. That this happened under caution. I get frustrated when the regular sports guys talk like they know what’s going on and they haven’t a clue. Now most in my area thing this happened under full speed and that Stewart wasn’t watching closely enough.

    I hope that in the days to come we get enough media outlets to declare the TRUE details instead of the sensationalized mis-truths that people have made their individual “decisions” based on. It makes me sick that there is outrage in the general public without the proper information.

    I pray (and continue to pray) for the family of Mr. Ward, Jr., for Tony and for anyone else affected by Saturday’s tragic events. All of them need peace, encouragement and our unconditional love as they all go on to deal with the results for years to come.

  5. Great commentary. This story will grow on the order of O.J., Pistorious and Lance Armstrong. The top two headlines on the Daily Mail right now are Stewart related. NASCAR needs to work behind the scenes to ensure Tony doesn’t get in a car again this year–or perhaps ever. And no sponsor in its right mind would want to be associated with the 14. Even without criminal charges, Tony will have to sell his stake in the team. Maybe SHR wil become HHR–as in Harvick.

    • No sponsors and Tony is retiring due to circumstance basically shamed for life? I respect your opinion but that seems overly drastic. In a tragic and avoidable situation of road rage, nothing the Ward family or public opinion can bring back Kevin. Kevin’s mom might feel better for a day to hear the “justice” (as some may see it) to rob Tony of everything he’s built in his life. The next day though, Kevin is still gone. There is no satisfying punishment. Tony’s grief is for his colleague. A young man who was exceedingly passionate about racing. Tony also has to grieve “Smoke”, the guy who never experienced a fatal racing accident.

  6. Great and fair commentary from a real journalist on an absolutely horrific situation from which little to no good will come.

  7. I saw Jeff Burton comment on the accident this morning and he did a great job of explaining what happened and defending Stewart’s actions on the track. Tom, you are right about the court of public opinion, and that’s why it’s important for other drivers, especially respected drivers like Burton, to come to his defense. I’m not a Tony Stewart fan… I don’t care for his personality, but this was definitely an accident, though a tragic one. Hopefully there will is a lesson here that all young drivers will learn. Don’t let heat-of-the-moment anger make you put your life in jeopardy.

  8. Very good article, Tom. This is such a difficult thing to deal with on so many levels. I have never raced but have watched so much of it and the danger inherent is part of the thrill and the attraction – until something terrible happens and then I wonder what it is that makes me watch.

    As you pointed out, Stewart does have a history of anger and having trouble with his management of his temper. I don’t condemn him for that, but as you say, it is a fact and others probably will. Considering the changes in his life (becoming an owner), I was surprised that he continued to race sprinters since I can’t imagine it made his business partners happy, even though he loves it. When he was badly injured, I thought maybe he’d step away or people would insist that he did but maybe in his mind, he had to prove that he could still race those cars.

    It is a tragedy all around, but most of all for the family who lost their loved one.

    • i read something that said one of the reasons stewart left gibbs racing and became an owner was that gibbs did not want him racing outside the series. as an owner stewart is his own boss and can do what he wants.

      this is the 2nd time in as many years that activities outside of the sprint cup series is having an impact on stewart/haas. be interesting to see what sponsors have to say. also the 2nd time at that track where stewart has been involved in a crash that had horrible outcomes. luckily the girl whose back was broken didn’t end up paralyzed from the wreck in 2013.

      it is a tragedy for the ward family.

      • Janice, after I saw the news about the accident this weekend, I started thinking about the incident that Stewart was in with the female racer. I couldn’t remember the details other than that she had been injured.

        good point, too, about tony wanting to be his own boss. With being able to “do what you want” though still comes the responsibility or it should.

  9. You know, I have been a fan of Nascar for many years and I have also saw Tony pull a lot of crazy things on the track. I said years ago that if Tony didn’t change his ways that someone was either going to get seriously injured or killed. I can’t remember who the other driver was but Tony ran the driver all the way off the track at Daytona at speed some years ago. And Tony has also showed in the past that he had anger management problems. Alright, that being said. Exactly how did this accident happen? Did this driver slip and fall under the tire of Tony’s Car? Did he just run into the side of Tony’s Car? Could Tony not have swerved his car lower on the track to avoid the other driver? This Driver that got hit did the same thing that Tony has probably done quite a few times himself. And, Tony would have to realize that that this driver would probably be upset because the video clearly shows Tony getting into him and and spinning him out. I would almost bet that if the roles were reversed and Tony was the one that got spun out he would have probably have did the same thing that this other driver did. That is, getting out of his car and onto the track and letting the other driver know that he was upset. And, one other thing that concerns me. If you are a big time Nascar driver moonlighting in another series you need to be extra respectful of the other series drivers after all you are in their league and these guys are running for a purse and possible a track championship. But, all this being said I think we all need to see more evidence of what happened. Surely there is some more video and what about the other drivers behind this event what did they see? And, I think the Sheriff should have said that he was not going to comment until the investigation was complete. Some people are quoting him as saying no criminal charges would be filed but to me that is misleading and he should have said that the event was still under investigation. But, what makes this look so bad is Tony’s History of anger management and his past on track actions.

    • I have read this often the past few days that Tony’s anger issues is what triggered this. But what did Tony have to be upset about Saturday night? He wasn’t the one that got spun out, so where would this rage come from? I also find it very hard to believe that for someone who seems to be genuinely good person off the track, given his charitable contributions to many things, that he would be so cold hearted to purposely run anyone over, even on the racetrack, like some idiots are saying. Once again, it goes back to where would this cold heartedness come from that you would run over a human being with your racecar? It just doesn’t add up to me.

    • Larry I agree with a lot you said, but “we” don’t need to see more. The police are handling this with expertise. I don’t know if you meant the “we” literally but and are not entitled to full disclosure. Hopefully the police do well by convincing the Ward family of their findings so they can begin healing.

      • Amy, I am talking about there needs to be other views of the wreck that shows more than what the video that everyone has seen on tv. From that video it’s very hard to really tell anything. If there were some other videos they might be able to tell if Tony gunned the car or tried to swerve to avoid him or even swerved toward the driver. And, I find it very hard to think that the driver that got killed just ran into the side of Tony’s Car with the car moving. Most any driver would know that would be a very dangerous thing to do so how did the driver come in contact with Steward’s car? Again, how ever this turns out I just hope the truth is found for both sides.

  10. Why do so many fans who don’t even like Stewart care if he races when there’s not a Cup show on? I guess they figure if their favorite doesn’t do it, nobody should.

  11. the that on sunday morning, numerous print and over the air media outlets had the headline “Stewart killed driver at dirt track”. when i saw that headline it made me sick to my stomach. instantly i thought, what did he do now, cause his temper is always first and foremost in what everyone knows and remembers. he could atone for all his misdeeds and be the male version of sister teresa (saint), but people will always remember the negative.

    one thing that saved stewart was him not racing sunday. first things i saw sunday am was that it was “business as usual and he would race at watkins glen”….well that comment ignited twitter and f/b with comments of callousness and no soul.

    even at the 6 pm news (local and national) came on the stewart story was first reported. and for all that is going on in the world, for stewart’s story to be first report on nbc nightly news sunday night really surprised me.

  12. Very good commentary Tom on both this issue and the larger societal environment that currently exists.
    I have no idea how this is going to end and I have no idea if Stewart did anything wrong. I choose to wait for more evidence before I make any judgment.
    I do wonder why Tony doesn’t recognize that he puts himself in a bad position running those sprint car races no matter how much he loves them. He has too much to lose, too many people depending on him and too many organizations and people with a lot invested in him.
    So whether or not he did anything wrong he definitely made a bad decision even being in that race. He should have learned his lesson after the accident last year. Even most rock stars learn to curb their risky behavior as they age and become more successful.

  13. There would be World War 3 if this had been one of the Busch brothers . And this may keep nascar drivers from ever participating in other events again.