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Voice of Vito: Sprint Car Tragedy Brings Media’s Worst to The Surface

Voice of Vito: Sprint Car Tragedy Brings Media’s Worst to The Surface

It’s been four days since the world learned of the tragic accident that took place on Saturday evening that claimed the life of 20-year old sprint car driver Kevin Ward, Jr., and may questions still remain surrounding the accident from how it started, to what amateur video may reveal, and how this could have happened – or been prevented.

The response and attention to the story since then has been nothing less than shameful. We’ve all seen the video by now, several times over – including the latest version which from my perspective, exonerates Stewart from any suggestion of malice – but the long knives have come out quickly not just for Stewart, but NASCAR as well.

FOX Business News’ Gerri Willis posting, “New calls for the Government to impose regulations on NASCAR in wake of the Tony Stewart crash that killed fellow driver. Is NASCAR too dangerous? Tell us what YOU think!”

Well Gerri, I think it wasn’t a NASCAR race, and not sure who these “calls” are coming from either.

Then there’s CNN’s Nancy Grace railing how Stewart ran down a driver, then showing pictures of Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa’s wrecked cars (wrong series/continent), and geography major ESPN’s Colin Cowherd spouting off about Southern culture, stating, “It’s really, really part of the South” and “It’s an eye-for-an-eye culture.”

Never mind the race was in New York – and Stewart is from Indiana – and again – wasn’t a NASCAR race.

Kyle Brandt, long-time producer of top rated The Jim Rome Show was co-hosting this week, and five minutes into Monday’s program had stated that Stewart was culpable and referred to him as a “scumbag”, with a history of such behavior.

The politics of personal destruction are alive and well as we’ve witnessed the past few days, by those who either have some sort of axe to grind with motorsports and furrow their brow and offer faux-concern when there’s been some horrific crash or a fatality, or simply smell blood in the water and look for a way to exploit and impugn in the name of “journalism”.

There was never apparently any effort to contact anybody with experience in open wheeled competition as a resident expert; just further misinformation and jaw-dropping levels of ignorance being distributed. Other than Brian Williams appearing on The Dan Patrick Show, the only other mainstream media outlet that offered any sort of balanced coverage the days following was FOX Sports Radio’s Jay Mohr (who hosted the 2013 Sprint Cup Awards) with comedian Daryl Wright, who has a weekly NASCAR feature on his radio show.

Tony Stewart won two Sprint Car races in Michigan last week -- will the third time be a  charm this weekend at Indy in his Sprint Cup Car?

From three-time champion to Public Enemy No. 1. Mainstream media’s handling of the Kevin Ward, Jr. death has been handled worse than any of the PR missteps within SHR and NASCAR that took place Sunday morning at Watkins Glen. Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

Andy Petree of ESPN suggested this would be a watershed moment for racing safety. It may also be a watershed moment as the media at large has set the sport back 20 years, by portraying it as a blood sport with cars piloted by enraged drivers, swerving at those on foot, walking into traffic. Those who suggested it was a premeditated event cited Stewart’s past transgressions – many of which were over 10 years ago – with the only real confrontation on track being him throwing a helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car (which nearly ricocheted back at his face), drawing conclusions and convicting him in the court of public opinion before an accident investigation had gotten off the ground.

The salacious headline trumping fact and reason, coupled with the new American pastime of kicking somebody when they are down and exploiting those who help fit a narrative, has been on display in grand fashion the past few days. Those within the motorsports community, particularly the fans and enthusiasts have done their sport well and helped sustain it in the face of what was already a tragic accident, but has quickly degenerated into something as ugly as the traditional media – both sports and non-sports news – has crafted it into. This moment has far reaching implications that could affect the lives and futures of more than it has thus far, albeit to a decidedly less horrific extent.

One question some have asked is why would Tony Stewart even be racing sprint cars at these tracks? After all it was a year ago that he nearly lost his right leg in a sprint car accident at Southern Iowa Speedway, and it was also a year ago his friend and former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler was killed in a 410 Sprint Car race at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey. Many have cited the “get back on the horse that threw you” mentality of overcoming the fear and refusing to be mastered by something that could be considered a freak accident. Others have said the medicine of winning at some far flung locales such as Crystal, Michigan was just what the doctor ordered, for a body that still bears the scars of an injury that was much worse than originally let on last year.

There may be another component to this as well, and an all too familiar one – money.

Stewart missed 15 Sprint Cup races last year following his accident, and save for a pair of Top 5s at Bristol and Fontana, hasn’t had much to crow about in the No. 14 this season. Meanwhile across the shop, Kevin Harvick has won two races, and likely could have won about four more if not for repeated pit road issues and parts failures. Kurt Busch has a win and is in The Chase, and his team seems to be in the process of sorting things out, but show flashes of brilliance along the way.

Stewart’s sprint cars haven’t had him behind the wheel either until just recently – part of which according to one source, has been at the sponsor’s insistence.

As we all know, racecars and teams depend on sponsorship to operate. They run on money and can’t be fueled with good intentions. With Stewart out of Cup car and The Chase last year as well as looking to miss it this year prior the incident, that may have also been a factor in the original “business as usual” announcement that he would race Sunday morning at Watkins Glen.

Following the firestorm throughout social media and within the industry just 10 hours following the accident, Greg Zipadelli (who looked as if he had been up for 24 hours straight) appeared before the media and confirmed Stewart would indeed not be competing that day. There are many moving parts to these decisions, and this one in particular. While the first half of the day was a PR disaster, there may have been other factors at work besides a driver’s desire to simply get back in a racecar to escape what would soon follow.

With the investigation is currently underway and new information coming to light, one can only hope for the sake of civility, Kevin Ward’s family, as well as letting justice run its course for Tony Stewart, that those who wish to opine make an effort to understand the situation of which they are attempting to educate the public about.

About Vito Pugliese

Vito Pugliese
Promoted to Editor in 2012, Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (Thursdays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars, and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

23 comments

  1. NEVER LET THE FACTS GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD STORY.WHO,WHAT,WHEN,WHERE AND WHY NO LONGER APPLIES FOLKS.

  2. Where is the eyes of Mr. Ward sr? There are no rearview mirrors in those cars. Yes, Stewart crossed up in front of Ward jr. (without touching) possibly thinking he had cleared Ward jr. If Jr. would have bumped his left front to Stewart’s right rear ,Stewart would be turned into the wall. Jr. getting out of his car to show Stewart in a unhappy manner and walking toward in an on coming Stewart, put (Jr.) himself in a bad situation, not paying attention to the extra wide tire on the right rear which grabbed his right foot or ankle throwing him up in the air.There is absolutle no racing driver ever want to hurt or mame anyone. I’m very sorry for Mr Ward sr. loss!
    But Jr. put his life in danger all by himself. As far as visual from the cockpit of those type of cars. is very narrow

  3. Seems like anyone with a cellphone camera is a professional spouting off about what they thought they saw, in between gulping of their beers.

  4. Nancy Grace has to be one of the dumbest talking heads on television. Check out what she did to the Duke lacrosse team sometime. Given that she has legions of fans, the sad conclusion is that so many Americans are leading lives of quiet desperation they feed off of this nonsense. Darwin was right; we may be doomed.

    • Ever notice how the permanent sneer on her face makes it look like she’s constantly smelling $&^t?

  5. Vito, face it: Nature abhors a vacuum. Since there are few, if any, professional journalists in the motorsports media, it is only natural that this story would receive coverage from those who lack familiarity with the sport. kb and JohnQ are correct. There are too many posers wearing the “journalist hat” in motorsports. Seems if you look at jayski’s column links, most of the articles are written by bloggers just out of college (or less) and a few veterans who are no more than fans with a personal ax to grind. The coverage of this story is just as much an indictment of the lack of professionalism among the NASCAR hacks as it is of the mainstream media.

  6. Thanks for a great article. You said exactly what I’m thinking. This story has transcended NASCAR and sports in general. Unfortunately the mainstream media has taken this as an opportunity to both showcase their own ignorance about car racing and prey on the ignorance of the general public. One of the first rules of contemporary media is “If it bleeds, it leads”. Shameful.

  7. Thanks for the good story, Vito. Legal issues aside, Tony and the #14 will have an issue with sponsors, who won’t want their bottle of soda pop held up by “Hey, isn’t Tony Stewart that racer dude who killed that other racer dude?”

  8. Thank you, Vito for your very well spoken commentary on this situation. What I’ve taken away from this is that as much as I distrust the media in giving me accurate news, I should mistrust much more. As wrong as the talking heads have been in presenting this story I’m going out on a limb to believe that even 10% of what’s reported on TV and on-line is accurate.

    Time we all start doing our own research and make sure our sources are good and objective. It’s way too easy to start throwing stones without all the facts.

    I’ve not always been a fan of Tony’s, but over the last couple of years I’ve seen a different side and I think underneath the prickly skin is a heart of gold. Even just the philanthropic things he has let be publicized make us all look like misers. I wouldn’t wish this mess on my worst enemy let alone a guy that goes out of his way to do things for other people like Tony does.

    My prayers go out for ALL the people who are suffering from this incident!

  9. Nascar encouraged bad behavior with their “boys have at it” theme in order to liven things up. I think tracks should reintroduce sportsmanship awards as an example to the young racers. I think the SHR team are a pack of thugs, including their princess.

    • And tomorrow we’ll be complaining about bland, vanilla drivers. I’m starting to agree with Summer that we fans are never satisfied. For the record, I have no problem with a little emotion between drivers who are out of their cars and OFF THE TRACK. The only time a driver should be out of his car and on the track is while is he is being escorted to the safety vehicle. “Boys have at it” was never a license to put yourself in eminent danger. That said, an anual sportmanship award is probably not a bad idea.

  10. “We got the bubble headed bleached blonde who comes on at five;
    She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye.
    It’s interesting when people die; give us dirty laundry.” – Don Henley

    • Boy you are so right about that!

      I refuse to listen to Nancy Grace – ever – her brand of vitriol just isn’t for me.

      I don’t know what the facts are in this case and obviously it is a tragedy for the young man and his family, but the amount of just plain wrong information being spouted by various media is a perfect example of why it is impossible to trust the news. Years ago, the news was reported, now we get media opinion pretending to be news.

      • I just can’t understand why anyone would even waste their time watching those “idiots” on Fox cable. The little bit that I have seen of them is comical. Some of the sh*t that comes out of their mouths is incredible. Some more so than others.

  11. Thanks for your good article. No matter how the clowns like Grace want to spin it for their ratings, this is a true tragedy for all concerned. Social Media has turned into a circle of sharks who think they smell blood in the water. There are no winners here, just ordinary human beings who all have had their lives changed forever with this tragedy. It will never be forgotten by those affected most, and I can only hope that somehow they can find a way to get through these difficult times when everything is so fresh in their hearts and souls, and somehow find peace within themselves. Time heals, but oh so slowly. My heart aches for them all, what a terrible terrible tragedy.

  12. Well, many things come to mind in this whole thing. But what I do find interesting the Nascar media has long since turned a blind eye to many things regarding Nascar. Yes the current coverage is over the top with a Nascar “star” involved in a non Nascar event. I am sure most idiots don’t even know that. I am also amazed in the past few days, the amount of dirt track “experts” there are in the world. But on the flip side from a readers standpoint, you folks were/are not really balanced either. You are guilty of playing your favorites, excusing them regardless of the facts a two year old can see, and not being kind and playing up bologna because the driver isn’t one of your favorites. In today’s world many “fans” aren’t really fans. Now more now then ever you need to educate these twitter twits as to what they are watching, if they are even watching at all. You have a responsibility for the lifeblood and health of the sport. Wishful thinking, I know. I say look inward first. Plenty of blame to go around and always an agenda or cause to push.

    • I respectfully disagree. This is a commentary website about Nascar racing. It doesn’t exist to “educate twitter twits” about anything. It exists to provide commentary to mostly die-hard nascar fans about the sport. To that end, it succeeds. It has no responsibility for the “lifeblood and health of the sport”. That’s Nascar’s job.

      • KB merely points out that the NASCAR press is often just the flip side of the same coin. Nancy Grace convicts Stewart on incomplete data and Vito exonerates him because he saw a tape. Neither know all the facts and both have an agenda, one to bash NASCAR and one to protect. PS: Vito, what are you, like 12 years old. If you want to see opinion presented as fact with a pre conceived agenda buy a New York Times. They have not legitimately covered a news story since 1970.

        • JohnQ -

          I do not have a “Protect NASCAR Agenda”; what I take issue with is the deliberate use of salacious headlines and wild accusations, exploiting people for ratings and cheap clicks to boost web traffic. Please don’t link me to the likes of her — I have done nothing to you or your family…

          The one that really had me in slack-jawed disbelief was The Jim Rome Show, having been a listener for 17 years. They long made it known that Stewart is the only driver who has declined to appear on the show.

          The only reason I would ever buy a NYT would be if I had a puppy I was house breaking, or had a parrot cage to line.

          • You give the grey lady way too much respect while simultaneously insulting puppies and parrots.

          • While I often disagree with you I respect that you take the time to interact with your readers. For what it is worth you are more than welcome to call me names. I liken it to the winding each other up at the office the Monday after a race and never take offense. Besides, no one reads Frontstretch to see what John Q thinks he knows.

        • Yes john q, you are correct in my attempt at trying to bring to light what I find interesting about the past couple of days with Nascars media basically calling the kettle black. Plenty of unprofessionalism and blame to go around, not just in this instance but for a long, long time now. Sadly. the drum beat is loud against the “mainstream” media and frankly silly. IMO.

          • I’ll give you silly, I keep hoping that the mainstream media and the racing press will just let the investigation run its course before endlessly offering comment on the facts of the incident. Imagine withholding judgement until we fully investigate what happened. Guess I gave you naive too!