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.
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 the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) 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.