Tony Stewart was involved in a terrible incident Saturday night at Canandiagua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. In the aftermath 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. was dead and racing fans were putting the blame squarely on three time NASCAR champion Stewart.
Video showed that Ward had been involved with Stewart on the previous lap. The video showed Ward’s car as it came to rest on the back stretch. Ward exited the vehicle, and still wearing his racing helmet walked toward the line of cars circling under caution. He angrily pointed towards the car driven by Stewart; Stewart’s car struck Ward who was thrown in the air and landed several feet away. Ward was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero later said in a news conference that Stewart was “fully co-operative” and appeared “very upset” after the incident adding that the investigation is not criminal and that no charges have been filed.
This was not the first time Stewart was involved in a serious incident at the same track. In July 2013 Stewart triggered a 15 car accident at Canandaigua that left 19-year-old driver Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back. Stewart later took responsibility for triggering that crash.
The team confirmed early Sunday morning that Stewart would compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen. Late Sunday morning however Greg Zipadelli, Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition said that Stewart "feels strongly" about not racing and had made the decision. He will be replaced by driver Regan Smith.
"We gave Tony some time to sleep on it. He feels strongly this is the right thing to do," Zipadelli said. "All you can do is what you feel is right, and we feel this is right. We get through today and do it the best we can as a group.
"He's going through a tough time," he added. "It's emotional for him”
Tony Stewart won’t race Sunday, but he will race again.
And there is no reason he should not.
What happened on the track Saturday night was a tragic accident, and that’s what racing fans should keep in mind. Anywhere between the walls and on the surface of a racetrack is a dangerous place, especially when it is filled with racecars. Anger is a powerful emotion that can sometimes blind otherwise rational people to commit irrational acts. Ward was obviously upset, but charging towards a line of racecars, even when they are slowed under a caution flag is an irrational act, especially on a dimly lit track. If Stewart did steer his car towards Ward, that too is an irrational act. However, there is currently no clear evidence that he did so. What is clear is that there was no intent on Stewart’s part to intentionally hit an unprotected person; had there been then Stewart would have found himself in a jail cell Sunday morning. Instead the law enforcement investigators on the scene determined that their investigation was not a criminal one and released him.
And for now that is the right thing to do.
If the investigation finds that Stewart did do something criminal then there is no doubt that justice will be served. But all preliminary reports indicate that the incident was nothing more than a tragic accident.
All indications are that Stewart was too emotional Sunday to race, that has to be respected. But Stewart will race again, and that has to be respected as well. There are too many sponsors, team members and other stakeholders that rely on Tony Stewart. With no immediate criminal findings he owes it to all of them to get behind the wheel of his NASCAR Sprint Cup racecar and do what he does best race.
Let there be no doubt of two things: Stewart will give whatever support, including financial, to the Ward family, and if any criminal charges are filed, he will be quick to face justice. Until then Stewart, like racers always do, will move on. He will race Sunday because that’s what auto racers do.
When tragedy strikes on track, the racing continues. It did when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at Daytona in 2001, and after Jason Leffler was killed during a sprint car race last year.
And it should in this case as well.
Yes, there will be a storm of controversy over Tony Stewart’s head for some time. But until those clouds are clear and the facts are known, Stewart must race.