The one thing that’s certain about the tragic accident involving NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is that Kevin Ward Jr., only 20, is dead and there’s absolutely no reason for that to be the case.
A sleepless Saturday night has been followed by a frazzled Sunday. You see things and you can’t unsee them. Watching video from Saturday’s sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, where a car driven by three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., left too many troubling images and questions.
Seeing a young man climb out of his car, knowing he was in the final minutes of his life, is disturbing. Seeing him tossed like a rag doll after the contact is nauseating.
Tossing the questions around in one's head is unsettling and it will remain that way for a long time. There will never be answers to most of them. The one thing that’s certain is Ward, only 20, is dead and there’s absolutely no reason for that to be the case.
As harsh as it sounds, as hard as it is to write, Ward has some culpability here. He was angry after a wreck put his car into the wall of the dirt track in upstate New York. He got out of the car looking, it appeared, to confront someone.
He’s not the first angry driver to get out of his car. Stewart, in fact, has done it. Ward won’t be the last. It is never a good idea and that’s a key question that will hang forever. Why? Why not just stay put?
But he didn’t, and that leads to a much bigger and much more disturbing question. Was the contact between Stewart’s car and Ward unavoidable or was there some malice behind it?
Stewart’s reputation as a hothead precedes him here. As a driver, he’s as talented as anyone in any category of racing. He may be the best pure driver in history.
He’s also had his share of run-ins with officials, the media and other drivers.
Had this been Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. involved, it would have been so much easier to chalk it up as a tragedy without the additional questions.
Put Stewart in this situation and he’s like a batter down 0-2 in the count against Clayton Kershaw. It doesn’t look good. Stewart’s past actions have put him in a spot where his motives will be questioned, fair or not.
MORE: Who was Kevin Ward, Jr.?
Before anyone gets too carried away, let’s be clear there’s no way anyone should be thinking Stewart had it in mind to kill Ward or even injure him. No way, no how.
But given his history and the way he has reacted to situations throughout his career, it is not at all unreasonable to wonder if he wasn’t thinking of scaring or intimidating Ward.
The video that came out several hours after the wreck doesn’t make those questions go away. It reinforces them.
Bob Pockrass, the veteran and respected motorsports writer for The Sporting News, located a witness in the stands several hours before the video surfaced. The witness, a driver named Tyler Graves, described the scene as it unfolded in a way the video corroborated. Graves noted that when you hit the throttle in a sprint car, it “sets sideways.”
Now listen to the video of the incident. Right before contact, an engine guns. Stewart’s? No way to be sure, but as Graves noted and the video shows, the car “set sideways” and hit Ward.
Graves doesn’t buy the notion that Stewart couldn’t see Ward. Despite the shaky quality of the lighting and the dark firesuit Ward was wearing, he’s clearly visible in the video and several cars went by him without incident.
Why would you punch the throttle under caution?
So many questions, so many answers that likely will never come.
Ward’s family is left to deal with the pain of his loss and enough questions of their own. Stewart, who authorities say is cooperating with the investigation and not facing criminal charges at this time, will surely have some disturbing thoughts in his head the rest of his life.
Stewart wisely withdrew from Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen – his call or someone else’s? – and issued an appropriate statement expressing sympathy for Ward’s family and sadness over the accident. It would be nice to think, without the questions, that it was just that: a terrible accident with an unfortunate result.
Only Stewart knows for sure what he was thinking in the moments before impact. The rest of us are left to wonder.