At 5 am Sunday morning I rolled over and hit the button on my Iphone to check the time. As per usual I had several Sports Center updates. My Rangers lost (again) to the Astros, and then there were several regarding NASCAR. I perked up, “Tony Stewart has struck and killed another driver at a dirt road track in upstate New York”. My heart stopped.
My mind immediately went back to February 18, 2001, I was six years old and watched the fatal crash the killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. on TV in my family’s home. We left for dinner not knowing the outcome, thinking “Dale will be okay, he’s Dale”. We received word that Dale had passed halfway through dinner. At the young age of six I still hadn’t fully comprehended the whole concept of death, but I knew this was a huge one. I knew everyone knew who Dale Earnhardt was regardless of whether you watched racing, I knew my dad had a framed autographed poster of Dale hanging in our living room. I knew my parents waited in line for hours with hundreds of other fans to get a chance to talk to Dale for just a few moments. I knew Dale was the face of racing and I knew things would never be the same.
At 5 am I scrolled through article after article trying to put together exactly what happened at that dirt track. I even watched the video (I do not recommend this). Kevin Ward Jr., just 20 years old, was struck and thrown down the track by Tony Stewart’s car, and pronounced dead at the hospital. I am 20 years old. He was still a kid, a kid who had been racing his entire life, a kid who could have won countless championships if he continued in his career, but he will never have that chance.
This is my personal take on what went down Saturday night, and may be completely wrong, but this is what I understand from listening to news stories, reading articles, and watching video and my life long knowledge of being a racing fan.
Stewart and Ward had been battling all night. Stewart races hard on Sundays and he races hard any other day of the week. While I have never seen Ward race I am almost positive he races hard too. Going into a turn Stewart’s car forced Wards up the track and into the wall. The back of Stewart’s car clipped Wards causing Ward to spin out, and causing a flat tire on Wards car. I can only imagine that Ward was pissed. Ward exits his car before the official caution flag is dropped and starts making his way down the track towards Stewart’s car that is still driving around the track. I think it is important to note that it was dark outside and the track is dimly lit, in addition Ward is wearing a black helmet and black fire suit. Ward dodges several other cars on his way, and the car directly in front of Stewart swerves to narrowly miss Ward. Ward advances on Stewart’s car, and as Stewart passes him the back end of Stewart’s car catches Ward hurling him down the dirt track. Emergency responders immediately descend upon Ward and he was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Stewart has been cooperating with the police investigation of the incident and did not race at Watkins Glen Sunday afternoon.
There is a family in upstate New York right now grieving and trying to piece together exactly how this could have happened. There is a NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit driver who is probably replaying Saturday night in his mind over and over. And people have the nerve to point fingers.
Car racing is a dangerous sport, and safety measures have come a long way from the days of racing your souped up cars down the back dirt roads of America. However, like any sport accidents happen. This fatal crash was caused by a combination of mistakes and a bad timing that leave no one at fault. Yet I have been scrolling through social media comments all day that beg to differ. Examples include comments like:
“Tony Stewart deserves to be banned for life”
“This kid was an idiot for getting out of his car! What a stupid move”
“Well Tony has always had anger issues….”
How dare you. I am appalled that the racing community that came together so closely and mourned the loss of Dale thirteen years ago is sitting here behind their computer screens playing the blame game and bad mouthing both drivers involved. Yes, Stewart caused Ward to spin out and get a flat tire. Yes, an angry Ward got out of his car and started walking in between cars to tell off Stewart. Yes, Stewart sped by Ward and caused Ward to be thrown down the track. Should Ward have been out of his car while the caution flag had not been dropped? Probably not.
Should Stewart have sped by Ward? No, he shouldn’t have. Just because Ward was not a world famous driver does not mean that Ward and his family do not deserve the basic respect that should be given in this situation. And just because Stewart made a mistake does not mean he should be descended upon by a mob with torches and pitchforks.
Racing is more than just driving fast in a circle for a few hours, there is strategy, there is roughhousing and there are emotions. My God, there are emotions. And while I was not in upstate New York at this dirt track, I can only imagine that emotions were high and blood was boiling. That is racing. Tony Stewart did not roll out on to that track Saturday night and start his engine with the goal of taking a life in his mind. Stewart came to win.
Ward came to win. That’s racing. This tragic accident is just that, an accident. I would hope that the racing community would realize that and stop pointing fingers and raising hell. There is a family grieving the loss of their son tonight and my thoughts and prayers are with the Ward Family.