So, About This Tony Stewart Thing

sprintcar

I don’t know what Tony Stewart was thinking. I don’t have any time behind the wheel of a sprint car so I have no idea how they react under power or off the throttle or when the tires are cold or whatever. All of that is beyond my knowledge and understanding so I have nothing to say about it.

I do, however, want to say this:

Kevin Ward, Jr. should have stayed in the car. Had he done what every racer is told to do, trained to do, penalized if they don’t do — namely, stay in the car — he’d have been fine. If he had waited until the race was over and then attacked Tony in the pitlane or the paddock, he’d have been fine. If he had waited until the next time he was next to Tony on the track and then paid him back that way, he’d probably have been fine.

The problem happened when he decided to run down on the track and try to interact with Tony. I don’t think he did it out of anger; his father says he wasn’t an angry kid. And I’ve been angry enough to chew nails behind the wheel of a race car too many times to count and it’s never occurred to me to attack a car. You want to punch the guy driving it but only a moron thinks you can hurt a car with your fists or helmet and I don’t think this kid was a moron.

No, I think it was quite the opposite. I think young Mr. Ward knew this was his chance to get on television and raise his profile as a driver. I think it was a calculated move. I think he wanted to maximize a situation. Face it — even if Stewart hadn’t hit him, it would have made highlight reels and would have put his name on people’s lips.

It’s hard for anyone who isn’t trying to make a living as a race driver to understand the whole Rocking-Horse Winner aspect of being a young racer. You need to be working the phones and the email and the social media and the handshakes 24/7. Racing is the least difficult and least problematic thing you do. It’s the relaxing part. The rest of it is the nightmare grind. One lucky move and you’re Lewis Hamilton. One bad move and you’re one of the thousands of former small-series champions who works part-time at Skip Barber or coaches a Ferrari Challenge spank on the weekends. And the terrifying part of it is that you’ll never know how or why what you did worked or didn’t work. You need to think quickly. Sometimes it isn’t even your fault; look at what happened to Mike Skeen when his girlfriend slapped Max Papis. Back to sports cars for you, kiddo.

So Kevin Ward, Jr. saw a chance to make a name for himself. To get lucky. To be the kid who faced down Tony Stewart on the highlight reel. But in his haste to do that, he didn’t think about the risks. Which, I would add, is a characteristic of nearly all successful drivers. If you sat and thought seriously about the risks, you’d never go wheel-to-wheel racing at all. He made a quick decision, a judgment call. That’s the way racing works.

It cost him his life.

That, too, is the way racing works.

18 Replies to “So, About This Tony Stewart Thing”

  1. Tre Deuce

    You might have called his intentions, Jack, so unfortunate for all concerned and Tony.

    Sprint cars are notoriously a handful on the throttle and coming off the throttle. They are asymmetric handling cars, as are all roundy round cars, so handling is tricky. I put a few races in the F440’s set-up for left hand banked tracks in the Mini Indy series. I soon put another driver in the car, as I’m a right turn, left turn racer. Same with those Honda 3-wheelers, couldn’t get comfortable with those either.

    The wings also blind you to the right, and then there is the cage designed to keep all manner of debris out of your face and out of your brain while greatly reducing your view.

    Tony probably didn’t see the kid until the last second. Nascar and other racing associations and governing bodies need to make it a rule to stay in your car, unless it is on fire, and enforce it with heavy fines. Some do have that rule, but it is rarely enforced.

    And yes… racing is dangerous, and ‘thats racing’.

    By the way, I never have got up any heat over another racers misconduct. It degrades your concentration and effectiveness on the track. Stay cool and do your job and it usually pays at the end. The aggressive driver usually screws up and costs himself any chance of winning/placing or being ahead of you at the end. Many years of racing has proven that many times. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t have a running commentary on a guy(s) driving style or decision making, but then I do that 24/7 on everybody who gets my attention for questionable actions.

    Keep it out of the ditch, Jack.

    PS… We had an issue with some oil lines on Raven’s Dance, so we will be leaving Seattle on the 20th for SF Bay.

    Reply
  2. Domestic Hearse

    No one who has editorialized on this incident, from newspapers to blogs to racing and automotive websites, has hit upon what Ward’s motivation may have been to leave his wrecked car while the track was still hot, other than to say, “That’s southern, hot-head, NASCAR behavior and heritage.”

    Which is cliche and lazy and a journalistic cop-out.

    I think, approaching this from a young-up-and-coming race car driver perspective, you’ve nailed Ward’s motivation perfectly. Here was a chance to make a highlight reel — Look at me go after Smoke, everyone!

    It was a calculated PR move in an attempt to garner attention in the race world, and enhance his reputation: Maybe Hendricks will take my call, now!

    As for Stewart’s intentions in that split second, only he knows. However, I don’t think he’d throw away his career and team by hitting what was, in essence, a pedestrian. Sure, he may spin you into the wall while you’re in your race car, but I can’t imagine for one moment that his only thought in that instant, upon seeing a figure just a few feet from his car, was anything other than to avoid hitting him.

    Reply
  3. galactagog

    I believe the throttle was an evasive maneuver, if anything. Those cars drift, right? so a lot of the steering is throttle control?

    in any case, a Darwin award nominee for running into traffic. Heck, he almost got smoked by the car in front of Smoke

    interesting I had never considered Ward’s motivation beyond the road rage, you may be right!

    RIP

    Reply
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  5. Bret

    I’ve never driven sprint cars but have been around them as a hard core fan for 30+ years, plus tinkered with them a bit. So, not an expert, more like a knowledgeable enthusiast.

    I could not agree more that Ward is vastly at fault. I hadn’t thought that his reaction was as calculated but it does make sense. He’s thinking, “Tony Stewart just took me out! If I make a big scene as I’ve seen him do, I’ll definitely make it on YouTube and racing blogs!”

    I’m sure Ward was upset but his reaction is many times beyond normal… maybe beyond normal for him. So, yeah, his over the top reaction was probably more calculated than spontaneous.

    I’ve been to 100’s of sprint cars races and cannot recall ever seeing a driver get out of a car and run into the groove of a hot track to confront another driver. Yeah, seen plenty of confrontations in the pits, but never on track. Ward was an experienced enough racer to know better.

    As for Tony, his temper boils when he feels wronged, or when someone does something stupid at the wrong place or time. Watching the video I don’t see where Tony’s driving was egregious. Going into turn 1, Tony was in the middle of the track with a car on the inside and Ward on the outside. Tony’s move was pretty aggressive but that is sprint car racing. What happened to Ward was one of them racin’ deals, nothing more. No reason for Tony to use his car to lash out at Ward. If anything, Tony would feel some remorse for what happened to Ward. Tony would probably know Ward is an upcoming young driver, and Tony sees himself as an ambassador to sprint car racing where he can leverage his brand to advance the sport he loves. Ward would have been the kind of driver Tony would advocate for, not flippantly destroy.

    I feel terrible for Ward’s family and friends, but, honestly, I feel worse for Tony. If managed properly, the racing community will forgive him. Sprint car people understand the sport’s brutal history. This is just another tragic event in decades-long list of tragedies. The real questions is, can Tony forgive himself?

    Reply
    • Aaron Berga

      It would appear he can’t. According to Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip, Tony is retiring from all racing immediately and selling his stake in his Nascar team, and selling his racing teams. Time will tell I guess.

      Reply
  6. Matt P.

    I’ve watched that video clip a number of times. I don’t see how anyone can come to the conclusion that Tony altered his path based on the two or three tenths of a second’s worth of video between where Tony comes into the frame and Ward Jr. is struck. If anything, it looks to me like Tony is trying to evade him but is unsuccessful.

    About that engine sound: It kinda sorta correlates to when the fatal collision occurs, but to my ears, not really. There are what, 20 cars on track, how does anyone know which car that engine blip belonged to? The person holding the phone was in the main grandstands and there were plenty of cars on the front straight closer to it, how can anyone be sure it was Tony’s car? I’d have expected that the car whose throttle was blipped would have shown a change of attitude, I did not see Tony’s car do that.

    Reply
  7. paulinlasvegas

    I just found this site today and put it at the top of my bookmarks. TTAC will not be the same without you.

    Reply
  8. Narcoossee

    While your theory regarding Ward’s motivation for getting out of the car seems reasonable, it strikes me as odd that you go out of your way to claim you know absolutely nothing about the driving dynamics of a sprint car, and thus will not speculate, but then dive head first into speculating about Ward’s motive(s) for getting out of the car. This strikes me as inconsistent. Regarding Ward, it would be reasonable to point out that people of Ward’s age do not have fully developed brains, and are notoriously poor at assessing risk.

    Reply
    • Jack Post author

      I’m not a sprint car driver, but I’ve been W2W racing for close to a decade now and I know quite a bit about the motivations of young drivers. And, um, something something Emerson hobgoblin. 🙂

      Reply
  9. Johnny Puddles

    Dear Jack,

    Even if you are right about Kevin Ward’s motivation, in my humble opinion that does not end the inquiry.

    So, to quote Nina Hartley, “Let’s do a little thought experiment.”

    One: Avoidably (or unavoidably), Tony Stewart bumps Ward out of the race. We then go with your assumption that in a comparative heartbeat–what, three seconds? two? one?–Ward decides to make media lemonade out of the basket of lemons he’s been handed, and settles upon a strategy of wagging his finger* from up close, as Stewart comes around again. (I don’t really buy it, but I do know that some peoples’ brains work more quickly than mine (or perhaps just more impulsively, and with fewer governing functions).

    (*Not giving a middle finger, so that all media outlets can show it.)

    Two: Ward executes his media strategy, approaching the path Stewart’s car is on.

    Three: Let’s now assume that Stewart, every bit as fast on the uptake as Ward is with his strategizing, figures out that Ward’s plan is to chastise Stewart in public, and thereby gain both celebrity and respect.

    Four: Ward’s plan goes right up Stewart’s kiester. So in a heartbeat, Stewart devises his “media counter-strategy”: As he passes, he will cover Ward in mud by edging closer to him while hitting the gas to make his rear tires cover spin, as seen in some old “Three Stooges” episodes. Stewart plans to put the young upstart in his place–Ward will be pitied as the young pup that the Alpha Dog covered in mud.

    Five: Except, both strategies ganged agley… .

    Ward underestimated the risk, and, in my scenario, Stewart over-estimated his ability to achieve a very limited result: to cover the kid in mud but not really hurt him.

    # # #

    One historical precedent for this over-estimation of one’s ability finely to gauge the violence one inflicts upon another is when Miles Davis broke a girlfriend’s jaw. As she (it might have been Cicely Tyson) was taken to a hospital, to a confidant, Miles Davis excoriated himself.

    Davis excoriated himself NOT for beating a girlfriend, but only for losing control. You see, Davis prided himself on his ability to terrorize his girlfriends without their requiring hospitalization.

    So, let’s say you are right about Mr. Ward. That was foolish and immature.

    But in my scenario, what Mr. Stewart did is a CRIME, and under the “Felony Murder” doctrine, reckless driving aimed at a person (albeit doubtless with the limited goals of scaring Ward or humiliating him) could be the basis of a second-degree murder charge.

    I personally believe that in cases such as this, the interests of everyone are best served by empaneling a special Grand Jury. And if they report No True Bill, there is a measure of closure for everyone.

    And, in that scenario, my humble opinion only, Mr. Stewart would be poorly served by advice to plead the Fifth Amendment.

    All the best.

    JP

    Reply
    • Jack Post author

      To some degree, getting next to a racecar on a track is so dangerous that I’m not sure you can make the case for murder.

      If Tony were at a firing range in the middle of a competition and some guy ran between him and the target as he was shooting, you’d be hard-pressed to argue felony murder, wouldn’t you? I think this is basically the same thing.

      Reply
      • Johnny Puddles

        Dear Jack,

        Well, first of all, and I know I am being really picky here, I was not “making a case for murder.”

        I was making a case for a CHARGE of “Felony Murder,” which is quite different.

        “Felony Murder” is a “legal fiction” that (I am told by people with more experience than I, in that in 20 years I only heard of one case where that charge was in issue, and in the end the same result was reached on the Conspiracy count) is not instantly popular with juries, because at first blush it seems unfair to convict on a (reduced) murder charge when the necessary intent is imputed as a matter of law.

        So, it is entirely possible that no DA in wherever in New York State this happened has the stomach to become the Marcia Clark of this drama. Using the Felony Murder doctrine is a very aggressive move, and, as I understand it, is usually just “charge enhancement” to move the range of acceptable plea bargains up closer to the gravity of the case–a young man died in this incident. So, odds are, in will not happen.

        I expect that a DA might go for the NY equivalent of, “Driving to Endanger, Death Resulting,” and then Mr. Stewart would have his chance to explain to a jury his side of the story, and if he has a competent defense team, they will put on driver and non-driver expert witnesses to testify that there were valid reasons for his front wheels to twitch and his rear wheels to spin.

        As far as your firing range hypothetical goes, it overstates the case and thereby refutes itself. How about this, then? A jerk walks down the sideline of a firing range and stops halfway so he can make loud comments on the ineptitude of the shooter in the last position, closest to where he is standing.

        The shooter then decides to fire a shot intended to “brush back” the kibbitzer, but his fast move to the right with his handgun is too much, and he shoots the idiot. Who promptly dies.

        Yes, the idiot should not have been there. But all day, every day, anywhere in the US, that is a case of criminal negligence, and a DA who plays the tune of “Depraved Indifference to Human Life” easily can go for an out and out murder charge, again, regardless of the lack of intent to kill, without justification, and without malice aforethought, the person who ended up dead.

        Imputing intent to turn a judgment error into a species of murder is no more “unfair” than the operation of the law of criminal conspiracy. Imagine three young men over the age of 18 decide to rob a gas station. One driver, one gunner, one spokesman. The clerk panics and freezes, and despite the spokesman’s previous order to shoot only in self-defense, the gunner, in pure exasperation, shoots the clerk, and they run out to the car with no money gained, and the driver drives until they are rammed and cuffed. The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” then ensues. The gunner and the spokesman each cop pleas in ignorance of the deal the other got, and both pleas require them to testify against anyone who goes to trial.

        Urged on by his mother (sadly, I am not making this up), the driver, whose Mom says he is “innocent,” stands trial, and to make themselves look good, his former confederates say that they were all in it together and in it to win it and that who did what was last minute luck of the draw; the driver was not a Buddhist, after all.

        The jury convicts, and the judge takes it out of the driver’s hide for costing the state a trial when the two arguably more responsible actors had pled.

        Bottom line: the sentence imposed on the conspirator who stayed in the car was the longest of all. That outcome is justified by the doctrine that once you sign on to a criminal conspiracy, you are responsible personally for all the harm the conspiracy does.

        Oh well, time will tell.

        JP

        Reply
  10. Kevin Jaeger

    Yeah, we don’t know what Tony was thinking but I think we know even less about what Kevin Ward was thinking.

    Perhaps he was enraged because he expected better from a veteran driver like Stewart? Maybe he was just having a bad day and was in a bad mood for reasons entirely unrelated to racing and this incident put him over the edge? We’ll certainly never know what Kevin Ward was thinking, but Tony Stewart may eventually let out why he was spinning his wheels and spraying dirt just then.

    Reply
    • Matt P.

      Go look at the video again. There was no wheelspin, and the racing surface was so packed down where the cars were that no dirt was being sprayed.

      Reply
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