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.