NASCAR Star Tony Stewart Hit And Killed Kevin Ward Jr., And It Didn't Have To Happen
If you're anything like me, this story may have flown past you when it happened — there are few things I find less interesting than auto racing — but what took place over the weekend at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York was a genuine tragedy that could have been avoided, and it deserves your attention. During a sprint car race Saturday night (more on that distinction later), veteran NASCAR star Tony Stewart hit and killed Kevin Ward, Jr., a 20-year-old driver who was on foot on the racetrack after Stewart had spun out his car one lap earlier.
It was every bit as awful to watch as you would expect — this is known thanks to amateur video of the incident, which I'm not going to show here, and I'd strongly advise you to skip.
If you're a non-racing fan like me, it can be a little hard to understand what exactly went down, but here's what happened: The incident took place during a sprint car race, which are vastly different from the races you might see a few seconds of while flipping through the channels — Sprint car races generally use modified, winged-style cars that handle much differently than NASCAR's stock cars.
During Saturday's race — which, it's important to note, was not a NASCAR event — Stewart made contact with Ward's car and sent him spinning into the wall. Such crashes are fairly common in professional racing, and safety technology is considerable, so while his race was over, Ward was safe and sound inside his stopped vehicle.
But he was apparently furious at Stewart for having ended his night, so he climbed out of his car and jogged out onto the track to yell, point at, and berate Stewart as his car was coming around again.
As Stewart came around the turn, the rear right tire of his car appeared to jerk outward, clipping Ward and dragging him under for a moment before hurling him across the track. An investigation is ongoing, to determine what exactly happened, and whether Stewart bears any culpability — some eyewitness reports claimed he gunned his engine as he passed Ward, which could have caused the rear of the car to flare outwards.
But Ward himself has borne a lot of blame in the aftermath, with people understandably in disbelief than he would be running towards, rather than away, from a live race track. It was a terrible decision, of course, and one which ultimately cost him his life. But it's also the sort of thing which professional racers have done before, implicitly embraced (if not celebrated) in racing culture. Stewart himself, in fact, is a world-class virtuoso of post-wreck rage, having once run up at a passing rival's car and hurled a his helmet into his windshield.
If you're in any doubt about whether NASCAR embraces these kinds of moments, that video came from their official YouTube account. You can hear the announcers admire Stewart's helmet fling, as rival driver Matt Kenseth's car streaks by mere feet away: "That's a perfect strike."
Basically, and crazily, there apparently aren't hard and fast rules to keep a vulnerable, on-foot driver running up towards active cars on the track. If safety were paramount, this sort of thing would clearly never have been allowed in the first place, with some appropriately harsh punishments to deter anyone from even thinking about it. But that's not what the culture of racing has dictated over the years, and it's easy to imagine a driver of Ward's youth buying into that kind of foolhardy machismo, especially when directed at a notorious hothead like Stewart.
In this way, whether Stewart bears any criminal or civil blame for Ward's death, he must at least shoulder a fair share of the cultural responsibility, as must racing itself. The fact that Ward thought he could or should do that, and probably would have drawn praise from some race fans for standing up to Stewart, isn't his fault alone.
Rather, it's kind of the fault of everyone involved, letting something that absurdly dangerous become ingrained into the fabric of the sport. And hopefully, after this needless death, some changes will come.