Plenty of people have weighed in on the tragic events last weekend at a short track in New York.
A few were there. Many weren’t.
But there’s only one person who really knows what happened: Tony Stewart.
Until he talks openly and honestly about what was going through his mind when he came around a turn and saw – or maybe didn’t see – 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. standing in the track, NASCAR officials should not allow Stewart back into the ride that pays his bills.
Everyone is eager to hear what he has to say, his supporters especially.
“I think a lot of us and many people out there will feel better hearing his side of the situation,” fellow Sprint Cup star Jimmie Johnson said Friday. “I know what I believe happened. I think it was completely an accident. So, in time, we’ll see – when Tony is able to talk and how things go from there.”
Stewart has already sat out one race since the incident, and he won’t be competing Sunday at Michigan.
According to his team, Stewart is still riddled with grief and in no shape to drive his No. 14 car.
That could be telling.
Stock car drivers are different than the rest of us. Quite understandably, given their profession involves racing side by side at speeds approaching 200 mph. Death is a constant companion, so they can’t be frightened of it. When it does come, they’re a lot more adept at dealing with it than the average human being, even if they’re involved in a wreck that costs someone else their life.
Back in 2001, on the final turn of the Daytona 500, Sterling Marlin’s front bumper made contact with Dale Earnhardt’s rear bumper. Just two guys racing hard to win the sport’s biggest race. But Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup champion, swerved straight into the outside wall. He died instantly.
Marlin received hate mail and death threats afterward, but he was back racing the very next weekend. So was Dale Earnhardt Jr., just days removed from burying his father.
While Stewart has surely been told by his legal team to stay quiet, his decision not to race raises at least a couple of scenarios: He is so shaken up by what was nothing more than an awful accident that he’s actually considering whether he wants to keep racing at age 43. Or he knows deep in his heart that his well-documented temper got the best of him. When he came around that turn and spotted a young driver with the gall to shake a fist at him, he made the split-second decision to give him a little scare and his car wound up hitting him.
Again, there’s only one person who truly knows the answer to that question.
“Is he going to say what he done?” asked the victim’s father, Kevin Ward Sr., in an interview with The Syracuse Post-Standard.
But those words should be filtered through the prism of a grieving parent, who is obviously in no position to pass balanced judgment in this case.
Judging from the grainy, shaky video of the incident, the younger Ward deserves plenty of blame.
Angry at being pushed into the wall by Stewart, he had no business getting out of his car and storming toward the apron of the track, where other cars continued to speed by even though the race was under a yellow flag. It looked as though the car just in front of Stewart actually swerved to miss Ward.
Obviously, Stewart did not, but it very well could be that he just didn’t have enough time.
While we wait to hear from Stewart, NASCAR took an overdue step Friday to improve the safety of its drivers. The governing body said they cannot approach the track or moving cars after accidents, requiring them to stay in their machines until emergency crews arrive unless there are extenuating circumstances such as fire in the cockpit.
But NASCAR didn’t go far enough with the potential penalties. In fact, no one really knows what could happen to a driver who breaks the rule, since VP of competition and racing development Robin Pemberton called it a “behavioral-type thing” that will “be addressed according to each situation.”
Obviously, NASCAR doesn’t want stray too far from its good ol’ boy image, knowing fans get a kick out of drivers throwing tantrums for all to see. The organization should have mandated, at the very least, a one-race suspension for anyone who violates the rules, even longer for repeat offenders.
We don’t need any more tragedies because of out-of-control emotions.
On the video of last week’s incident, it looked as though Stewart turned his wheel to the left – with Ward coming at him from the right – which caused the back end of the winged car to slide around. There are those who claim Stewart stepped on the gas when he saw Ward, but others have countered that a sprint car is controlled as much with the throttle as with the steering wheel.
Stewart very plausibly could have been trying to avoid Ward.
Now, it’s time to confront the truth.
Smoke, tell us what happened.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963