I was at a concert last Saturday night about an hour away from my home when the news broke about the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, so I still had Jana Kramer songs running through my mind when I opened Twitter early Sunday morning before going to sleep.
I could hardly believe what I was reading – NASCAR driver Tony Stewart hit and killed Ward, a 20-year-old sprint car driver, in an on-track incident. Ward was upset with Stewart about a racing incident, so he got out of his wrecked vehicle while the race was under caution to show Stewart his displeasure the next time the cars came around the track. Tragically, Stewart struck and killed him.
No details were available Saturday night about Stewart’s intentionality, or lack thereof, but it didn’t take long for fans to choose sides, which I didn’t understand. A video of the incident surfaced and it seemed to drive an even deeper divide. National news pundits picked up on the story and by Sunday afternoon, it was all over the place.
Ontario County sheriff Philip Povero has repeatedly issued statements saying the accident is under investigation, but that no criminal charges were pending at this point. On Monday, Povero said, “At this time, there are no facts that exist that support any criminal behavior or conduct or any probable cause of a criminal act in this investigation.” He has since indicated that the investigation could take two weeks, or longer. It’s far more important to get the facts straight than it is to set an arbitrary timetable.
But that still hasn’t kept people from taking to Twitter to offer their opinions about Stewart’s intentionality, calling him a murderer – go ahead and search Twitter for “Tony Stewart” and “murder” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
The truth is, none of us know what was going through Stewart’s mind as he made that lap under caution. Maybe he couldn’t see Ward and hit him accidentally. Maybe Stewart was trying to send Ward a message by getting close to him and he got closer than he intended. Or maybe the unthinkable happened. But referring to Stewart as a murderer without due process is a rush to judgment.
If you’ve followed my NASCAR writing over the years, then you’ll know I’m far from a Stewart apologist. He has inconsistent expectations from his competitors at times (screaming about opponents who block one week, and then wrecking half the field just a few weeks later while blocking). He is cocky, hot-headed and often shows a lack of respect for the print media (the same media who helps to spread the NASCAR gospel to the masses). But none of those traits make him a murder.
He’s also far more than just an abrasive personality.
In my NASCAR book, Racin’ Flat Out for Christ: Spiritual Lessons from the World of NASCAR, I include a section about Stewart's philanthropy. I tell a story about how he has helped long-time NASCAR driver Morgan Shepherd on numerous occasions.
Near the end of the 2011 season, Shepherd’s car was destroyed in an accident at Phoenix International Raceway. The aging veteran, who had limited sponsorship, had no idea how he would get the engine in shape for the next week, let alone put tires on the car (a set of tires in NASCAR costs roughly $2,000). He managed to repair the engine in time, and then Tony Stewart came calling, buying Shepherd two sets of tires so he could continue racing. It wasn’t the first time Stewart did that for Shepherd. It was Stewart’s way of honoring a driver who helped pave the way for the modern NASCAR era.
Stewart also has a foundation in which he raises funds to help care for children who have been diagnosed with critical or chronic illnesses, drivers who have been injured and at-risk animals. He won the 2010 NMPA Home Depot Humanitarian Award. USA Weekend once named him “Most Caring Athlete.” His “Prelude to the Dream” race has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity over the years. He has spent time at the Victory Junction Gang Camp and been part of the efforts of the Darrell Gwynn Foundation to give paralyzed people new wheelchairs. And from what I hear, that’s just a tip of the iceberg. He does much more of this type of work behind the scenes.
In other words, he’s not a coldhearted monster.
He does allow his emotions to get the best of him sometimes, and that may or may not have been the case last Saturday night. Only Tony knows. But until we have clear evidence that incriminates him, can we just let the legal process run its course? If you aren’t convinced you want to do so, then download the August 12 edition of the “Marty & McGee” podcast. Both of these journalists have been around the sport a long time, and they are both calling for the same thing.
Meanwhile, let’s pray for the Ward family. They buried their loved one Thursday and are hurting beyond words at this very moment.
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.