By Julie Buehler
The headline isn’t subtle. Nor should it be.
Tony Stewart was behind the wheel of a sprint car when he clipped Kevin Ward Jr. and took the man’s life.
Whether it was intentional or a horrible accident is totally irrelevant.
Tony Stewart should not make another dime, not spend another moment racing, not sign another autograph ever again. Kevin Ward Jr. can’t.
The shock of the incident on an upstate New York dirt track featuring sprint car racing and one of NASCAR’s biggest stars was instant and the details hard to believe.
Reports began streaming out on social media about Stewart hitting a fellow competitor who witnesses claimed was motionless on the ground after the collision.
Once the story was confirmed, speculation behind intent and fault began pouring out fast and furious. While most tried to be sensitive to the Ward family and Stewart’s inevitable position, no one really had enough information to make any sound conclusive determinations.
The authorities said no criminal charges were going to be files “at this time” against Stewart and all we knew for sure was Ward passed away at the age of 20.
Here’s more of what we know:
The sprint cars, not to be confused with Sprint Cup Racing, which is NASCAR stock cars that look more like every-day sedans, are glorified go-carts with massive back wheels and fins to help them retain some level of control while drivers try to careen out of control. The wheels are exposed, somewhat like Indy Cars, but the vehicle is not as large.
Sprint car racing is akin to high-end rec league competition. And as you might guess from the previous description, it’ not the safest form of racing to begin with.
In fact, in 2013, there were 3 deaths in sprint car racing and Stewart himself was badly injured in a crash. He broke his leg and missed the final 15 races in NASCAR.
But with that much danger, participants live on a steady stream of adrenaline. They race with the knowledge that each move plants them on the razor-thin edge of disaster or victory.
Now, add Tony Stewart’s cache to the equation. Consider Stewart’s success, since the mid-90’s in sprint car racing. He is a legend in the sport, at every level, the lowest to the highest, as an owner and driver, as a personality and pitchman.
His prestige would undoubtedly have other drivers excited to race him, and naturally, more excited to beat him.
So when Stewart bumped Ward and sent his car spinning into the wall, Ward had good reason to believe it wasn’t a rookie mistake and got out of his vehicle to confront Stewart.
That was not the safe thing to do, but again, this sport does attract those who do worry about the petty inconvenience of safety.
As Ward stomped around the track, other drivers passed by and managed to avoid hitting him. But as his arms flailed and Stewart approached, the video appears to show Ward getting caught in the back wheel. His body brutalized by blunt force trauma then flung to the ground where he laid motionless.
Reading Tony Stewart’s bio on his own website takes some time as the man has amassed an impressive resume in racing, ownership, business and beyond.
But reading about Tony Stewart in other publications and a different type of guy is communicated as his background has been one of intimidation, temper tantrums and poor behavior.
Not for one moment do I suppose Stewart meant to hit Ward or even hurt him. But I do think, given the background of the sport, Stewarts own past, his ego and Ward’s antics, Stewart tried to scare him.
And it went horribly wrong. Horribly wrong.
I don’t care how successful someone becomes or what kind of prestige they amass in their field of profession: When you take action, or lack thereof, and endanger the lives of others, it’s time to step away from the profession. When you take the life of another, it’s time to step away for good.
If you ever see Tony Stewart racing again, or pitching a sponsor, or engaging with fans, just know that Kevin Ward Jr. will never get that opportunity again.
And Stewart shouldn’t either.
Julie Buehler hosts the Coachella Valley’s most popular sports talk radio show, “Buehler’s Day Off” every day from 3-6 on 1010 KXPS, the valley’s all sports station. She can also be seen every morning between 6-7am on KMIR sharing the coolest stories in sports. She’s an avid gym rat, slightly sarcastic and more likely to recite Steve Young’s career passing stats than American Idol winners. Tune in M-F 3-6 pst at www.team1010.com or watch “Buehler’s Day Off” on Ustream and KMIR.com for her sports reports.