(Note: I will refer to both the "Sprint Cup series" and "sprint cars" a few times during this post, they are two separate things, governed by two separate entities. One by NASCAR, a stock car racing series, and USAC, an open-wheel series.)
I have been a fan of motorsports for essentially my entire life, all of 24 years. Some of my earliest memories involve me sitting in the living room with my dad watching NASCAR races and NHRA events, while playing with my abundance of die cast cars. Yet, until this morning, I don't think I've been as sickened by news of a driver passing as I was to hear about Kevin Ward.
When you're a fan of any form of car racing, you build a relationship with the drivers you watch every weekend for three-quarters of the calendar year. So, when you lose one of those drivers, you feel as if you lost a part of your regular, everyday life. After Dale Sr. died at the 2001 Daytona 500, I bawled even though I couldn't stand the man; but he was ripped from us in a split second in something that seemed too routine to be fatal. In 2011, when Dan Wheldon passed during an IndyCar race in Las Vegas, I reacted the same way.
Somehow, those deaths just felt like part of the sport, as menial as that may seem. What happened last night between Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, however, did not.
In my lifetime, I've seen just about every form of retaliation following a wreck, or a bump and run situation during a race. Fights have been commonplace, with at least a few happening every season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (which is what I watch every weekend during the year). Trading paint on pit lane, during and following races, is even more common. Getting out of your car immediately after getting wrecked and pointing any number of fingers at the driver who bumped you, is something countless amounts of Cup series drivers are guilty of, including Tony Stewart.
What makes this particular situation different, isn't as much the death of Kevin Ward (though I don't mean to downplay the horrible tragedy that it is), it's the fact that Tony Stewart is the man behind the end result.
Smoke, as he's affectionately referred to in garages and NASCAR TV circles, has been racing in damn near anything with four wheels since the early 90s. He's achieved massive success in USAC sprint/midget cars, IndyCar, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and in NASCAR's top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck Series.
Tony has made millions upon millions of dollars, enough to open and operate his own team (Stewart-Haas Racing) and buy his own dirt tracks (the legendary Eldora Speedway, among others). Though he has amassed this wealth, he continues to take part in hobby races, mostly sprint car events, just like the one at Canandaigua Motorsports Park last night.
Last year, Smoke was involved in a horrific, end-over-end accident in a sprint car event at Southern Iowa Speedway which shattered his right leg, and kept him out of the second half of the Sprint Cup season, and the Chase for the Championship. This would normally motivate any other driver to end their hobby racing, and focus primarily on his paid profession, but not Smoke.
Since returning to full-time Cup racing this season, Tony has continued to race on off weekends and weekdays at smaller circuits around the country.
His former boss, Joe Gibbs, who gave Tony his first full-time stock car ride, once put a stipulation is his contracts that prohibited him from entering non-NASCAR sanctioned events. In response, Tony would enter sprint car races under aliases (partly contributing to the way he got his popular nickname) and defied Gibbs' rules.
Now, as he signs his own checks, Tony's obligations are only to himself and his career, being as he isn't married and has no children.
Smoke's temper has never waned, though it's mostly been seen under the light of a professional setting. At Canandaigua, he was under the air of amateurism, simply another part of the cast of weekend warriors who brings a trailer and a car made in a garage attached to a house in suburbia.
From everything I've read about what transpired last night, both Tony and Kevin Ward battled back and forth all night, and have apparently had a history of battling during races in the past. And, after finally watching the footage from the accident, the cause of Ward's dismay seemed simply to be from a typical racing move. What transpired after that, is far from typical.
As I said before, drivers getting out of their cars to confront their peers is not new, but what Tony did in response, is.
Normally, while running under caution and seeing a competitor on foot on track, you would stay as far away from them as possible while you're behind the wheel of a several hundred pound machine. Tony did not.
While I truly believe that no physical malice was intended by Tony, his lack of common sense in the heat of the moment greatly outweighs any lapse in judgement you may think Ward may have simultaneously had.
No level of hot temper should have made Tony Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, get his car within 10 feet of the 20-year old Kevin Ward. This was inexcusable stupidity by a professional race car driver in an amateur setting.
Then again, no detailed statement on Tony's behalf has been made to defend his innocence in not truly attempting to harm Kevin Ward.
This incident, of all things, should encourage NASCAR's immediate action. Not just through Mike Helton's advisement, but directly from the top, from the France family that owns and operates the sport. I know banning a hobby may seem impossible, or critically harsh, but the future of the business and its stars may need this to set the game straight again.
As for Tony himself, holding out of the Watkins Glen Cup race may or may not have been his idea, but in the wake of such events it was the right move. What comes of his career is now a different story. We could see him face criminal charges, or disciplinary actions on the part of his co-owner Gene Haas, or the higher-ups at NASCAR, or possibly retreating from the sport altogether.
Whichever outcome we see, it may change the way drivers spend their off weekends from now on, and it may be for the best of the sport in the long run.