Sometime around two in the morning I saw the video – a young Kevin Ward Jr. pulled under Tony Stewart's tire and thrown to his death at a small dirt track a few hours north of me. It's what I, and what we all couldn't see, that still defines the wreck.
The point of the matter is that we can't tell Stewart's intentions from the video. It looks like he tries to do something, gassing up right before he hit Ward. But it's not clear if Stewart could see him, or if he was trying to avoid him, or if he was trying to intimidate him.
Things start to get murky when you look at a sprint car itself, and the track as well.
Now, I've never driven a sprint car, and I've never raced on a dirt track. But I have driven a car with a sprint car rear differential, and I can tell you that how it is made makes it a bitch to handle. It's a total on/off switch, and the car could be making Tony's actions look like something they're not.
Moreover, it's hard to tell what Tony could or couldn't see. Don't assume that visibility was great that night. First of all, Ward Jr. was in a dark suit and helmet against a dark background. Even leaving that aside, I've talked to short track racers, and on some of the steeper, smaller tracks, modified drivers have to cut holes in their roof to see all the way through a corner. A sprint car is much more open than a modified car, but I still find it believable that Tony might not have seen Ward until very late.
The problem with this line of thinking is that there doesn't seem like a good reason why Tony would get on the gas when he did. It's unusual. To get around the track at that speed, it's unnecessary.
But again, the trouble comes down to Stewart's unknown intention.
For all we know, Tony was trying to avoid Kevin, and the car slipped wide. Just as easily, Tony could have been trying to scare him and the back end got unexpectedly loose. You would think that Tony would handle his car better than that, but even the pros make mistakes.
I've met Tony Stewart once. Matt Hardigree and I randomly ended up hanging out with him the night before the NASCAR truck race at Eldora, a dirt oval he owns, part of a sport you could tell he truly loves. He was switching between cracking jokes and talking with great perspective on dirt track racing, experience, and tact in motorsports. Today, I don't believe for a moment that Stewart could have tried to kill a guy. His reputation and history as a hot head is one thing, but to try and kill a 20-year-old racer does not line up with the conversation — in parts just a long soliloquy on the sport — had that night just a few weeks ago. Not in a million years.
But I don't put adrenaline and bad judgement past anyone. It would not surprise me if Tony tried to answer Ward's aggression with a bark of the engine or a close brush with his back tires. That would be a lapse in judgement that lines up with his history as well as his reported grief and cooperation with the police following the crash.
It's not uncommon for drivers in small-time races to get into one another. Just look at what goes down at Bowman Gray.
The understanding, as far as I can tell, is that if you try and screw with another driver, you both stay in your cars.
Ward being out of his car on a hot track could have been all it took to push things over the edge. Over the edge, I mean, from a relatively harmless racing incident into a fatal one.
I know I've posted 'lol look at this' videos of drivers getting out of their cars and throwing helmets or karate kicking each other or whatever. But there is a reason why you don't get out of a car on a hot track like that. Shit can happen, and it did.
But that's all we know now. What still remains unclear is what Tony saw coming around turn two at Canandaigua, and what he was trying to accomplish with his right foot. It's these unknowns that will define the night.
Photo via YouTube