The world of NASCAR was shocked when Tony Stewart killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. Millions of viewers watched Ward’s car spin into the wall after being bumped by Stewart. As Stewart’s car circled back from another lap, millions of viewers watched as Ward angrily marched toward Stewart’s oncoming car, pointing an accusatory finger.
Then, millions of viewers saw Ward’s body fly from the sudden impact with Stewart’s car.
Despite almost 20 years of racing experience and 48 race wins, many questioned Stewart’s intentions. An investigation, led by the Ontario County District’s Sheriff Philip Povero, had asked many fans to turn over pictures and video footage of the incident to the sheriff’s office as evidence. The video of the event showed Ward making accusatory gestures toward Stewart, but the authorities were still trying to determine if Stewart had swerved his car in Ward’s direction in a threatening manner.
For seven weeks, the case continued to explore various forms of evidence, during which time the three-time Sprint Cup Champion separated himself from the racing world. In the period following the investigation, Stewart, a 43-year-old veteran driver, kept a low profile. Upon his return, Stewart received support from both his sponsor and his teammates. Bass Pro Shop’s founder, Johnny Morris, expressed support for Stewart not only as a sponsor, but as a friend. When he finally did make his competitive return, others followed suit in showing support and jubilation at Stewart’s reentry into the world of racing.
Then on Sept. 24, 2014 Tony Stewart was cleared by the Orange County Grand Jury of any suspicions. Evidence, revealed during the trial, proved Ward was under the influence of marijuana the night of the accident. In the examined footage, investigators observed that the first car to pass Ward had to swerve in order to avoid hitting him. Ward was then struck by Stewart’s right rear tire, and hurtled through the air. He died of blunt force trauma to the head. But his death might be better understood as the poor decision to mix drugs, racecars, and a hot temper.
Stewart’s age, experience, successful racing record, and various character testimonies should silence any further accusation concerning this event. The additional presence of marijuana should answer the questions regarding Ward’s brash behavior. The Ward family, however, continues to pursue a civil suit against Stewart. They claim Stewart accelerated his car during a caution warning, which is a signal given for all cars to decelerate after a crash has occurred. Ward’s father said to a newspaper there was “no reason” for the accident due to Stewart’s record and experience as a driver.
In light of this event, NASCAR introduced a new rule to at least attempt to decrease the risk of driver deaths, because to completely eliminate the possibility of death in NASCAR is impossible. Now, a driver may not exit a crashed or disabled vehicle, unless the vehicle is on fire or until safety personnel arrive. This rule may seem obvious and inherent for all drivers to abide by, but in actuality, many racecar drivers exit their damaged vehicles in a storm of anger. Apparently, these hot rods can also be hot heads.
NASCAR, although seemingly pointless to those who do not understand the technique behind the mastery of driving a high speed car, is an extremely dangerous sport. 43 drivers race around a track in tight packs, cruising around 188 miles per hour. More than 520 people have died in U.S. auto racing over the past 25 years—an average of 21 deaths per year. Although NASCAR has enacted much reform to guarantee a safer sport, they still cannot completely erase all dangers. There will always be the potential for death on the NASCAR racetrack.
I’ve spent years trying to understand the fascination with NASCAR. About six million fans—one of them my own brother—crowd around their television sets every Sunday afternoon. For seven hours they sit there, glued to the blurry vision of race cars zooming around the track and leaving balls of melted rubber behind them. But in light of recent events, I see this not as a sport, but as an example of men toeing the line between life and death.