Those of you who know me well know that I am a fan of auto racing such as NASCAR. I have seen many tragic and unfortunate things happen in my times as a racing fan (amongst other things, I've seen both Dale Earnhardt and Dan Wheldon die live on TV). But last night, one of the darkest things I've ever seen in all my years as a racing fan occurred-I'm sure many of you may very well have already heard about this, and may have strong opinions of your own. Needless to say, I'm really shocked and horrified by what has happened. However, I am also disgusted by how some people out there are reacting to this...so be prepared for a lengthy journal of my thoughts.
Last night, a terrible accident happened at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park dirt track in New York involving 3-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series happens to be racing in the local area this weekend (at Watkins Glen, a famous road course I have had the privilege of being able to visit before; I attended a couple of IndyCar races there a few years back while visiting my family). Many NASCAR drivers like to participate in lower, non-NASCAR sanctioned events for various reasons (fun, charity, etc.), and so Stewart was competing in a sprint car race at the dirt track.
An accident occurred between Stewart and local driver Kevin Ward, Jr., who was only 20 years old. Ward's car lost control and crashed out of the race. After the accident, Ward was angry at Stewart and decided to climb out of his car to show his displeasure at being taken out of the race (as so many drivers have done over the years after crashes). He walked right into the racing groove where the cars were running under the caution flag. A video taken by a fan in the grandstands (which I have had the displeasure of watching-I would be happy if I NEVER saw that again in my life) shows that the part of the track where the accident happened was dimly lit, and Ward happened to be wearing a black helmet and black driver's suit, which certainly couldn't have helped make him more visible to the other drivers. Disaster struck when Stewart's car approached. The car in front of Tony just missed Ward, but Stewart, unfortunately, clipped Ward and ran him over. He was flung across the track and lay motionless after the impact. Sadly, Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. Stewart has not been charged criminally, but the police are investigating the incident to determine what exactly happened. Stewart is cooperating with the authorities, and has withdrawn from the Cup race at Watkins Glen today, relegating his seat to Regan Smith.
This is truly one of the most tragic things I've ever seen in my time as a racing fan, and I'm deeply saddened and shocked by what occurred. But what bothers me is how many people-particularly those who are not NASCAR fans and have probably never seen an auto race before-are reacting to this tragedy. You see, Tony Stewart has long had a reputation as being one of NASCAR's more hot-headed drivers. Many people out there think Tony Stewart lost his temper and intentionally ran over Ward in an act of murder. Stewart revved the engine in his car and fishtailed just before he struck Ward, and lots of people see this as a sign that he deliberately gunned for Ward. I have seen people actually call for Stewart to be charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to death. (I've also already seen people calling for auto racing to be banned in America...which I will not comment on as I know that is not going to happen as a result of this.)
This makes me sick to my stomach hearing people say this. I'm never been a big Tony Stewart fan, and I will acknowledge that he has definitely had his moments where he has let his temper get the best of him. But at least, judging from what I saw, I truly think this was just a horrible accident and not an act of murder. Tony Stewart is one of NASCAR's more accomplished drivers-aside from being a 3-time Cup series champion, he also won an IndyCar championship years ago, co-owns his own successful 4-car team in NASCAR, and has experienced success in many other forms of motorsport. It makes no sense for him to throw away his career and life by intentionally killing another driver. He may be fairly hotheaded, but he's not an idiot. I can't see him doing something so stupid and irrational in the heat of the moment. Based on what I saw, Ward didn't use his head and walked right into the racing groove. Stewart probably only had a couple of seconds to react due to another car being in front of him (and the fact that area of the track was dimly lit and Ward wore a black helmet and uniform), may have tried to accelerate or swerve to avoid him, and happened to clip him. This is what I think most likely happened based on what I saw (the video's not completely clear). He stopped his car immediately after the accident, and voluntarily sat out of the NASCAR race of his own accord-things that, to me, suggest this was almost certainly not an intentional act.
The fact that people are jumping to conclusions about this without even letting the matter be investigated-in particular, people who have zero knowledge of the sport-just grinds my gears. I will be openly honest and admit I have definitely been guilty of doing this before (hell, at first, I actually jumped to conclusions with this as well since the details were so sketchy)...but I hate how judgmental our society is. People like to jump to conclusions before all the facts are known. We ought to wait until all the facts have been sorted out by the police before passing judgement on this, but no, people are already calling Stewart a murderer. Whenever somebody does something wrong, people instantly deem them guilty before the matter can even be properly investigated and/or the trial can begin. Instead of "innocent until proven guilty", most people's attitude towards things like this seems to be "guilty until proven innocent". It makes me think of the old days where people would get lynched based solely on accusations without ever being given a chance at a fair trial. I would much rather people let the police sort the whole matter out than try to be armchair policemen/judges/juries...
This is truly a terrible tragedy that has forever altered the course of several lives...one that could have easily been avoided. My thoughts and sympathy go out to the friends and family of Kevin Ward, Jr. It's such a shame to see someone's life cut so short, in the prime of their youth with their whole lives ahead of them. Ward was only 20 years old, younger than myself. It saddens me even more knowing that he's only going to be famous for being the guy run over by Tony Stewart rather than for any of his racing accomplishments. But I can't help but feel sorry for Stewart as well. I have no idea what punishments he might face (if not charged criminally, I am certain he's going to be hit with a massive lawsuit from Ward's family as a result of this, plus I wouldn't be surprised if this brought an end to his racing career), but he is going to have to live with this for the rest of his life. He will always have to live with the fact that he hit another driver and ended his life. I wouldn't doubt that this would traumatize him for years to come; that's not something I would wish on anyone. His reputation has also forever been tarnished by this incident; no matter what, there are going to be people out there who will think of him as some kind of psychopathic homicidal maniac. Again, not something I would wish on anyone.
Above all else, this is one of the darkest days in my time as a racing fan. I'm sorry for going on a rant here (I've had a long time to think about it-I barely got any sleep last night after hearing about this!), but I had a lot I wanted to say here. I will still continue to be a fan of the sport (it's been in my blood for far too long for me to give up on it now), but it's time like these when I really do wonder why I follow such a dangerous sport...