Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Sports

Tony Stewart faces tough questions after racing death

Two men.

Two drivers.

Two tales of tears and tragedy.

This is what you will find at the bottom of the sorrow. You will find sadness. For the kid who died. For the star who is left with the questions about how he contributed to it. For a dark night at the track.

You cannot get around either half of the story. One life ended. Another was altered. For all of the questions, and for all of the accusations, this much seems inescapable: The rest of it will be argued about for years.

Start with the unknown driver, because humanity ranks higher than celebrity. Kevin Ward Jr. was a 20-year-old driver who, we hear, had lots of promise. It was rage that pulled him out of the wrecked car, and it was rage that killed him. This much seems inarguable. Oh, other drivers have left other cars before in anger, but to do so is potential suicide. What are you going to do? Punch a car? Yell as someone drives past?

As a sport, auto racing has dealt with tragedy before. But there is a difference in this and a driver dying in a car wreck. Even with a gut-wrenching loss such as Dan Wheldon or Dale Earnhardt, there is the understanding that this is the deal they struck to pursue the sport they loved.

But a kid running down the interstate? How can you ever reconcile that? How can you absorb all of the moments, all of the promise, all of the life, that was squandered?

All of which leads us to the combustible Tony Stewart, the man who must answer all of the questions, including those he might ask of himself.

Even now, there are those who call out "murderer!'' to Stewart on his own Facebook page. Also, there are those who defend Stewart, 43, of everything but being in the wrong race car at the wrong time. The truth, as it usually is, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

And so the Trial of Tony Stewart begins in public. In many ways, his reputation is already a witness against him.

Can you imagine this happening to another driver, a gentler driver? Jimmie Johnson, maybe. Dale Earnhardt Jr.? The same things wouldn't be said, nor would the same tone be used. The public would try to understand. It would try to feel their pain. It would not suggest the same reckless behavior.

Ah, but this is Stewart. This is the hothead. This is the guy who left his own race car two years ago to throw a helmet at Matt Kenseth. This is the pushing, prodding, in-your face brawler who kicks tape recorders and takes no prisoners. If his engine wasn't going to blow a gasket, then by golly, Stewart was.

What we are left with then, if we are fair, are questions.

What did Stewart see? It was night, and the lighting has been questioned, and Ward was wearing dark clothing. Still, others did manage to swerve to avoid Ward. Tyler Graves, another sprint car driver who was sitting in the stands, told the Sporting News that a driver should have been able to see Ward.

Even under a caution flag, however, there are cars in another's line of sight. It stands to reason that, eventually, a man on a racetrack is going to get hit. But was vision the problem here? Was the quick judgment an issue?

What was Stewart's intent? This might eventually be up to the courts to decide in a civil case. Was Stewart really trying to come close enough to intimidate Ward, as has been suggested? Did he really want to spray some dirt on him and instead got too close? Was he simply trying to speed past Ward?

Fans are going to believe what they wish. Stewart fans will be horrified by any suggestion of intent. Stewart's critics will point to his history and wonder.

"Kevin was (angry) and he let Tony know,'' Graves said. "And Tony was trying to let Kevin know that he wasn't too happy either. He went over the line with it.''

This is a crucial element of the debate. If Stewart had any intent, any, then he shares the blame of what happened.

On the other hand, how do you read into a man's soul? Unless there are experts dissecting the film, it's going to be difficult to judge.

Was Stewart really prepared to race Sunday, regardless? The first statement from the Stewart camp was that it was "business as usual,'' which to some indicated indifference to what had occurred.

But let's be real here. Do you really think Stewart himself is tweeting on the morning before a race? Do you think he is that callous?

Look, drivers live a lot closer to death than the rest of us. Remember how Wheldon's death left a mark on everyone around him? How can you argue on one hand that Stewart played a role, however small, in a man's death and argue on the other that he didn't feel this? Whether he felt he should race on Sunday, even for a moment, is a different argument. But I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Does Stewart realize this could have been him? Over the next few days, when people talk about Stewart, the old images of him flinging his helmet toward Kenseth's car will be in the background. You can still talk about tempers out of control, and it's easier to watch.

Every time, however, you will know that it could have been Stewart wandering too far, that it could have been Kenseth who might have been the driver in a senseless tragedy.

In the echoes of such a horrible moment for a sport, none of us has the answers. We can pretend we do. We can talk Internet tough.

The tougher questions involve state of mind. They're the ones being asked by Ward's relatives. They're the ones being asked by other drivers. They're the ones being asked by those who run the sport.

And, yes, they should be the ones being asked by Stewart, too.

   
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