Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward Jr. Incident: My Questions

As you've most-likely already heard, Tony Stewart was involved in an incident at a sprint-car track in Upstate New York last night, one that culminated in the death of local driver Kevin Ward Jr.  Ward & Stewart had tangled, and while Stewart was able to drive away, Ward was wrecked.  Ward then stepped out of his car, walked over to show his displeasure with Stewart, and was run over by one of Stewart's tires, killing him.

As in any big tragedy such as this, the immediate debate surrounds hearsay, conjecture, and opinion.  There's very little actual insight provided (both from fans and from the media), and honest questions get drowned out by crazy ones.  So here, from my amateur standpoint as a hard-core Nascar fan, are MY questions that I have going forward:

1. What was the intent, if any?  This, to me, is the crux of the incident--and, unfortunately, easily the most-difficult thing to figure out.  Obviously, if Tony Stewart intentionally ran over Kevin Ward Jr, he should be charged with murder and immediately banned from any and all racing for life.  If it was a 100% honest accident, then I think this needs to be written off as a "tragic accident", and we need to move immediately to the safety-aspect of things.  Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in-between.  Did Tony make an honest mistake?  Did Tony just try to "scare him"?  If there WAS a mistake, was it the kind that anybody could make, or the kind that a Sprint Cup champion should be able to avoid?  Honestly, we'll probably never know the truth, and that leads right into my next question.

2. How will law enforcement handle this?  This, to me, is the most-fascinating aspect.  On the one hand, intent could be inferred (see above).  On the other, it WAS a racetrack, where certain risks are inherent--including, unfortunately, death.  Furthermore, Ward stepped out of his car on his own free-will.  If he had been forced-out by a fire or gas leak, that would be a different story.  But, again, he stepped out of his car on his own free-will.  I'd imagine that a lot will also have to do with how the local fans/public respond--if no charges are brought, will it just be looked at as "Millionaire gets off free?".

3. Who made the initial decision to have Tony Stewart race today?  Obviously, things have changed--Greg Zipadelli has since come out and said that Stewart will miss today's race, with Regan Smith running in his place.  But initially, Stewart was said to be racing today.  This, to me, makes absolutely no sense.  First off, it would have been a complete affront to Ward's family.  Second off, from a competition standpoint, how can a person run a high-caliber race less than a day after he's killed another human being?  Third off, from a purely public-relations standpoint, would Nascar really want all the additional attention that would come with having one of its competitors running mere hours after a tragedy?  Would the sponsors?  Would Tony himself?  Even if Tony Stewart is found 100% non-liable in this case, the initial decision to have him race today will likely haunt him for the rest of his career.

4. How will this affect Stewart-Haas Racing going forward?  Now we've moved on to the long-term effects, things that likely don't seem as important right now (and with good reason).  But what will happen to SHR going forward?  The team's co-owner has been involved in an incident in which someone has died--will sponsors want to be involved with someone like that?  The team COULD shift more ownership responsibility to co-owner Gene Haas, but remember, he did time years ago for tax evasion.  Greg Zipadelli could be pushed forward as the new "face" of ownership at SHR, but what if he was the one who made the initial decision to let Stewart race today?  Furthermore, will major sponsors like Mobil 1, Bass Pro Shops, Budweiser, Go Daddy and more stand by SHR through this, reduce their support, or leave all together?  The Stewart-Haas Racing we know today could look VERY different in a few months.

These are the four main questions that I have, and as I said before, we may never know the whole truth.  It is important that we reserve final judgement until we know as much as possible, and remain respectful of Kevin Ward Jr.'s family and memory as we go forward.