Tony Stewart didn’t kill a 20-year-old dirt-track racer named Kevin Ward Jr., Saturday night. The twisted, accepted culture of road rage in his profession tragically killed that kid.
It’s the same rage that has killed others on roads and highways across this country when men behind the wheels of powerful machines feel like they have been wronged and need to retaliate.
It’s the same rage Tony Stewart modeled so infamously during his career.
The rage that made him swing at other drivers who took him out of races. The rage that made him walk onto pit road and rifle his helmet off Matt Kenseth’s windshield two years ago. The rage that made him threaten to take out the cars driven by Kenseth, and nowhere is it more tolerated and part of a sport’s DNA than in auto racing.
“I learned my lesson there; I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now ’til the end of the year,” Stewart said of Kenseth then. “Every chance I’ve got.”
I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got.
Investigators of Ward’s death on the dirt track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Canandaigua, N.Y., are poring over all the images and angles from video and eyewitnesses they can before releasing their report and deciding what charges, if any, will be brought against Stewart.
But one glimpse of the amateur footage of the race is all that’s needed to show there’s only one real culprit — the twisted logic of those in the sport so used to the scene of a driver confronting another one on the track, in the pit or at his garage, they just say, nonchalantly, “That’s racin’. ”
Paul Kinney, a driver on the track Saturday night, told NBC News as much. “I drove right by him. He looked a little bit angry. I didn’t think much of it. A lot of drivers do that.”
That’s not just racin’. Those are anger issues not just allowed but fostered by generations of lit-fuse drivers and NASCAR officials, whose fines and suspensions for vigilante-justice drivers are really slaps on the wrist for multimillionaires in flame-retardant suits.
Even The King fell victim at least once to citizen road rage. In 1996, Richard Petty was fined $65 and assessed four points against his North Carolina’s driver’s license for tailgating and bumping another driver at 70 mph.
When the late Jim Murray famously began his iconic Indianapolis 500 story for the Los Angeles Times, “Gentlemen, start your coffins,” he forgot to mention the testosterone-fueled people inside. Everybody has a thrill-seeking, danger gene in NASCAR. If you don’t, you’re probably not racin’ for a living.
And Stewart’s supporters often credit his “I’ll-Show-Him” mantra for winning three NASCAR season titles and becoming that rare driver in the sport who co-owns his own racing team.
But the only thing the man nicknamed “Smoke” showed Ward was how to act irrationally when upset in competition, how to behave in a manner that would cost him his life.
Ward’s family is understandably heartbroken. Some are angry today. It’s completely rational to focus their anger on Stewart, a man with a hot-headed past who reportedly had bad blood with Ward on the track prior to Saturday night.
But when their heads and hearts clear, they should place most of their blame on the warped mind-set of others in racing, many of whom viewed Ward’s behavior after he spun out in an apparent collision with Stewart as just a regular Saturday night at the track.
Ward certainly didn’t go out there to die. But the mere thought process of a man in a black suit and black helmet darting onto an active, muddy, poorly lit track to confront another driver, with open-wheel cars traveling between 35 and 40 mph under a caution flag, is not a thought process at all.
It’s rage. It’s the synapses of the reptilian part of one’s brain taking over. The serotonin levels spiked, and that was it. Reason was gone. Within seconds, so was his life.
The most sobering part of what happened on that track is how many times many of us have either wanted to or have gotten out of a car to confront someone, how in that moment of fury we had to set things right with the universe and ensure justice is served to the offender with either our hands or mouths.
Often we never leave the car but ensure the offender is told off with f-bombs or upraised middle fingers. My friend did this once in Honolulu when he was cut off on a highway by three idiot teenagers. He was followed home and beaten within an inch of his life. He found in almost the worst possible way; it’s not worth it.
A friend gave me grief once for tailgating slow drivers. She said there was one way to stuff the frustration I felt in wanting to speed past a snail in the oncoming lane.
“Imagine the person in the driver’s seat is God. And God is telling you to slow your life down, to think and feel before you act. You’re not a racecar driver.”
Kevin Ward Jr. did not have the luxury. But he did have a good 20 seconds before his fatal journey onto that track. Something told him what he was about to do was not out of the ordinary in his job. Tony Stewart and others in his profession told him it was okay to take care of business in that fashion.
Joe Gibbs once afforded me the opportunity to be in the pit of a Nationwide race in Indianapolis one of his drivers was competing in five years ago, a day before the Brickyard 400. It was the first time I came to appreciate the synchronization of teamwork in racing, how a spotter is often more critical than a driver’s own eyes and ears, how a perceptive crew chief can be the difference between first and last.
The crew chief I would want today as a driver, though, is the one who tells me in my ear, the moment after I’m cut off and spin out, “Don’t do it. Stay in your car. Don’t be like that kid Tony Stewart hit and killed. It’s not worth it.”