A year ago, Tony Stewart’s season came to a crashing halt when he suffered multiple fractures in his lower right leg in a sprint car wreck in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Stewart’s injuries required multiple operations for the insertion of a titanium rod and months of painstaking recovery.
Stewart eventually healed, returned to Daytona — albeit with a limp — and managed through pain to get back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Chevrolet.
At the time of his return in February, Stewart was asked if his injury would cause him to reassess his racing activity outside his Sprint Cup commitment as driver-owner of a Stewart-Haas Racing stable.
Stewart said he was going to be smart about adding races to his schedule, and that his Cup car would take priority. But, he added, “As soon as it feels good enough to go do the other stuff I want to do, I’m going to go do it.’’
And so, almost a year to the day of his accident in Iowa, Stewart found himself at the epicenter of a race-related fatality last Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. The incident turned tragic when the sprint car Stewart was driving struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., who had climbed from his wrecked car and strayed onto the track to confront Stewart for causing him to spin and crash.
This time, there was no managing the pain of Ward’s grieving parents, who buried their son Thursday, or Stewart, who was so devastated he removed himself from competition from last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, where Regan Smith was deployed as his replacement.
“It’s been an emotional week for him,’’ said Brett Frood, executive vice president at Stewart-Haas Racing, during a news conference Friday at Michigan International Speedway, where it was announced veteran Jeff Burton would drive for Stewart in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
“He’s grieving,’’ Frood said of Stewart. “Any time someone is lost, especially at a racetrack, it’s tragic. It was a tragic accident, and he’s dealing with quite a bit of grief.’’
Stewart made contact with Ward’s car during the race, causing it to spin and hit the wall and fall out of contention. Ward unharnessed himself, climbed from the cockpit, and walked across the dirt racing surface and onto the apron of the dimly-lit track to confront Stewart as his car approached under caution.
Clearly, Ward took his life into his own hands. He made that ill-fated decision likely in a fit of rage and wound up paying for it with his life when the right rear wheel of Stewart’s passing car struck and killed him.
Although the Ontario (N.Y.) County Sheriff’s Office said no criminal charges were pending against Stewart, it did not rule out the possibility of charges being brought against the three-time NASCAR champion pending the outcome of its investigation.
While it will be difficult to establish any criminal intent on Stewart’s part, what must be stated is that Stewart bears some responsibility — as do the rest of his Sprint Cup colleagues — for modeling such reckless on-track behavior.
Stewart, who has developed a reputation for running roughshod over the media, competitors, and even the sanctioning body, has been guilty in the past of doing precisely what cost Ward his life — climbing from an incapacitated car and confronting another driver — even flinging his helmet at the driver’s passing car, as Stewart did to Matt Kenseth two years ago on pit road at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Drivers at the grass-roots level, from where Stewart emerged, have no doubt seen this type of on-track behavior exhibited by the stars of NASCAR’s premier touring series.
On Friday, NASCAR officials, who also bear some responsibility for adopting a “boys, have at it’’ stance several years ago, pulled back the reins by issuing a rule change, effective immediately across all of its series.
According to Section 9-16 of NASCAR’s rulebook, unless there are extenuating emergency conditions (fire, smoke in cockpit, etc.), a driver must shut off the electrical power to his car, lower the window net, and remain securely harnessed until safety personnel or a NASCAR/track official arrives on scene and allows a driver to exit the car.
There was no such rule in place at the non-NASCAR-sanctioned sprint car race at Canandaigua, where racing resumed Saturday night.
“When we believe we can do something to make our sport safer and better for the competitors and others involved in the competition environment, we react quickly,’’ said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. “Safety always has been priority No. 1 at NASCAR.’’
Reigning and six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson expressed hope Friday that the new rule would have a trickledown effect at the grass-roots level of racing, where often a driver is not in radio contact with a spotter.
“In a NASCAR event, especially if you’re part of a crash and a guy is mad at you, your spotter is telling you where he is,’’ Johnson said. “You know, as you come upon the scene, the guy is out of his car. So you know those things. I would just say that hopefully short tracks pick up this philosophy and enforce it. But I don’t know if it will change a driver’s mind as they get out of the racecar. But it would be nice for the rest of the field to know what has happened and if there is a hot-tempered driver on foot. Again, it doesn’t take anything away from [Ward’s death]. It’s just a terrible, terrible tragedy.’’
It’s one that’s likely to require more healing time than the fractures Stewart sustained in his leg last August. There was no timetable for Stewart’s return.
“Right now, it’s about getting Tony in a better place than he is,’’ Frood said. “When he’s ready to do that, he’ll get back in the car. Don’t care about the Chase.’’