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Was there a history between Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr.?

Published August 13, 2014

Last Friday night, at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Kevin Ward Jr. started on the pole for the Empire Super Sprints series feature.

He finished second in the race. It would be his last podium.

Twenty-four hours later, Ward was dead in the dirt of Canandaigua Speedway near Rochester, N.Y., after being hit by a car driven by Tony Stewart.

Here are more questions, thoughts and observations about this tragedy:

1. Did they have a history?

2. No more finger-pointing

3. Stewart’s no throwback.

4. Is Tony resented by the small fry?

5. Why Stewart should stop racing – now

6. Forensic reconstruction ordered

7. Tony’s temper always does him in

- Did Ward and Stewart have a history? Was there some bad blood between them before last Saturday?

I ask this because we’ve all seen drivers get out of their cars and make menacing gestures at other drivers but Ward – on the video – seemed to be quite over the top. He was really pissed.

Why?

A year ago, Stewart ran a race with the ESS at that same Canandaigua track and triggered a 15-car pileup in which one of the drivers involved – a young woman – suffered a broken back. As well as her injury, there was a lot of torn-up equipment in that wreck.

Was Ward involved in that crash? Even if he wasn’t, he likely would have known the other drivers who were. The ESS is a club and the competitors help each other out as well as travelling and racing with each other.

So was there a lingering resentment toward Stewart already? And was Stewart predisposed to being unhappy with Ward? Possibly because of something that had been said or done a year earlier?

I’m sure the investigators will be looking into everything but whether or not there had been a spat previously is something I suspect will be of paramount importance.

- There will be something positive to come out of this calamity.

NASCAR itself, and two speedways in New York state, have announced that they will crack down on drivers getting out of their cars and gesturing toward other drivers still in the race.

Okay, NASCAR has only said it will discuss doing it, but they will. By the weekend, speedways and sanctioning bodies all over North America will have put an end to this particular bit of lunacy.

- Everybody talks about how Stewart is a “throwback” to the old days, a guy who just likes to race and goes anywhere to strap in and fire up. And I say b-s to that.

In the old days, the 1950s and ’60s, the A.J. Foyts and Jim Hurtubises and Eddie Sachses had to race five and six times a week in order to feed their families. It was a highly dangerous profession where, in just about every given year, five or six drivers who started on the circuit in the spring were in the ground by Thanksgiving.

And Foyt, who’s just about the only one from that era still around – Mario Andretti is another - would be the first to tell you that, as his career progressed and he made more money, he restricted the number of times he got into a race car in the minor leagues because he just didn’t want to tempt fate.

So those guys raced out of economic necessity and  cut back as they got more successful because of the danger.

Tony Stewart is a multi-millionaire. He’s a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Because it’s far less dangerous out there than it used to be, he goes racing in the minors strictly for fun.

He’s not a throwback at all. What he is, is selfish.

- Does anybody really think the guys and girls who run in clubs like the Empire Super Sprints really appreciate having guys like Stewart around? He might like to be out there, and I’m sure the track owners and promoters like it because he generates crowds. But what about the other racers?

As mentioned in a previous column, people who run with the ESS are hip-pocket racers. They’re weekend warriors. They work during the week and race on the weekends. There is not much – if any – sponsorship money at that level. There might be signs on the cars advertising businesses but they’re often owned by family members or sometimes even by the drivers themselves. The reality is that most ”sponsorship” at that level is either contra, or five hundred or a thousand dollars, at most.

So most of those folks wind up literally begging and borrowing to go racing.  You win and maybe you get paid $1,500. Maybe. Second maybe pays $1,000 and third could be $500 and then they pay back through the field in ten-buck decrements. Tow money – for drivers who miss the feature, otherwise known as the ”payoff” race – might be $100.

So it’s a pretty hand-to-mouth existence at that level.

And then who shows up to sign in at the pit window but Tony Stewart. His two full-time employees have already arrived with his $100,000-plus tractor-trailer and portable machine shop. He puts on his firesuit, climbs into the sprint car they have all ready for him and he goes out and blows away the competition, collecting the $1,500 first-place prize money that he needs like a hole in the head but which guys like Kevin Ward Jr. need in order to keep racing.

Say he’s in a crash. No big deal, for him. He goes back to the airport and has his pilot fly him to the scene of that weekend’s Sprint Cup race while his crew fixes the sprint car and hauls it off to the next little track where he plans to race. Other people in the crash, though, have to fix their own cars. They perhaps will get some help from volunteer crew members – neighbours, guys they once went to school with – but that’s not a guarantee and they might wind up having to do it all by themselves (trust me: I know). And it’s a drain on their pocketbook because wrecks are expensive (trust me: I know that too).

Which might be yet another reason why Kevin Ward Jr. was so incensed last Saturday night.

- Here’s why it’s so stupid for Stewart to be racing with clubs like the ESS.

Jake Gardiner loves playing hockey. He can’t get enough of it. So he plays an  NHL game at the ACC on Tuesday night, goes and plays in a Beer League at midnight Thursday at some arena in East York – again, because he just loves to play hockey - and then goes back to the ACC and suits up for the Leafs’ game on Saturday night.

If Jake Gardiner did that, people would think he was nuts. But that’s what Tony Stewart does and some people call him “a racer.”

But Jake Gardiner doesn’t do things like that. Neither should Tony Stewart.

- I was talking the other day with a guy who knows his way around racing. I can’t identify him because the conversation was private and off-the-record. But this is the gist of what he said.

“I’m not sure Tony, or anybody, realizes the seriousness of what happened there. This goes beyond the racing community. Way beyond. It was the lead item Sunday night on both the ABC and CBS television news shows; it was on the front pages of newspapers from coast-to-coast.”

(He asked me about the Canadian papers. I told him the story was on the front pages of the Star, the Globe and the National Post. Strangely, the Sun, which covers auto racing as a beat, didn’t have a mention on its cover.)

My friend continued. “This couldn’t have come at a worse time. This is the time of year when drivers and teams are making presentations to corporations to either renew sponsorships or land a sponsorship. Corporations usually love auto racing but something like this can scare them off.”

(He didn’t say it, but it’s a known fact that the IZOD brand of the Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. lost not only its enthusiasm for the sport of Indy car racing but its interest completely when Dan Wheldon was killed. IZOD couldn’t wait for that contract to end.)

My friend concluded. “There will likely be – this is a certainty – a wrongful death lawsuit filed next week by the family of the dead boy. The funeral is Thursday and then they will sit down with their lawyers. And there could be a criminal charge. Never forget that. They will do a proper investigation and the District Attorney could decide there is enough evidence to move it into the criminal courts. And because of that possibility, I trust Tony is being given the right advice because he has to show contrition. Lots of it.

“Right now, I hope he’s with as many PR people and laywers as he can afford. If I was asked to give him advice, I would tell him to stop racing for the rest of the year, right now. No more Sprint Cup racing and no more short-track racing. He should stop right now and wait until all this sorts itself out.”

- My friend made reference to a proper investigation. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero holds a daily briefing and keeps saying there is no evidence of a crime. Fair enough. But the investigation is far from over.

Yes, he has asked anybody who has a video to come forward. Interviews have been conducted with the other drivers, crew members and many fans. The difficulty here is that people who are talking now are in two distinct camps – the Tony fans and the Tony haters. It’s very difficult to determine the truth when there is polarization like that.

But as the days become weeks and maybe even months, people who saw things – people on both sides – will come forward. Their consciences will make them do it. When that happens, a clearer picture will start to emerge.

One of the most interesting developments is the decision this week to conduct a forensic reconstruction of the accident. Questions that have been around since Saturday will be answered. For instance, they will put race cars on that track at the exact hour of the night, with the speedway’s lights on (and the brightness of the moon factored into the equation), and they will then know for sure if Stewart could have seen Ward on the track and what he did or did not do that resulted in his car fish-tailing. And so-on.

And then, as the sheriff said, they will take all this to the District Attorney, who could decide to put the evidence before a Grand Jury. And that’s when we’ll know whether Tony Stewart will face a charge, or not. Until then, it will all be speculation.

- Media friends of Stewart have written and broadcast that the Tony Stewart they know would never deliberately run anybody down on purpose. And I believe them. Right now, today, if anybody asks Stewart how he feels, he will say he’s devastated and that he would never knowingly do anything to hurt anybody. I know of no reason to think otherwise.

But as I read and listen to what they say, I then watch the YouTube video of Stewart at Bristol two years ago, after he got into a crash with Matt Kenseth.

Stewart seems to be in control. He’s walking along between two people – one of them a NASCAR inspector – and then who should come driving along the pit road toward them but Matt Kenseth.

SNAP! Stewart sees Kenseth and something happens to him. SNAP! He raises his helmet, steps forward and fires it at Kenseth’s car. It hits the speeding car and bounces into the air, landing well down the road. Besides Stewart and the people he’s with, there are employees of other race teams in pits nearby. Any one of them could have been hit by the caroming helmet. But SNAP! Just like that, Tony Stewart is in a blind rage.

It’s that hair-trigger temper that’s been Tony Stewart’s downfall, time and time again. One second he’s calm and cool and sane and then SNAP!, in the blink of an eye, he’s throwing a punch or he’s throwing a helmet (click here for that video).

You can bet the District Attorney of Ontario County will be taking all of that into consideration, too.

- NORRIS McDONALD (nmcdonald@thestar.ca)

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