SPARTANBURG I watched the video as many times as I felt I had to, which is to say I watched the video too many times.
The sprint car driven by Tony Stewart and the sprint car driven by Kevin Ward Jr. became entangled Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York.
Stewart, who is 43 and probably one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, kept moving.
Ward, the 20-year-old who had considerable racing experience in New York’s Finger Lakes region, had his car hit the wall. Stewart pinched him. Ward’s car was turned around, the right rear tire flat, his evening ended.
Unable to race onto the track, Ward walked onto it, immediately pointing a finger and obviously looking for Stewart.
It was a caution lap. Maybe Ward felt safe as the drivers slowed. He obviously felt wronged.
Ward took several steps. The driver in front of Stewart avoided Ward. Stewart did not. Stewart hit him and Ward was dragged beneath Stewart’s car. Ward slid down the dirt surface and finally stopped, face up. He died before he reached the hospital.
Stewart’s detractors will blame him.
They’ll say Stewart’s career is full of confrontations, a testament to his temper. Did he expect local drivers to defer? Did he accelerate as he approached Ward? Was that the sound of his engine revving as he came up on Ward? Did Stewart try to scare him, buzz him? Did he lose control on the dirt?
Stewart’s supporters will defend him.
Why, during a race, did Ward walk onto the track? They’ll point out that the part of the track on which Ward stood was not as well lit as some other parts. Ward wore a black fire suit and black helmet. And Stewart could have been screened by the driver in front of him. Sprint cars drift. And as Stewart moved to avoid Ward, the back end of his car drifted.
No racing story in 2014 has been as talked about, or will be as dissected, as this one. No racing story comes close.
Example: NFL training camps are a testament to a single subject. The subject is football. It’s as if there’s a guard and a gate, and if it’s not in the playbook, and if it does not involve Cam Newton or Johnny Manziel, injuries or football controversies, it does not get in.
Yet everybody I talked to Sunday who works or plays for the Panthers was aware of the Stewart-Ward story.
The circumstances push us to take a side.
Stewart is the millionaire star who loves to race. Even before Saturday that love has cost others. Stewart accepted responsibility for a 15-car wreck at Canandaigua last July that sent a 19-year-old woman to the hospital with a back injury.
Should Stewart get off the dirt, go to his luxury motorhome and hang with his peers?
Racing isn’t Stewart’s job. It’s his joy. Do you tell a driver who has attained success at his sport’s highest level that he is forbidden to compete against local stars at local tracks?
Ward, meanwhile, might have been the ultimate underdog. But he was not overwhelmed. Stewart might have knocked his car into a wall, but Ward was not starstruck. This was his turf, not Stewart’s. He was competing in a sport he loved, a sport he had earned the right to love. And he reacted.
I can’t find a side to take.
However, this was not “just racin’.”
And this was not Ward’s time, as if there was some giant celestial ticking clock that forced him out of his car and onto the track.
After looking at the video a 20th time – and the 20th time was more odious than the previous 19 – I think I saw a tragic accident.
I hope not to see it again.