He looked subdued. Hollowed out. Like a man who thought he had just awakened from a bad dream, only to find out he was still in it, and that in some ways he will always be in it.
Tony Stewart held his first press conference Monday since his car struck and killed another racecar driver on Aug. 9th in New York. He answered questions for almost 40 minutes -- although before the questions began, a PR man said Stewart was not going to go into any real detail about what happened that night when Kevin Ward Jr. was killed.
Stewart did say he never considered retirement in the wake of what he called a “100 percent accident.” And if you know Stewart at all, this doesn’t surprise you. Stewart is 43, unmarried and completely consumed with racing. To leave it entirely? He wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
“This is what I’ve done all my life,” Stewart said. “This is what I’ve done for 36 years, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I love what I do. I love driving race cars. I think it might change right now as far as how much of it and what I do [Stewart added later he was unsure if he would ever drive a sprint car again]. But there was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me.”
Last week an upstate New York grand jury declined to indict Stewart in Ward Jr.’s death. The 20-year-old Ward had climbed from his car onto the dirt track in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. Ward died of blunt force trauma after Stewart’s sprint car hit him with its right rear tire and sent Ward hurtling through the air. Ward had been under the influence of marijuana the night of the accident, according to authorities.
Stewart said he had not spoken to the Ward family but that he wanted to be “available” to them if they did want to talk.
“At this point, I don’t need to talk to them for closure,” Stewart said. “I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I’m offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure.”
Although the three-time NASCAR champion won’t face criminal charges, a civil lawsuit is still possible. And no matter what the outcome of that is, Stewart knows that this incident will always haunt him. It will be a major part of his legacy now.
Stewart admitted to an “awkward feeling” around people now, because he knows some people still blame him for Ward’s death. He has sought professional help. He has purposely avoided being out in public. Even after returning to racing Aug. 31 in Atlanta – where he received such an ovation during the pre-race introduction that he teared up behind his sunglasses – he has mostly secluded himself between races.
He knows you probably don’t feel sorry for him. And that’s OK with him. Even though the grand jury didn’t indict him in Ward’s death, Stewart knows there are no winners in something like this.
What Stewart didn’t count on was the backlash. He said it “hurt” some, that it was “disappointing” to read some of what was written. But Stewart undeniably knows where some of that vitriol came from.
Put simply, there are a number of people who just don’t like Stewart. Too ornery. Too many on-track incidents before this one. Too much shouting and shoving. Stewart has long been controversial and combative -- a racing version of former Carolina Panther Steve Smith.
Although Stewart is inarguably one of the most talented drivers to ever make a left turn, the three-time NASCAR champion never banked the sort of goodwill of a Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
So people chose Stewart’s side. Or they chose Ward’s side. And then they sparred while the video of Ward getting hit by Stewart’s sprint car on a dirt track in New York played on a continuous loop on cable TV.
“To me, it’s worthless to pick sides,” Stewart said. “A young man lost his life, and I don’t care what side you’re on, it doesn’t change that. His family’s in mourning. I’m in mourning. ... It’s like watching people throw darts at each other. It’s disappointing. ... There is no point in it. It doesn’t solve anything. ... But everybody has made their decision and picked their side off of 100 percent of the information that they got, which is about 10 percent of all the information that’s truly out there.”
That is the way life is, though, and Stewart has been around long enough to know that. Stewart and Ward did not know each other at all before the race in which Ward died. Now they are inextricably linked – bonded by death, the love of a dangerous sport and a moment everyone wishes could be taken back.