ARLINGTON, Va. (WJLA) – No matter the circuit or track, it’s a race car driver’s responsibility to be acutely aware of everything ahead, behind and alongside of them. Even during cautions. Tony Stewart certainly knows this, and in nearly 20 years of starring first in the open-wheel Indy Racing League and then NASCAR, he’s among the more savvy drivers in the world.
Think about that.
Really, think about that for a second.
And then think about 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
As a racing aficionado, he undoubtedly had watched numerous races both in person and on television where drivers get wrecked, storm out of their disabled vehicle and stand on the track waiting for the perceived perpetrator to circle around before pointing and screaming and whatever.
Happens again and again and again. Makes for a good show.
And so it went Saturday night at a dirt track in upstate New York where the mercurial Stewart – who likes moonlighting on smaller circuits before big races such as the NASCAR stop Sunday in Watkins Glen – made a racing move that put Ward into the wall.
Ward got out of his wrecked car, waited for Stewart to come around the track, pointed and then. . .
Stewart’s car hit Ward, killing him.
If you take the position that Ward has no one to blame but himself, that he’s the one who put himself in harm’s way, OK. Facts are facts. Ward did, in fact, put himself in harm’s way and did, in fact, play a role in his death.
Here are some more facts:
• Stewart has a well-chronicled history of on-track confrontations, and not just with fellow drivers.
• He once punched a photographer.
• He once took a reporter’s cassette recorder and flung it across the garage area.
Here are some questions:
• How in the world did an accomplished driver such as Stewart not see Ward?
• Was this a typically petulant Stewart trying to send a subtle message that went terribly awry?
• If this had not happened on a race track, but rather, say, a highway, what might the charges against Stewart be?
As of now, there are no charges but an investigation is underway.
Having covered the deaths of Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, this reporter is keenly aware of the mostly unspoken specter of death at the race track.
It’s always there.
The drivers know it and the fans know it.
And let’s face it, the promoters know it.
But this one – this death -- feels different. It just does.
This one easily could have been avoided.
Senseless. Cooler heads did not prevail. This one called for a seasoned, learned veteran.
Stewart is 43.(WJLA.com's Skip Wood spent nearly 15 years covering sports for USA TODAY, including several years covering Stewart in IRL and NASCAR.)