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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Before judging Tony Stewart, let legal probe run its course

George Scione

Sometimes a reputation can follow a person in every facet of life. Tony Stewart’s may finally be haunting him.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and three-time Sprint Cup champion has a rep for being a hothead. He’s had multiple altercations with members of the racing industry, from media members to other drivers. Those have all been out of the vehicle. ...

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Sometimes a reputation can follow a person in every facet of life. Tony Stewart’s may finally be haunting him.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and three-time Sprint Cup champion has a rep for being a hothead. He’s had multiple altercations with members of the racing industry, from media members to other drivers. Those have all been out of the vehicle.

Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York, that rep has caused a good number of Twitter and Facebook posters to claim Stewart intentionally killed 20-year-old Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

These loons need to get a grip.

First, let’s not confuse the vehicles. Sprint Cup cars are 3,300 pound stock cars. Sprint Cars are open-wheeled 1,500-pound machines. Either way, both can cause serious injury to the driver.

Sprint Car racing is considered one of the most dangerous divisions of auto racing, in which accidents are not infrequent. In fact, open-wheel racing has been under attack for multiple safety concerns in recent years.

But those were all charges based on in-car accidents that seriously injured or took the lives of drivers like former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler in June of 2013 at Bridgeport Speedway in Swedesboro, N.J., and spectators as was the case just four months prior to Leffler’s death when a car veered off-track at Marysville Raceway Park, outside Sacramento, Calif., killing a 68-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy.

Stewart himself suffered a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg last year during a Sprint Car race at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa. That injury kept him from racing in NASCAR for the remainder of last season.

Saturday’s incident may have a similar outcome.

Stewart is not currently facing criminal charges in the death of Ward, but he’s also not off the hook just yet. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero is still investigating.

“This is an ongoing investigation, and all options remain available,” Povero said. “We’re continuing to gather and analyze every piece of evidence we can.”

A video has gone viral from Saturday night, showing Stewart’s car clipping Ward’s car causing an accident that knocked Ward out of the Empire Super Sprint series event. Then you see an angry Ward get out of his vehicle and, in what has become a popular practice in racing at every level, he makes his way down the track to confront the person who eliminated him from contention. In this case, that was Stewart.

That’s when a small accident, by recent Sprint Car historical standards, spun out of control into something unimaginable.

As Ward, in an all black fire suit and black helmet, was shaking his arm and pointing at the on-coming traffic – most likely Stewart – cars were dropping to the inside of the track.

The vehicle directly in front of Stewart swerved to avoid contact. Into the frame came Stewart, who appeared to speed up before attempting to avoid contact.

It appears Ward was hit, dragged under and thrown to the side of the track by the right rear tire of Stewart’s car.

Roughly two hours from Watkins Glen International race track, where Stewart was scheduled to race in a Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, Stewart was participating in the Sprint Car race as he does throughout the NASCAR season at different dirt tracks nationwide prior to Sunday races.

According to police, he was “visibly shaken” and is cooperating with the investigation.

Sunday, he pulled himself from the NASCAR race and offered the following statement:

“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Stewart said. “It’s a very emotional time for all involved. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”

A tragedy that could have been avoided if the bravado put on display by hot-headed drivers everywhere was punished by whatever racing circuit they’re involved in.

Saturday’s deadly situation could have been avoided by Ward not charging out of his car onto a dimly-lit track in all black. But Stewart could also be partially at fault.

Other drivers saw Ward. Stewart claims he didn’t. And perhaps he didn’t. The car just before him swerved at the last second. He may have been screened by that vehicle.

There is also the possibility that Stewart was trying to be a showboat himself, attempting to buzz Ward or spit dirt at him as to say “Quit the finger pointing tough guy.” Perhaps that was the case and Stewart got too close.

It’s all speculation at this point. It’s worthy of discussion. That is until the quacks come out saying that Stewart - who knows firsthand how dangerous those vehicles are – hit another driver on purpose with intent to injure or worse kill him.

Stewart’s rep is causing these allegations to be taken seriously. Even the slightest insinuation to cold-blooded murder is way off base. Of course we now have the next episode of “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order,” or one of any number of police dramas on TV these days.

In the end, the fact remains that Ward is dead and a family is grieving.

Stewart may eventually face charges, but until that happens cooler heads should prevail. Enough with the cold-blooded killer talk while hiding behind computer screens and keyboards.

Let the police investigate, and let Ward’s family grieve in peace.

George Scione can be reached at 594-6520 or gscione@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Scione on Twitter (@Telegraph_BigG).