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Don’t be too quick to judge Tony Stewart, let the experts do their jobs

Aug 10, 2014, 5:52 AM EDT

Tony Stewart fatal crash 8-9-2014 AP

Editor’s note: NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk writer Jerry Bonkowski has spent over 30 years as a sports writer, columnist and editor covering NASCAR and motorsports for USA Today, ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and now MST. He also wrote this column from the unique perspective of having served more than 20 years as a fully-sworn, state-certified part-time police officer.

In the time span of just a few hours after a horrendous accident, Tony Stewart was charged, convicted and sentenced by many in the court of public opinion following Saturday’s fatal incident involving 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

So-called “experts” inundated Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media, carelessly, recklessly and without any type of evidence throwing around words such as “intentional” and “murder.”

Those are very damning words for an incident that on the surface is an accident until proven otherwise – if it can be proven otherwise, that is.

How can they be so sure that Stewart intentionally struck and ran over Ward, leading to his death, which was confirmed about an hour or so after the incident by Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff Phillip Povero, according to multiple media reports?

Were those people at the small dirt track just about an hour northwest of Watkins Glen International, site of Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 NASCAR Sprint Cup race?

Even Povero told USA Today that Stewart was “fully cooperative” and that “the incident is not being investigated as a criminal matter.” If the investigating sheriff says it’s not a criminal matter or an intentional attack on the racetrack, how can so many people think otherwise? They base that opinion upon what they’ve heard or read or seen – and sometimes even that isn’t clear-cut enough to make such a serious value judgment as Stewart is being accused by so many.

To me, there are only a few undeniable facts that have emerged from the incident. Everything else is supposition, hyperbole and plain guessing:

* First, there was an on-track incident between Stewart and Ward. Based upon video that captured the incident, it appeared to be nothing more than a typical racing incident that happens hundreds of times each year on everything from Sprint Cup tracks to the smallest grassroots racing dirt tracks.

* Second, again, judging by the video, it appears the area where Stewart allegedly struck Ward was rather dimly lit, not unusual for short tracks such as that.

* Third, if investigating sheriff’s deputies believed Stewart did intentionally strike Ward, would he have been released from custody after fully cooperating with investigators?

* Fourth, do sane, normal and logically thinking individuals really believe a driver of Stewart’s caliber, who has done so much in his career, would throw it all away by intentionally hitting a mere kid on a tiny dirt track in the upstate New York hinterlands? Granted, Stewart has a temper – which has been seen countless times over his career – but would he completely lose control of his sense of right and wrong and go out and murder a kid that he had just spun in a racing incident? Just the thought of that is nothing short of ludicrous.

* Fifth, and this is perhaps the most important part of all: Ward got out of his spun race car. He walked down from the top of the racetrack and into the middle of, again, a dimly-lit area. This is where the true sense of speculation stems. Maybe Stewart didn’t see Ward. Maybe Stewart tried to avoid Ward and it was too late, again, partly due to the lighting in that area of the track and Ward walking down into the middle of the track dressed in a dark firesuit. As much as it pains me to say this, and I’m not attempting to be an “expert” about this event as it unfolded in any way, but what was Ward doing walking around in the middle of a racetrack with cars coming around still under power? That’d be like someone walking in the middle of a freeway to confront someone who he or she just had a fender-bender with. What did Ward try to accomplish by walking directly in front of Stewart, with the likely intent of shaking his fist or pointing a finger at the three-time Sprint Cup champ for spinning him only seconds earlier?

We can’t ever know.

This isn’t the first time a driver has killed someone – and I use the word “killed” in the sense that, yes, a fatality occurred as an end result, but not due to anything intentional on the driver’s part.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty struck and killed – again, I’m using that word in context that a death resulted, but it was not from an overt or intentional act upon Petty’s part – an 8-year-old boy during a drag race on Feb. 28, 1965 in Dallas, Ga.

Petty had temporarily left NASCAR racing that season in a dispute over the use of a new and potent 426 Hemi motor that the sanctioning body banned.

With NASCAR still a regional sport based in the Southeast, Petty moved to drag racing, which had caught fire in its Southern California birthplace a decade earlier and progressively moved east and grew into something that was arguably even bigger than NASCAR at the time.

Petty was in a race on that fateful day when something happened to his Plymouth Barracuda. Either something broke or he lost control – or both. Sadly, the end result was Petty’s car left the dragstrip racing surface and plowed into a crowd of fans, killing little Wayne Dye and injuring several other spectators.

After a long and thorough investigation, the accident was ruled just that, and Petty was not charged with any type of offense that stemmed from the crash.

But Petty has carried that memory with him for nearly 50 years. To this day, he still gets upset talking about it, and more often than not simply refuses to discuss it. Stewart is also going to carry the memory of what happened Saturday night with himself as well for the rest of his life.

For now, regardless of what all the “experts” say or media types looking to grab attention with a flashy headline insist, we know only two things for certain:

One, Tony Stewart was involved in an accident, and two, a young man died. Everything else is an unknown until a thorough and proper investigation is performed, no matter how long it takes to complete.

And when that investigation is completed, it will be by trained and REAL experts who will come to a rational and logical conclusion based upon facts and evidence – and not opinion.

As someone once told me many years ago when I first got into journalism, “Opinions without facts are like noses. They both can smell.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. dmvdmv101560 - Aug 10, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    To Greej19381, yes, you have a right to your opinion but you don’t have the right to be wrong!

  2. awm7353 - Aug 10, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    Slight flaw in your written thoughts. Several drivers in the past, including Stewart, will swerve their cars towards a driver that has exited their car in a confrontational manner, only to swerve away at the last second. Not saying this is what happened. Witnesses say he gunned it and fishtailed into the other driver. It is also possible that the car in front of Stewart blocked his view. What is obvious from the video is Stewart swerved left just as he hit him. What is also obvious when the video is slowed down, the other driver tried to get out of the way. Lets let the facts be found by the professionals and not pass judgement before the facts are known.

    • bbgustaf - Aug 10, 2014 at 3:33 PM

      You can hear an engine rev just prior to hitting the driver. You can see that he is fish tailed. What I can’t comment is wether the guy was trying to get out of the way or not. He is definitely hunting for someone.
      Sad any way you look at it.

  3. techmeister1 - Aug 10, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    I’ll wait until the facts are known and reported by experts. Everything else is just ignorance.

  4. jinx21fan - Aug 10, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    • jinx21fan - Aug 10, 2014 at 2:03 PM

      Yeah, anyone walking towards a car during the race deserves to be run over.

  5. tosevite - Aug 10, 2014 at 2:47 PM

    Yep. He hit him on purpose….. I don’t think so guys. I read through comments, and I read mostly crap. First of all that track was a lot darker than you think. Cameras are made to utilize all available light. The kid is wearing a black fire suit and helmet. Tonys coming out of a curve, and from looking at the video I’d say the kids BLACK car is directly behind him. I don’t know how many of you drive. But I don’t know how many times people, bikes, cars, have been perfectly hidden behind the cab pillars on my pickup not seeing them until the last minute. Tony swerving towards him? I doubt it. Why? It’s Kevin’s car piled up against the wall. Tony had position coming out of the curve. Kevin didn’t back out. He got wrecked. Tony probably deals with young kids racing him like that all the time. Tony was probably watching that other car in front of him going low. As far as Tony goosing it and fish tailing? No. I’m sad to say that was Kevin going under his car. That was probably another car revving it’s motor. If you’ve ever been to a race you’d know caution speeds aren’t that slow.
    My last point. We’ve all seen drivers get out and gesture/ throw stuff. They usually stay by their car. Not run down the middle of the track towards oncoming traffic like an idiot.
    I feel for Kevin’s family and their loss. But.. He made some very poor decisions. Starting with trying to hold a position that wasn’t his and wrecking himself. Then getting out of his car. I don’t think he’d have ever done what he did if it wasn’t Tony Stewart.

    • commonsense345 - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:56 PM

      One other thing as a driver myself, aren’t most corners banked? as well as slick at night when the moisture rises and dew settles? Also, how much tread does a racing shoe have, I can tell you not much, No where have I seen anyone mention the possibility that Kevin may have slipped at or about the time Tony was passing him, as well as the fact that you see the car jerk to the left in the video could be due to the fact that sprints have a 3 brake system, one front on the left side, and 2 on the rear so they can slide around the left hand corners easier. Many claim Tony raced his motor at him, first how do they know it was Tony’s, Second if they have ever driven a race car you drive Heel & Toe or at least I do. Next when you dump the clutch down on a motor, you remove work from the motor (friction) and RPM’s automatically go up until they work back down, and if he was going to downshift to another gear he may have had to rev the RPM’s up a little. Not that I am on Tony Stewart’s side but lots of variables that could have ALL been contributing factors. From the view we all have seen I am not sure Tony saw him either.

      And to your last point of “drivers get out and gesture/ throw stuff”, usually wrecks are at the end of the corners or straightaways, and those drivers coming at them usually have a better view as well as more room to avoid someone on the track due to being wider.

  6. ecnuob51 - Aug 10, 2014 at 4:01 PM

    Well tony Stewart has done this before. It’s obvious he didn’t intentionally kill him but he has a hot temper and was trying to taunt or scare him. And unfortunately resulted in a young mans death. Stewart saw him and clearly got out his way since he didn’t hit him dead on but hit him on the backend. He should hold himself responsible and should be held responsible by authorities….not for murder but at least manslaughter

    • allen12075saxydj - Aug 11, 2014 at 9:04 PM

      in 1998 I was a spectator in the pits on practice day…. Tony came in obviously pissed about his car …I was behind the spectator rope but he still managed to nudge me telling me to get the F*** out of his way …. tony uses his car as a weapon … small man syndrome

  7. racyman57 - Aug 10, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    I raced the local dirt track circuit, here is the Idaho Falls area, for 5 years. I raced stock cars, but similar thing. I do agree that there needs to be a thorough investigation, before judgment is passed, but being under caution, Tony being an ultra experienced, professional driver, who has won championships at the highest level of the sport, I think he tried to at least brush the kid, or knock him over, by the looks of the video. Maybe the kid got further in front of Tony’s car, than he expected, but I just don’t see how he couldn’t have avoided him, if he wanted too. Yellow lights and flags would be immediately displayed, the track safety personel would also be signalling the drivers to the middle of the track and I’m sure that they have in-car radios. So, in my opinion, Tony was trying to engage the kid, not kill him, but, like I stated, to brush him with the right front of his car. The number one rule in racing, is to never leave your car, unless there is a fire or a risk of fire. A problem there is that the NASCAR drivers do it all of the time and are piss poor role models for these kids coming up in the sport. Tony may be one of the worse. His temper may have cost him his career and his quality of life, let alone left a family in deep grief and suffering.

  8. markanthony999 - Aug 10, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    From the video I’ve seen, it’s an unfortunate accident that could have been avoided by both Tony and the other driver. The sad reality is racing is a dangerous sport and people are going to perish.

    I am deeply saddened by the loss….

  9. sacbombero - Aug 11, 2014 at 1:11 AM

    I agree that there should not be a rush to judge whether or not there was any “intent” in this tragic accident but, I watched ESPN coverage this morning (Sun.) on this and the main focus was on how this was affecting Stewart. Even the Sheriff made a statement on how remorseful Stewart was. And NASCAR, race and track officials all came out in support of Stewart, as if he was the one who is suffering here. Stewart had planned on racing today, even after the death of Ward, then withdrew this morning. On ESPN, one of the reported made a statement (paraphrase); “Stewart was in shock yesterday after this incident and said he would race Sunday then he went to bed in shock and when he woke up, he realized how tragic this was and withdrew from racing”.

  10. gregs1020 - Aug 11, 2014 at 8:32 PM

    Sorry Jerry but nobody is buying what your selling for Tony.

    First off, RIP Kevin, thoughts and prayers to all family and friends.

    Jerry I am a long time sprint racing fan, i’ve been going to dirt tracks for 30+ years as well. Anyone who has can tell from even that short video clip what happened, and it’s shocking. But if you know Tony’s reputation in numerous past incidents you aren’t surprised by what we saw. Shocked? Yes. Surprised, not in the least. Tony, meet Karma, Karma, meet Tony.

    Statement by article author Jerry. “To me, there are only a few undeniable facts that have emerged from the incident. Everything else is supposition, hyperbole and plain guessing”

    Answer – not really, only the first is a fact. Please follow along to see what the rest is.

    Statement by article author Jerry.
    “* First, there was an on-track incident between Stewart and Ward. Based upon video that captured the incident, it appeared to be nothing more than a typical racing incident that happens hundreds of times each year on everything from Sprint Cup tracks to the smallest grassroots racing dirt tracks.”

    Reply, yes i would agree, that a portion of that statement is “fact”. Up until the point where one driver is crushed by another driver’s car. That’s when it doesn’t look so typical.

    Statement by article author Jerry.
    “* Second, again, judging by the video, it appears the area where Stewart allegedly struck Ward was rather dimly lit, not unusual for short tracks such as that.”

    Reply. Hold on there Jerry that isn’t a fact. You are going to judge elements of the poor quality video but we shouldn’t? Why is that exactly? And even if so, how many dirt tracks has Tony raced on and for how many years?

    Statement by article author Jerry.
    “* Third, if investigating sheriff’s deputies believed Stewart did intentionally strike Ward, would he have been released from custody after fully cooperating with investigators?”

    Reply. So the police shouldn’t wait to gather evidence to build a solid basis for making an arrest? Maybe watch the go pro cam on tony’s car? They shouldn’t interview the crew as to why the changed the right rear tire on Tony’s car after the impact with Kevin? The police should just arrest him? That’s not how the legal system in the U.S. works Jerry. Let’s see what the NY District Attorney decides to do after they review all the information gathered by “experts” at gathering such information. Just as you ask us to do.

    Statement by article author Jerry.
    “* Fourth, do sane, normal and logically thinking individuals really believe a driver of Stewart’s caliber, who has done so much in his career, would throw it all away by intentionally hitting a mere kid on a tiny dirt track in the upstate New York hinterlands? Granted, Stewart has a temper – which has been seen countless times over his career – but would he completely lose control of his sense of right and wrong and go out and murder a kid that he had just spun in a racing incident? Just the thought of that is nothing short of ludicrous.”

    Reply. I doubt anyone believes Tony wanted to “murder” Kevin. It was an act of rage not different from what we’ve seen on many occasions by hot tempered Tony. Unfortunately, Kevin perished from the injuries obtained in the impact with Tony’s car. Tony does have a temper and typical race “drama” resulted in an outcome nobody would have foreseen. None the less, Tony is responsible for the consequences of his actions, just like everyone else, we hope. This could easily get swept under by the self admitted “not experts” who write articles to sway public opinion. It’s starting to look like you are on someone’s payroll aside NBC.

    Statement by article author Jerry.
    * Fifth, and this is perhaps the most important part of all: Ward got out of his spun race car. He walked down from the top of the racetrack and into the middle of, again, a dimly-lit area. This is where the true sense of speculation stems. Maybe Stewart didn’t see Ward. Maybe Stewart tried to avoid Ward and it was too late, again, partly due to the lighting in that area of the track and Ward walking down into the middle of the track dressed in a dark firesuit. As much as it pains me to say this, and I’m not attempting to be an “expert” about this event as it unfolded in any way, but what was Ward doing walking around in the middle of a racetrack with cars coming around still under power? That’d be like someone walking in the middle of a freeway to confront someone who he or she just had a fender-bender with. What did Ward try to accomplish by walking directly in front of Stewart, with the likely intent of shaking his fist or pointing a finger at the three-time Sprint Cup champ for spinning him only seconds earlier?

    Reply. How is any of that a “fact”? You offer up maybes and speculation. Why do you glorify Tony by calling him a Three Time Sprint Cup Champion? He’s a driver on the same track as Kevin, in the same race as Kevin. Two men, two cars, battling it out for a win. Clearly Tony saw Kevin as a viable competitor, he treated him no differently than he’s treated any other driver on the track during a race.
    Kevin walking down the track to confront tony isn’t any different from what he saw his idols do over the 20 years he enjoyed the sport. You’ve watched for 30, and this is somehow odd to you such that you liken it to a road rage incident on a highway? There exist some parallels sure, but you’re way off base here.

    Answer these questions of fact with your fifth “fact” in mind.

    Why was Tony so far up the track during a caution lap?
    Why was he going so much faster than the other cars on the caution when approaching Kevin? Tony put Kevin into that wall and he knew exactly where Kevin’s car was.
    Why did he hit the gas when approaching Kevin?
    Why was he so far up the track when there was plenty of room to avoid Kevin towards the lower portion of the track, which race fans know as the apron?
    Why was his car further up the track after the impact with Kevin?
    Why did Kevin’s body land so far up the track after the impact?

    The article begins with the following.
    “Editor’s note: NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk writer Jerry Bonkowski has spent over 30 years as a sports writer, columnist and editor covering NASCAR and motorsports for USA Today, ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and now MST. He also wrote this column from the unique perspective of having served more than 20 years as a fully-sworn, state-certified part-time police officer.”

    Yet you state in your fifth point that you aren’t attempting to be an expert on this incident but the very first paragraph implies that you are an expert on this subject.

    You are a part time police officer and a 30 year sports writer covering NASCAR and Motorsports yet you don’t understand how police work happens or how hot tempered race drivers can get caught up in a heat of the moment incident. One that unfortunately took a very young life.

    You should be ashamed of yourself for attempting to spin this incident. Who’s payroll are you on?

    I patiently await your reply.

    RIP Kevin.

  11. tabathachase - Aug 12, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    Here is what I’m not understanding. Tony was the only “Professional” driver on the track that day. How is it that the other drivers where able to avoid Ward the dim lit area but Tony couldn’t? There just are things that do not seem to be adding up to me.

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