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Why Tony Stewart can’t resist danger, madness of dirt tracks

Aug 11, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT

Tony Stewart would rather race cars than do anything else on Earth. Athletes talk about loving their sport all the time, but you don’t see many Major League players taking swings at Independent League games on their days off, and you don’t see many PGA golfers hacking around at your local captain’s choice event, and you don’t catch too many NBA players going to Madison Square Garden on a Tuesday, to San Antonio on Friday and sticking a stop in Dayton in between to play in a YMCA game.

Tony Stewart does this kind of thing all the time, and if we are to have any chance of making sense of the senseless tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, we probably should begin there. We probably should begin with the fact that Canandaigua is a town of about 10,000 between Buffalo and Utica. Tony Stewart was racing there on a Saturday night just a few hours before a pretty crucial Sunday race for him in Watkins Glen. As of right now, Stewart is not in position to make the NASCAR playoff chase. He needed a good race. Still, he drove on the dirt an hour away.

Stewart does not just drive in these dirt track races where the winner gets a couple thousand dollars. He drives to win. He races hard and fast and on the edge. For Stewart, there would be no other point. A year ago in Canandaigua, he caused a 15-car wreck that badly hurt driver Alysha Ruggles — Stewart admitted afterward that he had been trying to get his car into a place where it didn’t fit. That’s the essence of most wrecks, of course, especially the bad ones. But you wouldn’t expect race car drivers and entrepreneurs worth, say, a hundred million dollars to make those risky moves on dirt in Canandaigua.

[MORE: What's next for Tony Stewart, the person? | For Stewart, the businessman?]

Thing is, Stewart can’t help it. He’s a racing junkie — with all the depths and traps and darkness spinning in that word. He has expressed this: He needs it. He feels alive in a race car, alive when there’s danger swirling around him, alive when in that vortex of horsepower and torque and flying dirt and burning rubber. The rest of life pales for him. He needs it.

Saturday’s wreck — you have probably seen the gruesome video — happened when a 20-year-old driver named Kevin Ward Jr. was sliding around a turn, and Stewart slid toward the same spot. The rules of dirt track racing are ancient and mysterious and, like art, mean different things to different people. Ward obviously believed that Stewart had crossed the line and caused the wreck. Stewart has not given his opinion on the subject and, I suspect, never will.

Ward got out of the car and walked on the race track. This is madness, of course, but it is all madness, all adrenaline and muscle and pure zeal. There are a million dirt track stories but one I think often about is the time that Larry Phillips — who I called without argument the roughest, toughest, meanest, craziest and grouchiest son of a gun who ever climbed into a race car — was told that anyone who could break the track record at I-70 Speedway at Odessa (Mo.) would win five hundred bucks. He put his left foot below the brake, pressed the gas to the floor and never took it off as he tore around the track at a near-suicidal speed. When he got to the end, he had his hand out the window — he wanted his five hundred dollars.

“When he got out of the car,” his friend and crew chief James Ince said, “he was shaking.”

Madness. But it is this kind of madness, this kind of high that lifts some people up and out of the everyday. They simply cannot live in the everyday. You ask a race car driver, any race car driver, why they do something so dangerous and you are almost certain to get the blankest of looks because they cannot imagine life without it. Last year, a 22-year-old man named Josh Burton died when his sprint car crashed and flipped in a race in Bloomingon, Ind. “Josh always said that if he ever died, that’s what he wanted to be doing,” his mother told the New York Times, and that’s at the heart of thing.

After the crash, Ward got out of his car and walked on the track and pointed. He was looking for Stewart’s car. People ask: What did he hope to do when he got there? What message did he intend to send? But these questions, like questions of dying, don’t make much sense to race car drivers. When in the hyperactive atmosphere after a crash, drivers don’t have clear thoughts. Stewart himself had once walked on pit row and hurled his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car after they had crashed.

Ward kept pointing and looking for Stewart’s car — and it appeared he had to do a quick stutter-step to avoid getting hit by a car in front of Stewart. The camera follows that car briefly then comes back in time to see Stewart’s car sideswipe Kevin Ward, killing him. Words cannot capture the awfulness.

[MORE: Full coverage of the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. incident]

Within minutes of it happening, there were theories everywhere. One report said that Stewart appeared to hit the throttle before hitting Ward. Another said that in this kind of racing, you sometimes have to hit the throttle to gain control of the car. There was mourning for Ward. There were motives assigned to Stewart. There was talk about the lighting at the track. There was talk about Stewart’s anger management issues as a driver. There was talk about … well, when something senseless like this happens there is always a lot of talk and never any answers.

We don’t know what was happening in Tony Stewart’s car. Was he trying to scare Ward? Was he blinded by the dirt and dimness of the track? Did he lose control? We don’t know. Like all deaths in racing, it will be investigated. And like all deaths in racing, no judgment will satisfy.

A handful of drivers die every year racing cars. Racing officials work hard to make it safer, and it does grow safer. But you can only make a moving car so safe — more than 30,000 people die in America every year from automobile accidents and that’s just getting from one place to another.

At the heart of racing is the danger. Nobody likes saying it, but it’s real. Danger is part of the reason drivers are so drawn to it, and danger is part of the reason millions of people around the country watch. You might have heard the story of Charles Blondin, the great tightrope walker. He was asked if he would ever perform with a net. He responded: “Who would watch that?”

Tony Stewart’s love of the danger and the thrills of racing put him in Canandaigua on a Saturday night. Drivers know, somewhere deep inside in places they would rather not go, that something awful can happen at any time on a race track. They could die. They also could cause death. People look to Tony Stewart to find answers. The one sure thing in all of this is that he can’t offer any.

  1. jxegh - Aug 11, 2014 at 5:30 PM

    Kevin Ward Jr. shouldn’t have put himself in harm’s way,but he did. And he did it with Tony Stewart, the face of road rage in NASCAR. Tony wasn’t going to back down from him, wanted to scare him, maybe spray some dirt on him and made a judgement mistake. Two hot heads coming together to make the perfect storm form a racing incident that ended up costing the life of a young man. Truly disgusting.

    • worknman24hours - Aug 11, 2014 at 6:20 PM

      That is the best post I have read about this sad event.

      A perfect storm of anger and bravado which killed a driver.

      And Tony was driving the car which should have never been that close to Ward Jr.spinning it’s tires.

      Tony will likely pay for this for the rest of his life.

      I look for his team to ask him to step down permanently as a driver to protect their sponsor base.

      I know he is a part owner but he also has to look out for his co-owners rights and the jobs of all the people who work for him.

      Plus Tony has not healed from his broken leg fully anyway.

      With all of this going on,he would be best served to not drive for the rest of the year and let his leg heal fully.

      This off time would also let the firestorm of publicity over this die down.

      This off time will drive Tony certifiably insane but he should watch anything he says because he will be baited daily to produce a negative sound bite for the American public to comment on.

      The future for Tony Stewart here is a minefield of bad things he must not let happen in the process of minimizing the damage financially to himself and his race team.

      Without a doubt,Tony will likely have to pay a huge amount of money to Ward Jr.’s family.

      The best case here is to get through this with Ward Jr.’s family satisfied that justice has been served,that they have been treated with respect throughout this process and that Tony’s right to due process have also been served in way that looks fair and proper to the public and through that process ,to the numerous sponsors that pay for the many drivers Tony’s team runs.

      None of this will be easy for Tony Stewart going forward and none of it should be.

      Kevin Ward Jr. is dead and Tony was driving the car that crushed the life out of him.

      • elvoid - Aug 12, 2014 at 11:16 AM

        “Kevin Ward Jr. is dead and Tony was driving the car that crushed the life out of him.”

        Here, let me fix that for you:

        “Kevin Ward Jr. is dead because he walked straight into the path of a moving car that Tony Stewart was driving.”

  2. techmeister1 - Aug 11, 2014 at 8:36 PM

    There are WAY too many assumptions in the comments above that are baseless. No one except Tony knows what state of mind he was in. No one knows if Kevin got clipped by the rear wheel because he got too close to the car, slipped or for some other reason. Making all of these meritless statements does not help the situation at all.

    Let the experts investigate and report. At this point they are not investigating this as a crime but as a pure and simple accident, which is what it appears to have been. The one thing we know for certain is that if Kevin had stayed in his car, he’d be alive today. Tony didn’t pursue Kevin, Kevin went after Stewart.

  3. drylake - Aug 11, 2014 at 10:57 PM

    Only problem with this post is there is no real danger in NASCAR racing. Sprint cars? Certainly. Dale Earnhardt’s death was an anomaly in that he refused to wear the HANS device. But look at the big wreck at the Glen. Nobody hurt because so much car around you. That feeds the false bravado that was present in upstate New York. Because of Senna, Moore, Sheldon, et al, open wheel drivers have much more respect. When you don’t have that monster car around you, deliberate contact is something to be avoided.

    • elcaminobilly - Aug 12, 2014 at 1:51 AM

      You have no idea what you are talking about. NASCAR has lost dozens of drivers in on track incidents- 4 in a year’s time ending with Dale Earnhardt’s death. (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper – and that’s not counting the deaths of Kevin Martin and Blaise Alexander in ARCA cars which were at the time mechanically identical to Cup cars) After that happened, NASCAR kicked the safety up in importance and made the cars much, much safer. Since then there have been no on-track deaths in NASCAR, but that’s because of the car’s safety, the SAFER barriers and the safety devices in the car. (which includes the HANS device, regulated into existence after Earnhardt’s death). There have been a dozen or more incidents where cars have hit the wall with a force of over 60 Gs. I think one of the wrecks was around 120 Gs. The wreck that killed Earnhardt was, I believe, 42 Gs. The other drivers all walked away, because NASCAR mandated so much safety equipment and features post-2001. Several drivers have stated that the only reason they are alive is the safety equipment, IE, soft walls and HANS device.

      Also, if my memory is correct, the HANS device was not yet invented by 2/18/2001.

      • indycarseries500 - Aug 12, 2014 at 9:08 AM

        The HANS Device was invented circa 1990, CART had it mandatory on ovals in 2000 and all circuits in 2001.

      • drylake - Aug 12, 2014 at 10:45 AM

        You make my point. Cup racing is very safe now, which leads to the false bravado usually on display. In Cup there is the ability to make contact in order to take someone out, yet have your car survive. In F1 or IndyCar, attempting will result in your car being taken out, as well. Not to mention the risk to life and limb. Being a hothead in F1 or IndyCar usually results in your own demise. In Cup it is part of the job description. A NASCAR hothead met a small town hothead last week and the results were tragic.

  4. berone2012 - Aug 12, 2014 at 2:29 AM

    The HANS device was invented in the mid ’90s. Christian Fittipaldi was the first driver to test it for a full season of Champ Car; roughly the ’97 or ’98 season I believe (my memory is a little fuzzy on that.)
    CART mandated it in the following season and Formula 1 and numerous other series followed suit within a year or two . Nascar was practically the last major series to require the HANS.

    My comment is only to clarify (as much as I recall) the timeline of the HANS device. I believe this does not negate the overall point that you make though.

  5. mackie66 - Aug 12, 2014 at 5:10 AM

    Yo Posnanski,,,,what an idiot you are sir. Go write about something you might know about,,,like walking and breathing air at the same time….

    • sportsfan18 - Aug 12, 2014 at 11:03 AM

      Hello Mack,

      You just proved, with your own words, that you don’t know what it is you just wrote.

      Ironic huh? Telling a renowned writer to write about something he knows about while you were writing something you don’t know about.

  6. 49ergeorge - Aug 12, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Hang in there Tony, I got your back. Horrible situation, but not your fault.

  7. bbk1000 - Aug 12, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    IMO Stewart tried to scare him and hit him, but the kid should have stayed in the car and not run around like a lunatic with cars racing past him.

    Pipsqueaks and tempers…..not a good combination.

  8. ml174 - Aug 12, 2014 at 6:58 PM

    Tried to scare him, tried to kill him, tried to avoid him and didn’t. We will never know. What we DO know is that Sunday morning it was reported that after what happened he was still planning to DRIVE in that day’s race! It doesn’t get any sadder or more telling than that.Never mind that someone convinced him not to drive. (And I purposely didn’t say that he decided not to drive!)

    What rational, caring, person with an ounce of humanity in him thinks that way? I don’t care who it is. If you want to relate to someone you see on TV or anywhere else, that you don’t know personally, then good luck to you. Amazing!!!

  9. barkleyblows - Aug 12, 2014 at 8:39 PM

    It amazes me how morons can keep saying it wasn’t Tonys fault or he didn’t do anything.

    Pretty sure he ran over someone and killed him.

    • elvoid - Aug 13, 2014 at 9:14 AM

      The person he “ran over” aggressively, quickly and unexpectedly walked into the path of his moving car. It amazes me how morons can’t see that.

      Pretty sure if the guy would not have done that, he’d still be alive.

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