Skip to content

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

Aug 11, 2014, 5:00 PM EST

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.

Latest Posts
  1. FR3.5: Facu Regalia signs with Zeta Corse for 2015

    Feb 28, 2015, 5:00 PM EST

    © GP2 Media Service © GP2 Media Service

    Argentinian driver confirms his plans for the new season after a difficult 2014 with Hilmer Motorsport.

  2. Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Saturday

    Feb 28, 2015, 4:00 PM EST

    Sainz 282a Getty Images

    A full round-up from the penultimate day of F1 pre-season testing in Barcelona.

  3. Vergne enjoys first Ferrari run-out in Adelaide show run

    Feb 28, 2015, 3:30 PM EST

    V8 Supercars Clipsal 500 - Race 1 & 2 Getty Images

    Frenchman joined the team as a test driver for the 2015 season.

  4. More birthdays: Aldo Andretti, Bourdais, Hawksworth, Bachelart, Minassian, Leitzinger, Liddell

    Feb 28, 2015, 3:11 PM EST

    BourdaisTOR12 AP

    Bourdais, Hawksworth, Aldo Andretti and more all have birthdays today, February 28.

  5. Hamilton: “It wasn’t a particularly spectacular day”

    Feb 28, 2015, 3:00 PM EST

    Hamilton 282a Getty Images

    Despite posting a time that, when adjusted to account for tire compounds, could be 1.4 seconds quicker than the rest of the field, the Briton was unenthused about his performance.

  6. UPDATED: #AirJosef: Newgarden dunks with Pacers Power Pack (VIDEO)

    Feb 28, 2015, 2:30 PM EST

    AirNewgy AP

    How well does Josef Newgarden dunk? Find out in video he does with Indiana Pacers “Power Pack.”

  7. Sainz Jr. boosted by productive day for Toro Rosso

    Feb 28, 2015, 2:30 PM EST

    Sainz 282 Getty Images

    Today was Sainz’s last run in the Toro Rosso before his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.

  8. Kevin Magnussen wanted Corvette Le Mans drive alongside his father, Jan

    Feb 28, 2015, 2:15 PM EST

    F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia - Qualifying Getty Images

    Danish driver reveals he received the call to say he would not be racing in F1 very late, preventing him from securing a drive elsewhere in 2015.

  9. “Focus” light on IndyCar content, but oozes enough cool to enhance “cool factor”

    Feb 28, 2015, 2:00 PM EST

    FocusLede AP

    Is “Focus” IndyCar-focused? No. Is it cool to have IndyCar as a part of a Will Smith movie? Definitely.

  10. Massa positive after final winter testing run for Williams

    Feb 28, 2015, 1:30 PM EST

    F1 Testing In Barcelona - Day Three Getty Images

    Brazilian driver finishes second on day three of the final test in Barcelona, two-tenths of a second behind pace-setter Lewis Hamilton.

  11. Hulkenberg surprised by Force India mileage in Barcelona

    Feb 28, 2015, 1:00 PM EST

    Hulkenberg 282 Getty Images

    German driver completes 234 laps in just a day and a half in Barcelona as he continues to learn about the VJM08.

  12. Hamilton fastest as Mercedes impresses again on day three

    Feb 28, 2015, 12:02 PM EST

    Hamilton 282 Getty Images

    British driver finishes two-tenths of a second clear of Felipe Massa on the penultimate day of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

  13. Vettel left wanting more from Ferrari SF15-T in testing

    Feb 28, 2015, 11:00 AM EST

    F1 Testing In Barcelona - Day Two Getty Images

    Four-time world champion will get his final test run in the new Ferrari on Sunday ahead of his grand prix debut for the team next month.

  14. Button: 100 laps felt like 1,000 to McLaren on Friday

    Feb 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EST

    Button 282 Getty Images

    British driver delighted with breakthrough after a miserable winter testing programme.

  15. Happy 75th birthday to one of the best ever, Mario Andretti

    Feb 28, 2015, 9:00 AM EST

    Indianapolis 500 Parade Getty Images

    We wish Mario Andretti, one of the all-time greats, a happy 75th birthday.

  16. Manor Marussia “very close” to racing in Australian GP

    Feb 28, 2015, 8:00 AM EST

    F1 Grand Prix of Russia - Qualifying Getty Images

    Team founder John Booth is confident that the revived outfit will race in the Australian Grand Prix on March 15.

  17. IndyCar: Drivers, stars appear in Indy, LA, Detroit, Milwaukee for “Focus” premiere (PHOTOS)

    Feb 27, 2015, 7:00 PM EST

    WillSmithFocus AP

    IndyCar drivers hit several race markets for “Focus” premieres.

  18. GP2: Nathanael Berthon returns with Lazarus for 2015

    Feb 27, 2015, 4:30 PM EST

    © GP3 Series © GP3 Series

    French driver set for a fourth season in GP2 this year with Lazarus.

  19. Barcelona F1 2nd Test Paddock Notebook – Friday

    Feb 27, 2015, 3:30 PM EST

    Vettel 272 Getty Images

    All of the latest news, reports and features from the paddock in Barcelona.