Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. WATCH LIVE: IndyCar, Indy Lights Carb Day at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN, Live Extra

    May 22, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT

    Helio Castroneves after this past Sunday's first day of practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. AP

    Watch Carb Day IndyCar and Indy Lights coverage, from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

  2. What to watch for: IndyCar, Indy Lights Carb Day (11 a.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra)

    May 22, 2015, 9:08 AM EDT

    SagePitStops Getty Images

    Still A LOT of stuff to watch for on Carb Day for the Verizon IndyCar Series, LIVE from 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

  3. Here’s Friday’s jam-packed schedule for IMS Carb Day 2015

    May 22, 2015, 8:22 AM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    Carb Day at IMS: always one of the busiest days of the year.

  4. UPDATED: Vautier to replace Huertas at last-minute for Indy 500

    May 21, 2015, 11:51 PM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    In a bizarre and truly 11th hour circumstance, Tristan Vautier appears set to replace Carlos Huertas in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

  5. IndyCar driver raises concern about design of wishbone that injured James Hinchcliffe in crash

    May 21, 2015, 5:57 PM EDT

    James Hinchcliffe James Hinchcliffe

    Oriol Servia says a connecting rod was removed that might have prevented the part from piercing the tub and critically injuring driver.

  6. GP2: Rossi storms to pole position in Monaco qualifying

    May 21, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT

    © GP2 Series © GP2 Series

    American driver claims his second pole position in GP2 with a mesmerising display in Monaco on Thursday.

  7. SPM targets Monday for next driver confirmation in No. 5 car as drivers await

    May 21, 2015, 4:32 PM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    The No. 5 beyond Indy 500 could be Daly, Wilson, or A.N. Other.

  8. Formula E: Audi Sport ABT confirms unchanged line-up for season two

    May 21, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - JANUARY 08:  Daniel Abt poses for pictures next to his car during a paddock preview at Puerto Madero Street Race Track on January 08, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/LatinContent/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Daniel Abt confirmed to be remaining with his family team for season two of the Formula E series.

  9. IndyCar confirms Boston race for 2016

    May 21, 2015, 3:47 PM EDT

    BostonStreetTrack

    Boston confirmed for 2016 and beyond in IndyCar.

  10. Ethan Ringel scores Indy Lights pole for Freedom 100

    May 21, 2015, 3:33 PM EDT

    Photo: IMS Photography, LLC Photo: IMS Photography, LLC

    SPM takes four of the top five spots on the Indy Lights grid.

  11. Alonso: New rules proof F1 went in the wrong direction

    May 21, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT

    xxxx during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 21, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Getty Images

    The McLaren driver lends his support to the proposed changes to F1 for 2017.

  12. Button happy with refuelling return, but remains keen to see a tire war in F1

    May 21, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT

    xxxx during previews to the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 20, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Getty Images

    McLaren driver talks about the proposed changes for F1 ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

  13. Briscoe: “I’ve been made as comfortable as I could be in this situation”

    May 21, 2015, 12:31 PM EDT

    BriscoeIMS Getty Images

    Given the circumstances, Ryan Briscoe feels comfortable heading into his fill-in role for James Hinchcliffe in the Indianapolis 500.

  14. Bottas flattered by speculation linking him to Ferrari

    May 21, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT

    MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 20:  Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams (rear) and Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari (front) attend the drivers press conference during previews to the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 20, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Williams driver admits that he is flattered to be linked with a drive at a top team, but remains coy when asked about a possible move away for 2016.

  15. Briscoe officially confirmed in Hinchcliffe’s car for Indy 500

    May 21, 2015, 11:19 AM EDT

    Photo: SPM IndyCar Photo: SPM IndyCar

    Briscoe replacement for James Hinchcliffe made official Thursday morning.

  16. Hamilton: No doubt I’d re-sign with Mercedes

    May 21, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT

    MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the paddock during previews to the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 20, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Defending world champion says he never contemplated leaving Mercedes for another team.

  17. The 100th Indy 500 and GP of Indy 2016 dates are released

    May 21, 2015, 10:52 AM EDT

    Photo: IMS Photo: IMS

    Logo and date for the 100th Indianapolis 500 is revealed.

  18. F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

    May 21, 2015, 9:53 AM EDT

    McLaren Honda's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso (C) and Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team's German driver Nico Rosberg (L) drive  during the first practice session at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo on May 21, 2015, ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Will Buxton brings you all of the interviews and news ahead of the biggest event on the F1 calendar: the Monaco Grand Prix.

  19. Hamilton tops quiet second Monaco GP practice

    May 21, 2015, 9:31 AM EDT

    MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 21:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 21, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Hamilton continues his good form by posting the fastest time in FP2 before the rain falls and limits running in Monaco on Thursday.

  20. WATCH LIVE: FP2 for the Monaco Grand Prix on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET

    May 21, 2015, 7:46 AM EDT

    xxxx during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 21, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. Getty Images

    Lewis Hamilton bids to double up in the second free practice session in Monaco on Thursday.