(WOMR file photo)
For Tony Stewart, there was no greater joy than escaping his everyday life and climbing behind the wheel of a sprint car. He loves the feel, the way they drive, the purity he finds at all the tiny dirt tracks across the country.
When he broke his leg racing his sprint car a year ago, an injury that sidelined him for six months, and kept him out of the NASCAR Chase, he was almost defiant in his desire to never give up his hobby. However, after the death of Kevin Ward Jr., who was killed when Stewart’s car struck him as Ward climbed out his sprint car and walked out the race track to confront Stewart on an upstate New York dirt track on Aug. 9, Smoke may never get back in a sprint car.
“I would say it’s going to be a long time before you ever see me in a sprint car again, if ever. I don’t have any desire, at this moment, to get back in a car,” Stewart told The Associated Press in his first interview since a grand jury decided he would not be charged in Ward’s death.
“If I had the option to go right now to a race, I wouldn’t. I don’t even know when I’ll go to a sprint car race again to watch. I can promise you it’s going to be a long time before you ever see me back in one.”
Sitting on his couch Thursday night in his Huntersville, North Carolina, home, a sprint car race in Arkansas was on mute on his television. Stewart’s eyes were constantly drawn to the action. He can’t help himself. It’s where he came from, how he made his name and the one form of racing he simply couldn’t walk away from, even as he was criticized for jeopardizing his lucrative NASCAR career by messing around in the dirt.
He just couldn’t give it up. Not when he became a multi-millionaire and one of NASCAR’s biggest names, not after good friend Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car race last year, and not after his own injury led to three surgeries, a month in bed, and forced him to miss NASCAR races for the first time in his career.
Stewart is addicted to the simplicity of sprint car racing, to racing at venues across the country where the crowd is starving for gimmick-free racing. He didn’t care that a field full of drivers of varying ages and talent were racing for purses that rarely reach $5,000.
He made it his goal to give back to the sprint car community at every turn, especially after his accident. He improved the torque tube, the part that broke on his sprint car and caused his broken leg, and spent $110,000 on fire suits and helmets for nearly 50 drivers who needed updated safety equipment.
Stewart even paid for the embroidery on the fire suits. Stewart had only one request? That his Tony Stewart Racing logo be placed in a position that would not be noticed during interviews.
Stewart has been grappling with the decision to leave sprint racing since his 2013 crash at The Southern Iowa Speedway a dirt track in Osckaloosa, Iowa. He’d only returned to sprint car racing one month before Ward’s death.
“It’s hurt for 16 months to sit and be scrutinized for it,” said Stewart, “and to try to give back to a sport that you love, and every time you turn around, you’ve got to constantly defend yourself for doing something and trying to support something that you believe in and care about.”
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, spent three weeks in seclusion at his Indiana home after Ward’s death and describes those weeks as the darkest of his life.
On the advice of legal counsel, Stewart would not describe what he remembers about the crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, but insists what happened “was 100 percent an accident.”
Ward and Stewart had been racing for position when Ward crashed, exited his vehicle and walked down the dark track in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. A toxicology report found Ward also had marijuana in his system.
Ward’s family has said “the matter is not at rest,” and Stewart may still face a civil lawsuit. Stewart wants to discuss the accident, and said not being able to talk about what happened “keeps me from moving forward”. It just stays there, hanging over my head.
“It’s just been a really tough six weeks. I went to go have fun for a night, and that’s not what ended up happening.”
Ward and Stewart didn’t know each other, and Stewart doesn’t recall them ever talking. He laments that in the scrutiny that followed — some questioned if Stewart had tried to intimidate Ward for stepping on the track — that the loss of the 20-year-old driver and his promising career fell to the background. He said he can’t imagine how the Ward family is feeling, doesn’t blame them for anything they may say about him, but hopes to someday get the chance to sit with them and talk about that night.
“I would hope they understand — maybe they do, maybe they don’t, maybe they never will — that I do care,” he said. “I’ve tried to be respectful of their process of grieving and not push myself on them. I’m sure they have things that they want to know what happened and I think it’s important for them at some point to hear it from my point.”
Stewart believes his past — previous eruptions have included him throwing a helmet at another car, shouting and shoving matches, and sharply worded dressing downs — has played heavily into how the public has viewed Ward’s death. But he doesn’t believe he has a problem with anger, and did not have a problem with Ward that evening.
“Anger had nothing to do with what happened that night,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t angry with anything or anybody.” (The Associated AP)
With this statement from Stewart, it would appear that we may have seen Smoke for the last time racing his sprint car! The untimely death of Kevin Ward, Jr. as a result of this accident, in addition to the severe leg injury suffered by Stewart in 2013 causing his race team to miss The Chase, which led his sponsors to loosing valuable TV time, all factored into this decision, it would seem!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!