Stewart incident could change racing's framework
Posted August 11, 2014
Where the majority of the blame resides in the Saturday death of race car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. may never be fully known, but you can bet industry insiders are praying that issue isn’t eventually determined by a jury in a wrongful death lawsuit against Tony Stewart.
Such a chain of events would have a massive impact on the manner in which the billion-dollar auto racing business is managed, regulated and financially underwritten.
Either way, sweeping rules changes are on the way relating to driver behavior during, before and after events. On that point, there’s no doubt. Irrational conduct soon will be met with previously unimaginable reprimands, suspensions and fines.
Out of self defense alone, NASCAR will be the first to act on that front. The organization had no role in what happened when Ward was struck and killed by Stewart during a sprint car event at the Canandaigua, NY, Motorsports Park.
But the 43-year-old Stewart is a NASCAR regular, and right or wrong, NASCAR has a stake in the way an investigation into the tragedy unfolds. So do all other national and international sanctioning bodies. The ramifications are universal in that respect.
There is no question that Ward was wrong to exit his car following a wreck that involved Stewart. A caution flag had been thrown, but the 20-year-old Ward had to have known that leaving the cockpit to attempt an on-track confrontation with Stewart was asking for trouble.
But what happened after that will be the motivating force of what happens next.
Tyler Graves, a driver friend of Ward who attended the race, told The Sporting News that “Tony could see” Ward before the incident. “When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle,” Graves was quoted as saying.
If others who saw the episode make similar statements -- especially any drivers actually might have been in the immediate part of the racetrack -- Stewart could face serious criminal charges, including manslaughter or even second-degree murder.
But even if it doesn’t come to that, Ward’s family could have grounds for a wrongful death case that might result in a big settlement. Ward, who began his racing career at age 16, was considered to have a bright future.
Stewart has won almost $116 million in NASCAR Sprint Cup races alone.
(The NASCAR Sprint Cup division, by the way, has nothing to do with sprint cars, the body style of the cars driven by Ward and Stewart on Saturday.)
Obviously, Stewart actually receives only a fraction of the winnings and on some teams, the drivers are simply salaried employees by the team owner.
But by all logic, Stewart is a wealthy man and drives cars displaying corporate logos of multi-million dollar companies. The potential impact of a tense, sensationalized court case involving Stewart and perhaps other drivers would be precisely the sort of exposure image-minded corporate sponsors want to avoid.
Then there’s the fact that during most of his career, Stewart has been something of a polarizing competitor. His occasionally furious driving style and intense personality are reflected in his “Smoke” nickname. One of his primary sponsors has been “Bad Boy” Buggies utility vehicles.
It’s impossible to predict how all of this will impact Stewart, his family and his career. But one thing is certain, auto racing is potentially on the verge of a landscape shift if there’s a court case of any kind.
The rules regarding responsibility and financial accountability may soon be radically revised for everyone -- drivers, owners, tracks and regulatory officials.