July 12, 2020

The Canandaigua Incident

By now we’ve all seen the video, seen the knee jerk reactions online, and seen various talking heads on TV attempt to assign blame to either Tony Stewart or Kevin Ward Jr.  And while we want this to be a completely black and white, cut and dry instance, it isn’t.  This was as series of poor decisions that lead to the worst possible result.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about: Last night in a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York, Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr. were involved in a racing incident in turn one.  Stewart slid into Ward, causing Ward to spin and lose his right rear tire.  The caution flag is thrown, and Ward gets out of his car and begins walking down the track (towards the infield) looking for and pointing at Stewart’s car.  Stewart comes close to Ward, hits the accelerator causing the back end to step out.  Ward was hit by, and dragged under Stewart’s right rear tire some thirty feet before being thrown from the car.  Ward was motionless when medical personnel got to him.  He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.  He was twenty years old.

Stewart, after hitting Ward, came to a stop on the back straight of the track.  Racing was suspended at the track, and police are investigating the incident.  Stewart returned to Watkins Glen, where he initially announced he would be racing in today’s Sprint Cup race.  Earlier today it was announced that Reagan Smith would be taking his place in the #14 car for today’s race.

This incident, this tragedy, isn’t even a day old yet everyone is wanting to assign blame to someone.  It’s not as simple as that.  A series of events brought us to where we are right now, and if different decisions had been made at any point I doubt we would be talking about the death of a race car driver.

Everyone knows that Tony Stewart is a hot head, and this has lead to some heated interviews and outright fights.  He gets caught up in the heat of the moment, and calms down after a few days.  He is a competitive man, which is why he was racing in a sprint car race less than a day before he was racing in a Sprint Cup race.  He collided with a twenty year old kid, who then got out of his car and was pointing and walking towards his car.  Maybe he didn’t see him, maybe he was trying to scare him a little bit.  Either way, he ended up colliding with Ward and eventually killing him.

Kevin Ward was competitive too.  He began racing karts at age four, and by thirteen won multiple Micro Sprint championships.  After that he went into the 360 Sprint Car division, where he won rookie of the year honors in 2012.  At the time of the incident he was in a bit of a slump, due to mechanical issues, but was optimistic the bad luck would pass.  In turn one Stewart slid into him, causing Ward to spin out and cut down a tire.  He got out of the car, and began looking for Stewart.  He made his way down the track, began pointing at Stewart as he approached, and was then struck by the rear of Stewart’s car.  He was dragged and thrown over thirty feet.  He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Ward should have never gotten out of the car, and he should have never walked down the track with traffic still moving.  That was a bad decision.  If he had waited to catch Stewart in the paddock, then this would be an entirely different story, but he didn’t.  Stewart, assuming he saw him (which I think he did see him), should have been lower on the track.  He should have put as much space between himself and Ward as possible.  He shouldn’t have tried to scare him, if that was indeed what he was trying to do.  Stewart has won multiple Sprint Cup championships, and an IRL title, so he clearly knows better.  But he made the bad decision to buzz the kid.

A series of poor choices by two men lead to the untimely death of one, and the unknown weight of taking a person’s life for another.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ward family, and I sincerely hope that this was a tragic accident and was not done with malicious intent by Tony Stewart.

Words by Michael Chandler


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Michael Chandler

Director of Photography, writer, man about town and owner of Big Ronda, the Mk3 Toyota Supra project

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