Jury still out on Tony Stewart's role in dirt-track death
MANCHESTER — The horrific series of events caught on video Saturday in upstate New York — when 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. was hit and killed by three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart — have led to a debate on whether it was a tragic accident or an act of aggression by a driver who has a history of anger issues on the track.
“The video itself, from what we can see, is inconclusive,” said Mike McCann, founder and director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire. “I think that’s evidenced by the sharp debate in the racing community on this issue where there is no consensus. There are two very distinct schools of thought about what was going through Tony Stewart’s mind in that 15-20 second sequence.”
McCann, a professor who teaches sports law at University of New Hampshire, was busy Monday as a legal analyst. He wrote a detailed piece for Sports Illustrated, breaking down the potential legal consequences Stewart could face if investigators conclude criminal charges are warranted from Saturday’s race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
McCann was careful not to choose sides, saying a great deal more needs to be determined before anyone can say definitively what happened.
“You can look at that video and see intent and you look at it and see an accident. It really depends on the lens,” McCann told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “It’s a very unusual circumstance that seems to be the product of tense emotions and heat-of-the-moment decision making.”
McCann said one of the facts yet to be determined is how much a role Ward may have played in his own death, by leaving his car and venturing close to where cars were under a caution flag after the wreck zipped past him as he hunted down Stewart.
Jerry Gappens, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, said Ward broke a cardinal rule of racing by leaving his car before emergency personnel arrived.
Ward was also wearing a black racing suit, which may have been difficult for Stewart to see in the dim lighting of the track, likely through a helmet visor splattered from mud kicked up by other cars in the race.
The video shows Stewart stopping his car on the track quickly after Ward was caught under the right rear tire and flung forward.
A member of Stewart’s team initially said he would still race Sunday in the Sprint Cup event at Watkins Glen, going so far as to say “We’re business as usual (Sunday),” a statement that was not well-received so quickly after the fatality in Canandaigua.
A short time later, it was decided that Stewart would not race Sunday, and his status for this week’s race in Michigan remained unclear.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Stewart said in a prepared statement.
Gappens, who grew up in Indiana driving similar cars on small dirt tracks, said he considers Stewart a friend who is misunderstood from his early days as a brash young driver.
Gappens noted Stewart doesn’t race at local dirt tracks for money.
He does it for fun and fans, continuing to do it a year after a crash on a dirt track in Iowa gave him a broken leg and ended his season last summer.
“Tony Stewart is a great ambassador for the sport of racing,” Gappens said. “He has never forgotten his grassroots and where he started.”