When you mix anger, hotheads and high-octane fuel, you sometimes get trouble.
In Canandaigua on Saturday night, you also got tragedy.
A 20-year-old phenom, pushed up against the wall by one of the biggest men in NASCAR, wrestled himself out of his bunged up car and stormed down the track to confront the man he felt had done him wrong.
It was high-bank dirt and small-town dreams and a kid with a helmet and some coveralls and cars coming by under a yellow flag. He walked into the traffic lane and one came past and then it was the big man and he raised his hand to flip him off and a foot or two outside the path of the front wheel he made his stand.
But the back end cut loose and swung wide and the big rear tire came over him and hung him up and then threw him far and lifeless back onto the bank.
That’s how Kevin Ward Jr. lost his life and Tony Stewart lost his peace of mind.
And maybe his career and maybe his freedom.
Because the press conferences are being held by the sheriff, not track officials, and every angle of every cellphone video is being scrutinized by people who know physics, racing and the laws of the state of New York.
And the most ominous report in the press is the claim that spectators could hear Tony Stewart’s engine rev as he approached Kevin Ward Jr. Did they miss hear? Or was he trying to scare the younger man, maybe spray him with mud as he passed, do something in some way to stand up to this impertinent, wet-behind-the-ears, backwoods rookie daring to walk across the track and flip off a three-time NASCAR champ?
Was it stupid plus stupid equals a horror no one could imagine?
Did the impetuous decision to get out of a crumpled car on an active track combine with the impetuous decision to brush by an angry competitor leave a young man dead and the race world questioning itself?
Or did a kid too young to buy a beer simply misjudge and walk into the arc of a passing racer?
The investigators will have to decide.
The investigators and everybody who squinted into their phones yesterday watching the YouTube of Kevin Junior’s death.
Whatever they decide, Tony Stewart is at fault.
Tony Stewart and a culture of bare-knuckle racing that believes the response to competitive jostling is to storm into the scrum with fists and fingers flying.
It’s a world of high-tech machines and low-tech men.
A world where when you have a dispute with a guy you go kick his ass.
A world where it’s somehow reasonable to climb out of your car on an active race track and storm around like a 3-year-old throwing a tantrum.
A world that Tony Stewart helped create and perpetuate.
Because it wasn’t just Tony Stewart’s car that killed Kevin Ward Jr., it was his example.
It didn’t take the ESPN producers long to find video of Tony Stewart storming around on an active track himself, throwing his helmet at passing cars and giving the finger to drivers who had crossed him.
The sad irony of Saturday night’s tragedy is that Kevin Ward Jr. was killed by Tony Stewart while being Tony Stewart. You had a 20-year-old guy in a helmet and some coveralls whose entire life had been steeped in motorsports, raised in a culture which, for most of his life, had been defined by the antics of Tony Stewart.
Kevin Ward Jr.’s choice to exit his car and walk across the track was insane, but it was a choice which the code of honor of his sport almost made obligatory, and a code which was best exemplified by the man whose car would, in a split second, end his young life.
Tony Stewart has blood on his hands, through either the pressure of his foot on the throttle or the impact of his example on his sport. In a way, Tony Stewart not only ran Kevin Junior down, he also put him in the track in front of him.
Not by the jostle up against the wall, but by the expectation of how a man is supposed to react to such a jostle.
And that blood is not just on Tony Stewart’s hands, it is smeared across the multi-colored logo of NASCAR. Because when your dog runs loose and bites someone, you’re responsible. And the officials at NASCAR have allowed the hotheads of their sport – the Tony Stewarts of their sport – to rant and rage from Talladega to Daytona. The founding myth of southern racing is that it all began with hillbillies running moonshine across the back roads of Dixie. True or not, the times have changed, the society has changed and the attitudes need to change.
The line is, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and there needs to be more emphasis on being “gentlemen.”
Because that’s what was lacking Saturday night in Canandaigua – even tempers, sportsmanship and a simple rule that says you don’t get out of your car unless it’s on fire.
It was all so needless.
And everybody watching that YouTube knows that.
And racing needs to face that fact.