The video stops just before Tony Stewart’s race car fatally impacts twenty-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. I know there’s a full version of it all over the Internet, a man—barely older than a boy—losing his life on camera. I’m glad I haven’t watched it, and I don’t intend to. Watching someone die on video is something that can’t be un-seen once seen, and I, for one, will abstain. I have seen too many things that I’d like to un-see.
In a quarter-second, two lives were joined forever. Kevin and Tony. What was the fatal attraction that drew them into such a deadly conflict? It wasn’t about money, or women, or love…well it was about love, sort of—a kind of self-love, love of a feeling, the feeling of winning. Winning at all costs.
Race car drivers are an aggressive bunch. There’s no room on a racetrack for a milquetoast. Milquetoasts win a tin-plated trophy inscribed “loser”. Race car drivers despise the tentative, the weak, the fearful, because those people are dangerous. If you’ve ever been behind someone on an interstate entry ramp who stops because they’re scared of the traffic, you know how it feels to drive on a track with a wimp. Wimps don’t make it in racing.
Kevin Ward was not a wimp. Since he was four years old, racing was his life. And he was good at it. At eighteen, he was named rookie of the year in the Empire Super Sprint series—that was in 2012. He had even beaten the erstwhile Tony Stewart on the dirt in the little sprint cars. They were rivals, but they were also kindred spirits.
Tony Stewart is not a wimp either. His record speaks for itself. Three Sprint Cup championships, his own racing team (Stewart-Haas), the Number 14 emblazoned on his Bass Pro Shops Sprint Cup car, Tony is one of the cream of the crop in NASCAR racing. Everyone knows that Tony isn’t afraid to mix it up on the track. Off the track, he’s one of the most vociferous trash-talkers in the sport.
These two personalities met in a fatal embrace last Saturday night. The fearless kid and the grizzled veteran clashed on their field of honor, a dirt-surfaced short oval track. Tony Stewart doesn’t need to race in small town dirt track events—he’s a multimillionaire. Tony just loves to race. He loves it so much that he races just for fun.
When he was Kevin Ward’s age, he was doing exactly what Kevin was doing: trying to be the best race car driver, every time, in every race, and finish first. A top driver is defined by his aggressiveness and fearlessness, and the line between fearlessness and foolishness is perilously thin. The line between aggressiveness and assault is a razor’s edge, especially behind the wheel of a 1,375 pound, 850 horsepower chunk of metal and rubber. Both Kevin Ward and Tony Stewart crossed these lines in a small time sprint car race in upstate New York. Tony killed Kevin with his car.
This was no drug-fueled, jealous rage over a girl, or a punk kid picking a fight with the wrong guy at a bar. But the results were the same. A man dead, another ruined. The Ontario County authorities are not charging Stewart with a crime—at least not yet. Calls for Stewart’s head on a platter have only just begun, and more than one district attorney has bowed to public pressure in cases like this. For my part, after hearing many sides to this story, I don’t think any laws were violated. But a crime was committed just the same.
How could Stewart be ruined if he’s not charged with a crime, stripped of his titles, banned from NASCAR? I doubt any of those things will happen to him, but nonetheless he’s ruined. Tony Stewart has to relive the moment when Kevin Ward died under his wheels, every day, for the rest of his life. He has to feel the bump as his rear right tire crushed the young man’s body and threw it half a football field, he has to feel the endless doubt every time his hands touch the steering wheel in a race car: what could he have done to spare young Kevin’s life? Tony has to face the ultimate truth: there’s no do-overs, only if-onlys.
If there’s no charges, you ask what was the crime? Not all crimes are against the law. This crime is one of passion: criminal trespass outside the bounds of humanity. Two men allowed their humanity to submerge and drown under a sea of pride, anger, and invincibility. Like most twenty-year-olds, Kevin was invincible and immortal, in his own mind at least. Outside of soldiers in a shooting war, or fleeting moments of adrenaline-soaked fear, young men don’t think of death or mortality. They see a long life ahead of them and commit themselves to live it well.
Kevin Ward wasn’t thinking of his own death when he climbed out of his car onto an active racetrack—obviously had he thought he would die, he’d have stayed put. Safety rules dictate that you don’t get out of your car while race cars are speeding along. But Kevin had been racing for 16 years, the caution flag was out, and the cars were moving no faster than 50 mph. About the same as you or me walking into the street on a busy county road.
He didn’t intend to stand in front of the cars, he only wanted to shake his fist at Tony Stewart, who had run him off the track—he wanted Tony to see his anger. Maybe Kevin had done this before; it’s not clear if he had, but it is clear he wasn’t afraid of race cars or walking on the track. Kevin’s anger and pride combined with his fearlessness and feeling of invincibility to push him one step too far onto the track. Kevin doesn’t get a do-over or even an if-only. He gets a gravestone and a grieving family, friends, and fans.
Maybe there’s mercy in that. I know this sounds uncaring, even callous, but what if Kevin wasn’t killed, but was paralyzed from the neck down? What if he wasn’t killed, but was in a long-term coma? What if he wasn’t killed but faced years of recovery and could never race again? While any outcome of Kevin being alive versus dead is better than what happened, Kevin’s death brought a finality which can eventually lead to peace for his family and friends. For Kevin, his fate is in God’s hands, and I pray that he knew the immeasurable grace and mercy of Christ, and is resting in the everlasting arms. If Kevin was here on earth, damaged beyond repair, he might have to live with the if-only, endless reliving of the event, sharing the moment of criminal trespass with his attacker.
I resolve to pray for the other trespasser, Tony Stewart. I don’t know him, but I know that he alone carries the weight of his crime. He committed it publicly, on video, in front of the whole world. The scarlet “M” for “murderer” is branded on his forehead and the staggering weight of the act is on his shoulders alone. Anyone who has killed another behind the wheel must be aware of this feeling.
Matthew Broderick killed two people in 1987 from behind the wheel. He doesn’t remember doing it, but he carries the knowledge of their deaths. He was convicted of a minor road offense and paid a $175 fine. There’s never been a complete explanation of how Broderick drove a BMW into oncoming traffic. Ted Kennedy had the shadow of Chappaquiddick follow him his whole career. Mary Jo Kopechne’s death never left Kennedy, and was never really explained to anyone’s satisfaction.
Similarly, Kevin Ward’s death will haunt Tony Stewart for the rest of his life, with one difference: the world witnessed this killing. The world will forever question Tony’s story and motivation. Did he see Kevin? Did he swerve to miss him? Did he hit the throttle to scare Kevin? Did he think the powerful little sprint car wouldn’t swerve in the turn (he knows better). What was really going through Tony’s mind in that quarter-second—the fraction of a section he wishes never happened?
What wasn’t in Tony’s mind, or Kevin’s mind was this thought: life is fragile and temporary. We all have one life to live, and it is easily ended. Much too easily. If Kevin had thought that, he would never have left his car. If Tony had thought that, he might not have been so aggressive in a race he didn’t need to win at all costs. Tony will always have another axe to grind, another driver’s action to avenge, another car to pass. You could say it’s in his nature to win every race, to drive as if this race is the championship, to never let up.
Humanity demands more of us than the urge to win at all costs. It demands that we place others above ourselves. It demands that our basest impulses of anger, competition, revenge, and pride be subverted to mercy, care and humility. In this crime, both Kevin and Tony are guilty of trespassing. One dead, one ruined. The two men will always be linked together by this one moment.
We will all mourn for a few days, and then move on with life. NASCAR raced last Sunday, thankfully without Tony Stewart, and will race again next Sunday, probably with Tony back in the number 14. Perhaps Tony will take this time to examine his own humanity and make a decision to never trespass again.
Maybe Tony will use this moment in his life to examine his priorities. Maybe he’ll look at life a little more mercifully, a little more gratefully. Maybe he’ll have a better understanding of life’s fragility. Maybe he’ll spend more time outside of the adrenaline-rush of racing and become a more thoughtful person.
C.S. Lewis said “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Tony Stewart would be well served by that sentiment. No acts of penitence, nor a lifetime of remorse will bring Kevin Ward back to this earth. Tony has an opportunity to make this day, the day he changes his life, the day he turns the intensity and win-at-all-cost aggressiveness from racing for his own glory to helping others for the glory of God (if not God then humanity).
Tony Stewart could walk through his own ruin to emerge a new and better man, a man who dares not trespass from his humanity. I hope and pray that he does. It would be a fitting tribute to Kevin Ward, who trespassed one too many times.