TONY Stewart is many things, including the obvious – he’s a prodigiously versatile and gifted race driver.
Before he went on to win three NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, he was a fixture on American dirt tracks, racing midgets and sprint cars. He collected the USAC midget and sprint car crowns in the same year. He still loves racing on dirt.
Last weekend, Stewart was racing a sprint car in New York State when he ran over and killed a rival driver after a brief on-track skirmish.
The two had been racing wheel to wheel when Stewart appeared to bump Kevin Ward Jr into the fence. It was no big deal in sprint car racing, but a clearly angry Ward had jumped from his car to remonstrate with Stewart and moments later Ward was hit by the right rear wheel of the NASCAR superstar’s machine.
Video footage of the tragic aftermath is hard to watch, and on a casual viewing it doesn’t look good for Stewart.
Media reports across the motor racing world and, in particular, virulent and uncontrolled social media commentary, have been scathing of Stewart and his actions.
Yes, some say there is not much to like about stubbled Stewart. He is often abrasive and oafish. He thinks donuts are health food. He has been involved in many incidents with fellow drivers and does have a record of altercations with officials.
"Tony will at times do or say things that make our skin crawl," long-time NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter told Rolling Stone. "He's been an asshole at times."
A throwback to the good ol’ boys of the good ol’ days of dirt racing and NASCAR, Stewart is the scruffy antithesis of the clean-cut sponsor-friendly gents like Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.
He has been in shoving matches with many rivals, had been accused of assaulting a spectator (but not convicted), torn headphones off a track official at a midget race, kicked a reporter's tape recorder (and then replaced it), punched a photographer and, in Sydney in 2011, was taken away by police after flinging his helmet at promoter/driver Brett Morris, fracturing his eye socket.
Stewart is no Rhodes Scholar. There's no reading material in his modest home. He told Rolling Stone, “You want to hide something from me? Put it in a book.”
Nor is Stewart a classy dude. “Pussy, money and race cars… that's pretty much all I care about,” the still-single racer once said, without a hint of embarrassment.
But does this make Stewart an unconscionable, murderous race driver that half of the United States – a collective of judge and jury – wants to hang, at least metaphorically?
Consider too that Darwinism is pervasive in US motor sport. Over-regulation is not an issue. The rights of competitors and spectators to make their own judgement – instant or calculated – about exposure to danger are heavily protected. Some might suggest it’s natural selection…
There are two videos of the incident, from different angles. But, crucially, none from Stewart’s car. Days after the fatality, police investigators were still insisting there were no facts to support criminal behaviour or conduct. But they emphasised that the investigation was ongoing.
Consider, too, the not immediately obvious factors to those outside the rough and tumble world of after-dark dirt racing. Track lighting is often patchy and gloomy. Drivers’ vision is affected by the dirt and clay and dust churned up by a field of sprint cars.
Brutal, rambunctious sprint cars are not predictable, well behaved jiggers, not with in excess of 800 horses and different tyre circumferences and widths. This is especially so when they are not at racing speeds.
Volunteering his views to TWC News, fellow sprint car driver Cory Sparks supported Stewart.
"From what I saw, Tony did everything in his power to turn down away from Kevin to avoid him," said Sparks. "People say that they heard the engine rev up and he gassed it. In a sprint car, the only way to steer is you steer with the rear wheels as much as you do the steering wheel. In my opinion, what he did was he gassed it to turn down away from him."