You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s an ugly truth, one often buried in a modern reality where political correctness takes center stage. Every mistake can’t be fixed by sensitivity training or an on-screen apology. Sure, people forgive your past but they also never, ever forget when it comes back to haunt you.
It’s a damning truth, one Tony Stewart grapples with Monday morning as he spends the next weeks, months, maybe years of his life asking for a second chance.
Now, anyone who knows racing understands the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. from Stewart’s right rear tire Saturday night, one of the most tragic racing incidents ever witnessed, is far more complex than meets the eye. It’s not as simple as the gruesome 50-second video that will make any person with a shred of emotion sick to their stomach. The most important story right now is the Ward family and supporting them in a time of need that is greater than most any of us could ever imagine. According to sources, Ward’s mother and father were sitting in the stands celebrating their son’s athletic accomplishments. Instead, they saw the nightmare of his death directly unfold in front of them, sitting in the stands while those around them were drinking beers and crunching popcorn.
It’s the depth of that despair, combined with disgust, that gives the story emotional power, trumping any in-depth facts of the case. It’s America in 2014, quick judgments even though I can sit here, for 20 minutes and explain to you the complexities of the crash contained within the previous paragraph. Canandaigua Motorsports Park, where the incident happened is known as a place where it’s difficult to see; Ward was also walking down, dangerously towards the racing groove when Stewart’s car mysteriously sideswiped him. There are a million reasons why it all could have happened, which to racing fans and those who support Tony will matter over the long-term.
But to the majority of people looking at this story, through Sunday and Monday morning none of those details matter. They’re not going to research; they’re not going to take the time to hear excuses; they can’t unsee what they’ve already seen. Instead, they picture themselves, as Mom and Dad, sitting in those stands and watching that gruesome act unfold. How would you feel? It’s an ugly ending, the loss of a human being through a 30-second first impression that ends, factually with one man running another one over and killing them with a heavy-duty sprint car.
That puts Stewart, then in a unenviable position, despite Sunday claims by the County Sheriff no criminal charges are being filed. The handcuffs aren’t there yet, but to so many in the court of public opinion Stewart’s already in jail. A move to race Sunday morning, one which comes straight from the heart of a racer, was met with lynch mob-style resistance, insinuating that his heart was stone cold. National news outlets, short on racing facts but running wild with the central storyline, all seemed to stick to the same general script Sunday night: Angry race driver, after tangling with a younger rival, took out his temper in the form of running over said-youngster and killing him. It’s an angle most people, armed without racing knowledge have already jumped to in their heads, now seeking justice instead of extra facts. That’s reality.
It’s an ugly court of public opinion, one that if the tide is not turned in some way will push NASCAR and corporate sponsors to act regardless of innocence or guilt. Criminal charges are different; they aren’t set in stone, yet because you must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in that moment Stewart hit Ward, he was negligent. Vehicular manslaughter, negligent homicide… they all go by that same general rule. But a civil case, at this point is an absolute certainty because the level of proof is far lower. Stewart, after seeing that video could have made a momentary, tragic mistake when gunning the throttle. None of us will ever truly know, a split-second tragedy only the driver himself can answer to. But that’s going to be enough to haunt him, in the form of out-of-court settlements at best, an ugly lawsuit on the public stage or potentially even that criminal arrest.
And that’s where first impressions build on themselves. The horror of Ward being thrown by a tire, one that any person watching has etched inside their head, is paired with a history of Smoke’s tempestuous on-track incidents. Stewart’s off-track generosity, which has only increased in recent years I’ve covered the sport, will now be lost in a sea of past transgressions. There’s the ugly incident with the photographer in 2002, a camera smacked out of a hand to the point Home Depot said, “Control your anger or we walk.” There’s countless public squabbles with reporters, other drivers, other crews to the point Deadspin created a YouTube library Sunday for thousands of curious onlookers to see. Stewart did most of his charitable work in private; his biggest mistakes, as one of NASCAR’s most influential figures played out across the public stage.
It’s a track record thrown in the face of corporate executives, of whom at least two from companies sponsoring the sport are questioning their future involvement this Monday morning. Sources claim there’s a level of concern with the way both Stewart and NASCAR are handling the incident, similar to the outrage over the “Spingate” scandal eleven months earlier in which a 13th driver wound up added to the Chase. With a public disgusted, some very important people with a whole lot of money want to know if Stewart will be disciplined. They’re worried about the implications of him coming back to race again, next weekend as if nothing has happened when national news outlets have “angry driver killing someone else” as a general theme echoing across the country. From a marketing standpoint, considering how non-racing fans will be haunted by their first impression, there’s some validity to protecting their financial interests. Millions are on the line here.
It’s a tenuous time for NASCAR, considering the importance of Stewart to the sport. Michael Waltrip aside, he’s the most successful young owner, shepherding four Sprint Cup cars into the Chase with money most could only dream of. His racetrack, Eldora Speedway is one of the few “guaranteed” positive success stories in the sport each year. With most other power players well past retirement age, his leadership and decision-making ability was key for NASCAR to weather its current storm.
All of that now hangs in the balance. Step one is even in question; whether one of the toughest men this sport has seen, a driver whose idol is the hard-wired AJ Foyt, can even survive enough to race this Sunday. Can you really envision that right now, Stewart strapping behind the wheel at Michigan while fans are yelling “murderer” as he walks around the garage area? It’s an uncomfortable possibility, but it’s also very real, even if the police exonerate him.
The racing world, Stewart, so many people want to move on from this incident. They want one of their icons to get a second chance. But the truth is, the court of public opinion is rarely so forgiving when it comes to damning first impressions. Forgetting, this Monday morning for so many is impossible when it comes to what just happened.
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