Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Risky Play With Tony Stewart

Did You Notice? … A difference between two leagues? The NFL, after days of pressure, one sponsor (Radisson) pulling out and a second (Budweiser) giving a veiled threat finally pushed the Minnesota Vikings to keep star running back Adrian Peterson off the field. Peterson, accused of child abuse won’t face trial until early next year but has seen the facts of his case go public, along with a second accusation of beating a child that’s surfaced from 2013. While the trial won’t be until early next year, the ugly shift of public opinion toward the NFL, especially in the corporate boardroom forced the league’s hand to take action or face a potential ten-figure loss (at minimum) in financial support. Peterson’s “exempt list” status, along with Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension for domestic violence is still being criticized in some circles this morning as “not nearly enough.”

The NFL’s reaction was a risky proposition, as ratings showed this week (up across the board) fans are not disgusted with the game… just individual people. The anger aroused by protecting superstars, teams overvaluing one person because they thought it guaranteed their short-term competitive livelihood nearly created a catastrophe. (Perhaps another story for another day, as it involves NASCAR… the product, not the athletes kept fans tuned to their televisions). As it stands, even with these latest developments to right the ship NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will likely face the firing line for not acting swiftly and decisively, protecting individuals over the league’s own moral code.

Credit: Phil Allaway
Brian France, on the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. incident has been conspicuously silent, along with many NASCAR executives for most of the month-plus investigation. (Credit: Phil Allaway)

Compare that with NASCAR, who remains inactive as a New York District Attorney recommended Tuesday Tony Stewart’s involvement in the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. goes to a grand jury. The possibility of criminal charges, after an investigation that’s lasted over a month looms larger as they decide whether to officially exonerate Stewart or indict him with a charge as high as manslaughter. The future for NASCAR’s three-time champion officially hangs in the balance; along with it is a four-car Sprint Cup team, valued in the hundreds of millions comprised of drivers, sponsors, and hundreds of employees.

Stewart’s decision, while all this legal mumbo jumbo continues to go on is race, to keep “working” similar to the manner in which Adrian Peterson wanted to keep playing. NASCAR’s response? “We are aware of the completed investigation and the announced next steps,” they said in a statement. “First, our thoughts continue to be with all who have been impacted by this tragedy. We will monitor this process and stay in close contact with Stewart-Haas Racing. It would be inappropriate for NASCAR to comment on this case so we will continue to respect the process and authorities involved.”

Let me decipher that for you: “Status quo. Now, we watch and wait.” That’s in response to an investigation that, should Stewart be charged and convicted could send the man to jail for longer than Rice’s and Peterson’s crimes, combined. Just absorb that for a second here. While the Ward tragedy may not be as disgusting as these NFL videos circling the nation, with a number of mitigating factors involved there’s a high degree of seriousness here all the same. Yet NASCAR CEO Brian France, largely absent during the process has remained so during this latest development. The sanctioning body, in opposition to the NFL has let their superstar continue to race while legal proceedings play out.

The sport doesn’t have to do that; like the NFL, all it takes is one swift action and Stewart could be sent to the sidelines, indefinitely until the legal process plays out. NASCAR, however appears worried that stance means they’re making a decision on the three-time champion’s guilt or innocence. They’d rather let that choice be made by the grand jury, not the court of public opinion or pressure from outside sources to “conform” to a series of moral principles. The idea that Stewart would be behind bars, for an extended period of time based on the Kevin Ward, Jr. incident seems incredibly far-fetched to them and other important personnel.

So the move is just to let it go, to do nothing that carries with it the same risk the NFL just negated. Here’s the problem: we’re going to a grand jury. A trial, plus all that comes with it could be a distinct possibility. So what if, hypothetically Stewart gets charged with a crime? What will his sponsors within SHR do then? At the moment, they’ve been publicly supportive, especially Bass Pro Shops, run by Stewart’s personal friend Johnny Morris. But if Stewart gets arrested, officially involved in a criminal case how will the circumstances change? One source, to Frontstretch was specific in their terms: “They’re with him… as long as he’s not charged with a felony.”

The questions, then as Stewart goes to trial will fly in along with the concerns of corporate backers. NASCAR, in the aftermath of charges could be rightfully accused of letting a potential felon race, for multiple weeks instead of acting decisively. The damage to the sport’s public image, through those that don’t understand the sport will take a larger hit. Don’t think so? It’s already twisted through an accident that wasn’t even a stock car event; a portion of the public may never understand the difference between NASCAR and Sprint Cars. The 2014 world of skimming the news, then making a 10-second judgment for the world to see becomes a very dangerous game.

However, the sport has chosen an outright refusal to bow to the court of public opinion, at least not yet. It’s the same way they spent a decade moving Darlington off Labor Day, sticking with a playoff system that brought in less viewership and continually tweaking a Car of Tomorrow that never produced the quality of racing expected.

NASCAR likes to beat to the beat of its own drummer, and right now, they feel doing nothing is the right thing. What’s crazy about it is no one, from sponsors to SHR itself would truly blame them for pulling Stewart from the track at this point. How could someone focus when they have to wake up, every day and know they’re potentially facing serious criminal charges? How could they get in a race car, turn around and go 150 miles per hour every Sunday? Could you? We’d ask Stewart, but he’s not talking to reporters while healing.

Except those wounds don’t close, not for a second until the grand jury makes a decision on the case. Don’t take this column as a personal stance on Stewart; what I think about the driver’s guilt or innocence is inconsequential. That’s what NASCAR appears to be thinking, too.

But I don’t run a business, also called a sport that survives on the funding of corporate sponsors. Should Stewart be exonerated, next week this column is a moot point for NASCAR. Should he not… there’s a big, big problem, everywhere from the court of public opinion to countless NASCAR sponsorship boardrooms across America. People will be making a comparison, fair or not, and they’ll be asking one important question, the same way there’s a firing line this Thursday at Mr. Goodell.

“Why did you do nothing here?”

Note: Check out the author’s additional thoughts in our comments section.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share this article

38 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jerry Smith

Great job Tom. The only thing I’d add is that NASCAR has done one thing to address the issue. They granted Stewart an exemption so that he could race for the series championship.

Bill B

The real crux here is that until sponsors start threatening to pull dollars out of the sport nothing will happen because the only thing that really matters is the money. Public opinion only matters if the sponsors feel it will cast a bad light on them and affect their bottom line. So far that hasn’t happened. If it does, then the dominoes will fall quickly.

Russ

Bill, you are correct I believe in that it will take sponsors pulling out, and from Nascar/ISC not just the teams, to force change by Nascar. As to those who say that Nascar drivers don’t do what other sports athletes do that is patently not true. Within the past year one has plead guilty to domestic abuse, MW’s exploits when he wrecked his Toyota not far from his house are legendary,,drunk driver hiding under the bed and on and on. Perhaps its that as fans we turn a blind eye to what our heros do.

JohnQ

Cross check NASCAR Assaults and gun crimes against the NFL and the NBA. There was recently an entire book written chronicling the Common, mostly felony behavior of NBA players. Criminal behavior by NASCAR drivers is most likely about the average for accountants, truck drivers, and most other working people. One of the reasons I love NASCAR is that I do not find myself in the position of cheering for some reprobate that tortures and kills dogs as a recreational activity. Generally speaking, the worst you get from NASCAR is some jackass with an unpleasant personality.

Russ

JohnQ, no disagreement here. Yet, surprisingly the NFL’s rate of domestic abuse is below the national average. My point is merely to point out that this issue is not one where we are race fans can say that just because Mr/Ms X is a Nascar driver they are pure as the driven snow. Its all about individuals. Thats all.

tom

Tom: are you serious? ” the sport has chosen an outright refusal to bow to the court of public opinion”

If anything, NASCAR fans support Stewart and don’t think he did anything criminal.

If, however, you’re referring to the public that doesn’t go to races, doesn’t watch races and would be happy if there were no races, then perhaps you’re right. But why should NASCAR pay attention to people who aren’t it’s customers?

We know you don’t like NASCAR, at least as NASCAR is defined by the France family. We know you go looking for issues to blow up so you can blast them for whatever. But when you distort the facts, you’re just grasping. It doesn’t do your credibility any good….well, maybe, your fellow France haters will still read your diatribes.

Dennis

Bang on.

JohnQ

What we know of the Peterson case leaves no doubt that a crime has been committed. The actual criminal proceedings are irrelevant to the decision to take action or not. The NFL’s problem is a historic willingness to overlook the almost common star rolling his Escalade while snorting coke as he beats his wife on the way home from a nightclub shooting. The sports section looks more and more like the crime report every season. One HUGE positive about NASCAR is that criminal behavior by drivers is a rarity so the sanctioning body is not used to having to deal with it. Unlike Adrian Peterson we still do not know whether or not Stewart committed a crime, so in this incident it is actually best to reserve judgement until the Grand Jury completes its work. Or, like a press that has to sell airtime or papers or fill internet column inches we could have us a hanging after a public show trial on TMZ. I cannot believe it, but NASCAR has thus far handled this as well as it could be handled.

Jon

Really? – the court of public opinion? Tony has not been charged with any crime of any sort. “Potential felon” – we are all potential felons.
NASCAR has no standing to pull him off of the track. He was evaluated by mental health professionals that cleared him to race. If NASCAR pulled him from the track, then Tony, SHR, and all of his sponsors could sue NASCAR for lost revenue.

What a fluff piece of journalism.

Tim S.

Both Rice and Peterson were charged with crimes, booked, and released. Stewart has not been arrested or even charged with anything at all, at least yet. He has no legal issues to resolve unless or until the grand jury has completed its work. Parking him before then doesn’t do anything except say, “hey, look at us, we’re socially conscious too!”

Then again, if Stewart is parked, then many of the excrement-stirring media can write the first drafts of their “fallen superstar” stories, which are much more sensational than simply saying a guy will continue to race while a grand jury convenes.

Carl D.

Exactly. The correct thing for Nascar to do in this case is nothing. Until Stewart is charged with a crime, or there is strong evidence that he committed one (like the Ray Rose elevator video) there is nothing that needs to be done at this time.

I do wish that some people would stop and think about how they would want to be treated in a similar situation. If you were driving down the street a person stepped out from behind a parked car and you hit and killed them, would you want to be treated like a person involved in an accident or would you rather be treated like a criminal before all the facts were known? In this country we are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and as compassionate human beings we owe it to our fellow man to give him the beneft of the doubt.

Nascar got this one right.

Moparjeff

Good article, well thought out.

The fact that the case has been given to a grand jury means that the DA is arguing for prosecution. Doesn’t mean the Grand Jury will agree, but it does indicate that there is reasonable cause in the DA’s mind. Given the public nature of this case and the popular support for Stewart, I doubt the DA would go to the Grand Jury unless he thought there was good reason to do so. Sometimes sanctioning bodies have to make tough decisions. NASCAR seems unwilling or unable to make a decision in this case. A cop would be put on suspension during an investigation. I think many employers would probably suspend an employee if they were part of a manslaughter investigation.

Carl D.

“NASCAR seems unwilling or unable to make a decision in this case.”

Respectfully, I disagree. I believe they did make a decision and made the right one. If the situation with Stewart changes, they may have to make different decision, but for now, IMO they have made the right call.

Moparjeff

Carl, you may be right. This is a tough case, it is easy to comment on from the sidelines. I’m glad I’m not in NASCAR’s shoes in this one.

kb

..Tony not talking to reporters while “healing”. Seriously?

Steve

Na. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that his lawyer, like any smart lawyer, told him not to speak to the media. The media is just butt hurt that he won’t say anything.

kb

exactly!

rascalmanny

Nascar is largely irrelevant outside of the Nascar media and it’s fans. And since Nascar is predominantly a “white” sport, I doubt we’ll see politicians speak up. It would have been different if Ward had been African American.

If Tony is found guilty, then the media will focus on it, for a time. Along with the usual “southern” remarks.

Mike

^^this^^

We heard plenty from the ‘media’ about Southern aggression culture because of Stewart (a yankee) who accidently killed Ward (another yankee) in New York (not exactly moon & magnolia country).

Ward’s temper got him killed. Simple as that.

Russ

If you listened to Cowherd’s monologue in its entirety, while he did mention the South, his real target was the “eye for an eye” mentality. And he may have something of a point. Thought provoking anyway.

Steve

Cowherd is a tool, who knows nothing about auto racing. If you heard his show on a weekly basis you will know what I mean. The guy talks about things he knows nothing about and his sole purpose is to stir the pot. He should be ignored.

Russ

Does it matter? Remember the world is populated by more than Nascar fans. Those will be the people who decide not only Stewart’s fate but ultimately Nascar’s as well.We may not agree with him, but he wouldn’t be on the four letter if he was irrelevant.

mrclause

Just remember those of you that think the DA is certain of Tony’s guilt, this DA is up for election again this year. It’s more than reasonable to believe that instead of saying Tony was innocent of anything criminal and not filing any charges, he passed it on to the Grand Jury to keep his political base solid. He simply passed the buck for his benefit. Now if there is no indictment he comes up less responsible. Just hope that all the evidence and testimony is presented and in an impartial manner.

kb

Imo, I would not automatically think the DA is certain of his guilt. By going to the Grand Jury I would think this would absolve him of being accused of just what you said, posturing in a election year. If he made this decision on his own, he would have been damned if he did or didn’t. By going to the Grand jury this tells me from their investigating, something has been found (again we don’t know) and isn’t so cut and dry. I also would like to think this man is looking at the big picture and who he serves, the taxpayers of New York. The Tony Stewart show will fold it’s tents up and leave, and business will go on in the state of New York.

Upstate24fan

Right now this is an “apples to oranges” comparison. Tony hasn’t been charged with anything. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy had charges filed against them. I don’t expect NASCAR to do anything until the Grand Jury as spoken.

terry koenecke

NASCAR DOES NOT HAVE A CONTRACT WITH THE DRIVERS TO DRIVE SO I DON’T THINK THEY CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT THIS SITUATION.

terry koenecke

JUST ANOTHER STUPID MEDIA JERK TRYING TO MAKE A STORY ABOUT THIS.

grumpiestoldman

No charges have been filed against T.S. All of those NFL punks have been charged. Simple enough for ya?

Russ

Tom, thanks for putting this in the proper perspective. Many of us here are either business owners or managers. And what would we do? Speaking for myself it wouldn’t be an easy decision. And to make it even more complicated, Stewart isn’t an employee of Nascar/ISC, hes in essence a contractor. That makes it complicated. Glad its not me making the decision.

Tom

Tom: bad analogy. Most people wouldn’t have a basis to evaluate the legitimacy of charges filed against a coworker, especially for something that tookplace outside the workplace. In situations such as this, it’s logical to assume most people would prefer the accused to be somewhere else while the trial went on. That isn’t the case here. We’ve seen the video of the alleged crime, we think we know the alleged perpetrator, and a lot of us have racing experience of our own to help us decide who was most at fault.

And to my earlier comment, if you can’t or won’t see the difference between the two cases, then I think you really do have it in for Stewart and/or Nascar.

GinaV24

I think it is a difficult and complicated thing to try and decide. My feelings about it are that since Stewart hasn’t been indicted and may not be, it would be jumping the gun to have him stop driving the car and running his business. I understand that the court of public opinion is another animal altogether and as you say, most people who don’t follow racing don’t understand even what was on the video. I had a lot of people asking me questions about what they had seen on the news because they knew I was a NASCAR fan. It kind of made me think about how I really felt about it. I’m not a Stewart fan and although I think he can be a hothead I just can’t make myself believe he deliberately ran over Ward and that is what I told them. Of course that is strictly MY opinion. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be charges because accidental deaths can wind up with legal charges being filed anyhow.

Tom, you made the comment about how would someone feel about having a person in the workplace who had been charged but not convicted. These days with all the employment at will companies, most likely the person would be fired. There was an incident here in the Philadelphia area where the incident is being investigated and the person was fired just on that basis – before the investigation was even finished. That concerns me, too.

With regard to the comparisons with the NFL’s issue, I’m a woman and the various accusations & charges of domestic violence make me very upset. I also see the problem though that many of those cases, including Rice’s, were processed through our court system and even there the punishment was pretty much a slap on the wrist. Don’t think I’m defending it, I am not in any way, no man, woman, child or animal should be abused – ever, but if the court’s sentences are so light, I’m guessing the NFL figured they didn’t need to be harder than that – at least not until things hit the media. I think that is what Tom is saying, too.

Steve

I am as critical of Nascar as the next person, but they absolutely have made the right decision at this point. Tony has not been charged with a crime. If he has the support of his fellow drivers, which he does, he should be allowed to race. I applaud Nascar for not bowing to the vocal minority.

Guest

“The questions, then as Stewart goes to trial will fly in along with the concerns of corporate backers. NASCAR, in the aftermath of charges could be rightfully accused of letting a potential felon race, for multiple weeks instead of acting decisively.”

Well it’s real easy to see how NASCAR feels about felons participating in NASCAR events, considering there are 2 that are listed as owners. While both Rick Hendrick and Gene Haas have faced justice and served their time, they are convicted felons their teams were still participating in NASCAR events while they were serving out their sentences. Tony Stewart has not been charged, arrested, or convicted yet and if he is, assuming he is still physically capable of racing, he will be welcomed back by NASCAR (the entity) with open arms.

NASCAR should have gotten ahead of the story and put out more of a message than “Wait and See”, but as far as suspending Stewart or any other penalties against him, I would say they have done right.

My question is, had this been a NASCAR sanctioned event would NASCAR be taking the same approach?

Sherri T

The main stream media (who knows nothing about NASCAR or Sprint racing) has made a huge deal out of this tragedy because they don’t understand what they saw on the recording.

The fact that the district attorney who would like to pass the scapegoat buck to someone else so he can try to get re-elected has decided to defer the decision to a grand jury so he’s not the bad guy in the story, whether someone thinks Tony is guilty or they think he’s not at fault at all – shouldn’t impact a decision by NASCAR. They shouldn’t rush to judgement any more than the media shouldn’t rush to judgement unless and until a charge is filed.

Comparing an ambiguous accident on film with acts of abuse that clearly show someone being abused by another human being who should know better but acted contrary to the law anyway is a bit ridiculous. But if we have to make the comparison – someone who has been charged with a crime because of video evidence of said crime is much more apt to get that person suspended or released from a contract. The situation with Stewart is an accident where intent is the main variable under scrutiny; however, no charges have been filed. Waiting to see what is decided by the officials who are responsible for such decisions just makes sense.

Junior Johnson, Jr.

By this logic, Ned Jarrett killed Fireball Roberts DURING a NASCAR race. Ned should have never been able to race again. Best wishes with that theory.

JImmy

Ill only say that lately in this country your very much guilty until proven innocent, Everyone shopuld shut up and let the so called fair justice system run its course. Oh but wait!!!!! the( elected) district attorney gets to present his case to the grand jury with no input or testimony from the defence side. SOOO ill bet 100 to 1 there is an indictment , Quilt or innocencse really doesnt matter, its the court of public opion that counts,.

Carl D.

If there is an indictment, I take comfort in the fact that in a jury of his peers, there only has to be one juror with enough common sense to see this for what it is… a tragic accident due to the contributory negligence of the deceased.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com