After weeks of speculation, the first questions have been answered in the Tony Stewart–Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy. In case you somehow missed it, Stewart hit and killed Kevin Ward, Jr. during a sprint car race in New York State on Aug. 9 of this year. Ward, apparently angered at Stewart for spinning his car out, got out of his vehicle and approached Stewart, who was circling the track under caution in his own machine. Ward was struck by the right rear wheel and thrown down the track. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital, and the investigation began — one that has dominated the racing headlines ever since.
The case was heard by a grand jury on Sept. 23 and 24, and after less than an hour of deliberation, Stewart was cleared of both second degree manslaughter and criminal negligent homicide, the two possible charges he might have faced. With that came the revelation that Ward had marijuana in his system at the time of the crash, at a level which could have impaired his judgment that night, according to Ontario (N.Y.) County D.A. Michael Tantillo.
According to Tantillo, while the jury was only charged with the task of determining whether Stewart was at fault for Ward’s death. However, Tantillo stated in a press conference Thursday, “I am sure, from their deliberations and discussions, that the fact that Kevin Ward was observed running basically down two thirds of the track, into a hot track in the middle of other cars that were still racing, played a big factor in their decision.”
Tantillo said that after extensive examination of two videos, including track footage that was not released to the public. “The videos did not demonstrate any aberrational driving by Tony Stewart until the point of impact with Kevin Ward, at which point his vehicle veered to the right up the track as a result of the collision,” said Tantillo. “Prior to that, his course was pretty straight.”
In the end, everybody (with the unfortunate exception of Kevin Ward, Jr. on that fateful night) got it right. The D.A. was right to send the case to the grand jury, because it removes any question of bias toward Stewart and his star power. Kevin Ward, Sr., Ward’s father strongly hinted, in his initial reaction that he felt that Stewart would try to buy his way out of any charges; taking the case to the jury erased that speculation. It also allowed the D.A. to subpoena some witnesses whom he said had refused to give a statement to police after the incident that could have been important evidence.
And the grand jury also came to a just and logical conclusion. At the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore or dispute that Ward would still be alive had he obeyed track rules and stayed in his car until track safety workers got to him. Ward, who had a reputation among local racers as a hothead, chose to confront Stewart, perhaps to get his own 15 minutes of fame, by running onto a racetrack among moving cars, while wearing a black driving suit, at night.
It is sad that Ward’s family can’t seem to accept his accountability. Kevin Ward, Sr. said after the verdict that people should focus not on his son’s actions, but on Stewart’s. Everyone understands the Wards’ grief for their loved one, including Stewart. There will almost certainly be a civil lawsuit, but that doesn’t change that there was no evidence of a crime, that Kevin Ward, Jr. played a major role in his own death. Hopefully, time will help them to see that sometimes things happen and there is nobody to blame, or that the blame lies in the last place where they want it to. They shouldn’t yet be grieving for a son and brother so young, and perhaps time will bring them some closure, a little peace.
Stewart will also never be the same as he was before that night. Whether the jury lays blame on him or not, he will know for the rest of his days that he played a role in another person’s death. It was a tragic accident, and one Stewart will never get over. Like the Ward family, he deserves empathy and understanding. Knowing he won’t have to endure a criminal trial is probably of little comfort.
No matter what happens next, we all need to take something away from this incident: life is often too short, and it is precious. The loss of Kevin Ward, Jr. was a terrible accident, one that changes his family and Tony Stewart forevermore. The investigation and grand jury handled things right, and now the time to heal begins. It’s time to keep the Wards and Stewart in our thoughts and sympathies, but to stop the speculation and the feeding frenzy. The time for that is past, and the only way to go is forward.
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