The Hit is the most aptly titled movie I’ve seen in recent memory, because that’s exactly what it is.
A hit job on Tony Stewart.
And that’s a shame, as having spoken to director Christopher Halsne, I don’t believe that was the intent. A seasoned investigative reporter, Halsne has fond memories of working the infield of his hometown Iowa fairgrounds races with his father, an International Harvester dealer that provided the track with tractors to move and remove racing vehicles.
“We wanted to present and record a piece of sports history,” said Halsne. “…This case, it got a lot of coverage, let’s face it, but in-depth, every angle that you could find, what happened, what didn’t happen, no one looked into it.” Interviewing Halsne, offering a balanced perspective of a dark episode in racing history was a constant theme of our conversation.
Yet, upon watching The Hit for the first time I had a visceral reaction, one that ended with me feeling less sympathy not for Stewart, the driver that this film makes intentionally or not the villain of its story, but for the Ward family, a family deeply invested in dirt racing that has endured the harshest penalty the sport can exact.
So I watched it a second time. And a third. That reaction remained the same.
That’s not to say that The Hit doesn’t raise points to ponder regarding the events of Aug. 9, 2014, a tragedy that saw Kevin Ward Jr. killed after being run over by Tony Stewart’s sprint car under caution during an Empire Super Sprints race at the then-Canandaigua Motorsports Park. That Ward died after being run over by Stewart’s car is not up for debate. It’s on video.
The film raises questions about the investigation into this tragedy worth consideration. That Stewart was not drug-tested after the incident seems a glaring oversight, especially given how much attention would inevitably be paid to the toxicological findings on Ward’s corpse, showing levels of THC in his system at the time of death. And whether the THC levels found had any impact on Ward at all.
That Stewart’s interview with police ended up being half a typed-page long. I have given one witness statement in my lifetime relating to a traffic accident, one that I saw from a distance on a dark, rainy interstate that involved no major injuries. That statement was half a page long.
That there appeared to be no forensic analysis of the video of the incident conducted, despite both availability of the technology and many investigators’ own acknowledgements that they were unfamiliar with sprint car racing, motor vehicles that bear no similarity to those involved in routine traffic accidents.
All of these are fair points that warrant investigation.
Remember, as the film does acknowledge, this episode made it all the way to a grand jury, a grand jury that ultimately opted not to indict Stewart on counts of second degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.
It’s surprising to say this given how far this film goes, intentionally or not, to paint Stewart in a negative light, but the film’s inclusion of testimony given by Stewart, competitors and track workers that were participating in the fateful race is the most objective content that it includes.
Front and center is video of Stewart’s own testimony, a narrative that while extremely composed is also powerful and persuasive, demonstrating anything but the “hothead” the film introduces early on.
Just as impactful are the statements of other drivers on track that night. Jessica Friesen gives visibly emotional testimony that raises questions as to Stewart’s actions while acknowledging that Stewart’s decision to hit the throttle in his car moments before striking Ward turned the front of his car to the left, the reaction any driver in any motor vehicle has when seeing something (or someone) in their path.
Even more explicit is driver Chuck Hebing, one of the cars that passed Ward on track immediately prior to his death and who admitted in his testimony that he had had a run-in with Ward on-track in that same race.
Testified Hebing, “I thought he (Ward) was actually coming to my car.”
“He came at my car. I gassed it, swerved away. I said to myself ‘Next guy in line is probably going to hit him.’”
Pertinent questions raised about law enforcement’s handling of the case. Powerful testimony. And, in the film’s closing stanza, a significant array of forensic video analysis of the accident. All the pieces to make a challenging, objective documentary are there.
But all of these pieces, all of this potential, is completely overshadowed by a good vs. evil narrative that leans heavily on emotional storytelling with no pushback, treating the two drivers that it focuses on in entirely different manners.
Let’s start with the film’s concluding stanza, the forensic video analysis of the wreck. While there’s plenty of evidence that work was done to analyze this video, its portrayal is visually inconsistent, with a seeming lack of objectivity demonstrated by the analysts responsible.
The analysts responsible for the forensics included in the film are often contradicted by their own graphics on the screen. Statements that Ward Jr. was nowhere near the path of other cars on track are contravened by graphics demonstrating that Ward Jr.’s figure was standing right on the same path the No. 19 sprint car used to pass by him only moments earlier.
Most damning are the words of forensic engineer Martin E. Gordon, who dramatically remarks after a segment of video analysis that “I don’t believe Tony Stewart was truthful about why he applied his throttle.”
It’s not five minutes later when the same Gordon states “I’m not a mind reader, I don’t know what he was thinking.”
Kevin Ward Jr.’s story is told in the opening scenes by his family, with home videos of the Wards racing go-karts in their backyard, NASCAR races being broadcast in the living room and a garage full of the late Kevin’s trophies.
Also adding to the narrative is sprint car driver Denny Peebles, who recounts working with the Ward family racing team and their generosity, once selling him a gallon of oil for $100 that “came with a free motor” after Peebles had blown a motor in his own car.
“They’ve (the Woods) helped a lot of people in the community, a lot of people in the racing community” Peebles said.
Contrast that with how the film chooses to introduce Tony Stewart, showing his No. 14 NASCAR Cup Series machine taking the checkered flag in the 2012 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona as the track’s trademark Big One unfolds behind him, carnage abound as Smoke scores a win.
Race fans know that Stewart didn’t cause that wreck. The Hit doesn’t bother pointing that out.
What The Hit does point out shortly after spelling out Stewart’s myriad successes as a racecar driver is that he has a reputation for being a hothead; over the course of the film’s 83 minutes, viewers see clips of Stewart throwing his helmet at Matt Kenseth at Bristol in 2012, attacking Joey Logano at Fontana in 2013, staring down a heckler at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa in 2016 and punching a fan at the Jackson Motorplex in 2019.
Considering this, it’s notable that there is no parallel look into Tony Stewart’s own relations with his community. While Ward is exuded by fellow competitor Peebles for his generosity with race equipment and his fellow residents, there is absolutely no mention of Stewart’s own philanthropy.
A Google search as simple as the one that yields all the footage of Stewart’s numerous run-ins also yields that Stewart has his own charitable foundation and raised over $1 million for the venerable Speedway Children’s Charities organization during his time as a Cup driver. There’s no reason for such an omission.
More pressing though, there is no parallel look into Kevin Ward Jr.’s temperament on the track, leaving viewers with no way of knowing whether the driver, whose own parents acknowledge that Kevin’s decision to leave his car that August night “was not a smart decision,” was in a rare moment of outrage, or a hothead on a smaller stage.
That’s exceedingly relevant. Because one of the major themes Kevin Ward Sr., father of the late Kevin, hammers repeatedly throughout the film is that Stewart was not a weekly racer in the Canandaigua region and was therefore unaware of the tendencies of the drivers he was racing against that August night.
Recalling that his late son was a hammer-down driver that would run the high side, Ward Sr. remarked, “Tony, not being a weekly racer with him, slid him so close,” as if knowing a driver likes to run the high side was going to stop another competitor from trying a slide job to improve his position.
It also dismisses a point raised by Stewart biographer Monte Dutton, one of the most respected NASCAR beat reporters of the modern era and the lone voice included in the film that has any personal knowledge of Tony Stewart the man and competitor. Dutton remarks that weekly racers are not immune to racing stars like Stewart harder than they would other drivers, demonstrating a “I don’t care who he is” attitude.
As harsh as it is to say about a father that’s still clearly grieving, it’s very difficult to take much of what Kevin Ward Sr. has to say seriously in this film. That’s in-part due to the film seeming to be made by those not immersed in the day-to-day of racing, for there are a number of claims and statements about the very sport that go unchallenged and shouldn’t have.
Ward’s statements about Stewart not being a weekly racer and thus not familiar with his competitors are not questioned despite the 2014 race being part of the Empire Super Sprints, a traveling series that by its definition is home to non-weekly competitors.
Ward Sr. dramatically recounts how Stewart caused a crash at the same track in July 2013, a nasty 15-car wreck that “broke a girl’s back.” This is true. What goes unaddressed is that the girl with the broken back (Alysha Bay, who still actively races sprint cars) was interviewed days after the incident, at the track in a back brace, stating the incident “was just an accident. No one’s fault.”
Most telling is Kevin Sr.’s comment about Stewart’s motivation for racing at Canandaigua in 2014. The film makes a repeated point to draw comparisons about prize money, citing Stewart’s winning over $130 million in prize money during his career while also including in the opening credits that Canandaigua’s fateful sprint race was paying $1,500 to win.
Says Ward Sr. of this fact, “Why was he (Stewart) here that night, racing for $1,500? I don’t have an answer.”
That’s a statement no one with a racing background would take at face value. One of the most endearing motorsports storylines of 2021 came courtesy of Cup champion Kyle Larson, who followed up winning $1 million in NASCAR’s All-Star Race only to fly to a dirt track in Ohio to race for $6,000 the next evening.
Racers race. Period.
That this point doesn’t hit home in the film is disappointing, because director Halsne fully understands that.
“I thought it was really important that we did a subject matter segment on that [sprint car racing], for those that don’t know anything about the sport” said Halsne of his work.
“I also thought it tied it to our story, which for me has always been the question ‘why is Tony Stewart, a guy with $200 million racing on asphalt on the weekends, I won’t say sneaking, but going off to small dirt tracks for pocket change? Why would he do that?’
“The answer is that sprint car racing is so exciting, and there’s such a roots to it, that it doesn’t matter how much money the drivers in that sport make or where they are in life, they always want to get back to that small town dirt track.”
Hopefully the director’s commentary of The Hit includes that snippet. My interview with Halsne hit very differently than his movie.
– – –
Tony Stewart did not speak to cameras for this film. That’s not a surprise, nor an indictment on the filmmakers, as Halsne was able to detail his team’s myriad attempts to speak to Stewart. Frontstretch’s own requests for comment for this article were not responded to.
But herein lies the biggest failure of The Hit, especially given its inconsistencies in objectivity and analysis. Because despite the obvious respect Halsne has for Monte Dutton and the “colloquialisms” that he offered in bringing the character of Tony Stewart to his film, they are overwhelmed by the directorial decision to give the Wards such an emotionally raw platform.
“It came up during one of our meetings that Tony Stewart can step in front of a camera any day of the week,” Halsne said.
“But no one is there with a camera for them (the Wards).”
If there’s any surefire takeaway from The Hit it’s that Pam and Kevin Ward Sr. are still emotional over the loss of their son. That’s understandable. But emotion blinds.
As heart-wrenching as it is to hear Pam state “it’s beyond me that we can have a tape forensically analyzed in Albany, and that tape was the one they used supposedly to clear Tony, to clear Tony without any wrongdoing whatsoever,” that’s not proof of wrongdoing, either by Stewart or by law enforcement.
Evidence will be seen differently by different parties. The nation was reminded of just that fact not long ago, with the killers of Ahmaud Arbery convicted largely based on a video that an attorney leaked because he thought it would clear acquaintances of wrongdoing.
Dutton does offer a counterpoint to the emotional story of the Wards and their fellow competitors, providing insight into Stewart’s actions and upbringing while emphatically stating “I’m positive that Tony didn’t try to kill somebody.”
In summation, I will borrow from Dutton, who said of the entire episode, “There’s a tragedy, a comedy of errors that takes place.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the The Hit feels like a product of exactly that.
“The Hit” is scheduled to premiere on Thursday, March 3, at the D.C. Independent Film Festival in Washington. Tickets remain available for the premiere and can be purchased here.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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