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Learn From Tony Stewart's Life-Changing Moment

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Stock Car Racing Topics:  Tony Stewart
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Learn From Tony Stewart's Life-Changing Moment

Bill Crittenden
August 10, 2014


Want to "teach someone a lesson?  Be prepared to make your family pay for it.

As I settled into my desk last night, I caught a Facebook posting about the incident between Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr., a 17-year old sprint car driver who died as a result of injuries sustained when Tony or his car got a little out of control and struck Ward after he was out of his car following an accident.

Okay, the summary of the event out of the way, I'm not here to rehash the accounts of the incident or try to assign blame.  I'll leave that for the people who were actually there.

I kept up with the updates throughout the night, and at one point Google's news search showed USA Today's headline "Tony Stewart hits, kills driver in sprint car race" a few lines above "Tony Stewart revisits life-changing wreck one year later."

The latter headline was regarding the broken leg he suffered in a sprint car race just over a year ago.  Not everybody was sure Tony would race again, but he triumphantly returned to the car this season, both in Sprint Cup and sprint cars.

What makes these moments so different?

Last year's "life-changing" accident was one of those that could be chalked up to "that's racing."  Motor racing is a dangerous sport, sometimes the balance between speed and safety goes a bit over the line and safety needs to be increased (Bobby Allison in 1988, Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and more recently Dan Wheldon in IndyCars), but in almost all of these incidents bad decisions on the track made in tiny fractions of seconds are attributed to competitiveness, multiple drivers going for the same piece of track at the same time, or just mistakes where an inch can be the difference between victory and wrecking.

Before "rubbin' is racin'" became popular the old line was that if you didn't occasionally walk back to the pits carrying a steering wheel you weren't trying hard enough.

But this is all when the green flag is out.  When all are strapped by their HANS devices and five point harnesses into wraparound seats inside tubular steel roll cages.  When the yellow comes out and flesh and blood are exposed on the track, things are different.

By all accounts I've read what Tony did was unintentional, that he meant to spin his tires or speed away and the back of the car just broke loose.  Initial fan-generated video isn't conclusive.  Whether or not a display of anger was really necessary at that point is a judgment call, since people aren't always thinking things through when they're mad.  But it's worth pointing out that a split-second decision made in anger resulted in the death of a 17 year old boy and the likely end to an otherwise epic racing career.  Far more "life-changing" than his broken leg, and FAR more preventable.

When you're pissed off, you probably don't care much for the well-being of the person who made you angry.  We all get a little mentally foggy, a little voice in the back of our heads says "Hulk, smash!" and while we may desperately wish to make a point to the idiot whose lack of intelligence should be removed from the gene pool for the betterment of humanity (it's ALWAYS the other guy's fault, isn't it?), we have to try and remember that as drivers we're in 2,500-4,000 pound vehicles, and we're no Tony Stewarts.

You may want to scare someone, get close to them, hoping that base psychology of cause and the effect of an angry response will teach the doofus to watch what they're doing behind the wheel, but we've just seen that even Tony Stewart can make a mistake.  One that ended a life, and by doing so dramatically changed his own.

I've seen it done so often to the poor folks who have to direct construction traffic.  I've seen it done countless times, and I've even tried to teach a few lessons myself when I was young and stupid (it's only by sheer dumb luck I didn't roll a Chevy Blazer in the process once).

And I've read enough of the politics of immigration and jobs that people can't even be paid to give a fuck about one another.  So I'm not even going to try and convince you that you should be nice to whoever pissed you off behind the wheel.

What I want you to do, as I wrote recently in Who's Riding Along, is to think that you're never alone behind the wheel.  No matter if you're the only human being in your car, you're still carrying along the well-being, hopes and dreams of those who depend on you, love you, and care about you.

Three seconds of anger could have dramatic consequences at Stewart-Haas Racing.  We'll see the consequences play out soon enough, but even if there aren't criminal charges there could be a civil lawsuit, sponsors may drop him, and jobs at SHR and his other endeavors may be at risk.  His lifelong fans are already feeling emotionally crushed.  The story will become a distraction to SHR and all of its teams.  Even though it wasn't a NASCAR event, NASCAR is going to be in the non-sports news in a bad way.

Three seconds of anger in YOUR car could destroy your marriage.  Aside from the emotional toll of having to go through a trial and visit a parent in prison, civil penalties and loss of income will dramatically affect your children's quality of life.  If you're an employer, you've just introduced a lot of uncertainty into employees' jobs, and if you've spent your adult life building a business, all that work may be wiped away in seconds.

Because you wanted to show someone who's boss, huh?

Still think it's worth it?

If someone does something stupid to you in a car, just remember this day and remember Tony Stewart.  Then remember that you are not Tony Stewart, and therefore the chances that the slick move you planned in your head in an eighth of a second will come off as planned are dramatically decreased, and the chances that you will have to have a long lecture with a public defender on the ins and outs of manslaughter charges are dramatically increased.

Then I want you to calm the fuck down, no matter what might get shouted at you out of the window of the other car, and realize that forgetting and getting getting on with your life is far, FAR more important than what that random driver that you'll never see again thinks of your manhood.



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