NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. - Auto racing makes for an easy target.
And when Tony Stewart strikes and kills another driver on a dirt-track in upper New York state, watch out.
(Watch the video here, if you must.)
You know there's going to be trouble when you see statements like: "I Don't Know Anything About Auto Racing But Tony Stewart Should Be In Jail."
Well, should he be in jail?
Not according to police who are investigating the incident. But that doesn't mean much, especially since cops don't always get it right the first time.
Here, common sense has to triumph over self-righteous hysteria.
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel," Stewart said in a statement. Stewart is no stranger to accidents at Canandaigua Motorsports Park or outbursts on many other tracks. His most notable moment of road rage came when he threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth in 2012.
Stewart's very aggressive behind the wheel, but to extrapolate that reputation into someone committing murder is a dangerous stretch, especially before the evidence has been examined.
No matter how many times you watch video of Kevin Ward Jr.'s death, it doesn't prove much of anything beyond the fact that Ward was indeed killed Saturday night.
The video shows Ward's car being spun out by Stewart, Ward leaving his car, throwing his hands up in frustration, Ward approaching Stewart's car as it came back around the track under caution, Stewart's car fishtailing, and Ward being struck by Stewart's car before being pushed beneath it and thrown about 50 feet toward the wall.
Ward was pronounced dead of head injuries at a nearby hospital.
What it does NOT show is:
* - Stewart accelerating toward Ward.
* - Stewart swerving directly into Ward.
* - A crazed look of glee on Stewart's face as he ran down his 20-year-old competitor.
You see Ward on the video for far more time than Stewart could have possibly seen him under those conditions.
The video is clearly subject to interpretation. It will offer people a glimpse at whatever they want to see. Some will see second-degree murder. Some will see criminal negligence. And others will see nothing more than an unavoidable accident.
The Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff's office wants anyone who may have a video tape of the crash to share it. Their "non-criminal" investigation continues. This is hardly a closed case.
It's hard to put this in any "normal" context because this isn't normal. This isn't the same as a child running into the street after a baseball. For one, there are no speed limits at issue. The race track is an enclosed environment. Drivers presume the risk whenever they compete. The sport is inherently dangerous.
Given the reaction expressed by media types, fans and other notable experts, I'm guessing about half of us will be right when all the facts come out, and the other half will be wrong.
So many questions remain.
Why did Ward get out of his car and wander across a dimly-lit dirt track in the middle of a race and approach Stewart's car?
Did Stewart see Ward and did he do his best to avoid him - as other drivers apparently did?
What the hell was Stewart-Hass Racing competition direction Greg Zipadelli thinking when he said, "Weíre business as usual today," before Stewart opted not to race Sunday?
Why don't they ban auto racing?
Let's deal with banning auto racing.
All of those sports have claimed at least one life in the past 18 months.
Life is full of risks. We can't wish them away in a world of zero-tolerance and dodgeball bans.
NASCAR hasn't lost a Sprint Cup driver since Dale Earnhardt back in 2001. (*1) Several drivers have perished in dirt-track and short-track accidents since then, however.
The safety concerns for sprint cars (as opposed to Sprint Cup cars) are very real. The lighting is often bad. The cars are not always professionally maintained. Far too many of the drivers are inexperienced. Three sprint car drivers were killed in 2013, including former NASCAR winner Jason Leffler. Stewart broken his right leg in a sprint car crash that cost him 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts. According to USA Today, his injury helped spearhead advancements in sprint car safety technology.
Stewart, 43, is a three-time Sprint Cup champion and was the Winston Cup (nice cigarette plug) Rookie of the Year back in 1999. That was the same year Kevin Ward Jr. was in kindergarten. Ward began racing go karts at age four and was a promising up-and-coming driver.
For some reason, it has become the norm for aggrieved sprint car drivers to get out and approach those who may have wrecked them. This road rage is not limited to the sprint car level. Saturday, J.J. Yeley left his car and approached oncoming traffic under caution to vent at Trevor Bayne during the Nationwide race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Sadly, Ward's story will be lost here because Stewart is a major NASCAR star, team owner, and marketing powerhouse, and Ward wasn't.
After being spun-out by Stewart, he showed the same competitive drive/rage that Stewart has often demonstrated. Why he got out of his car, we'll never know. He was so angry that he lost his cool, and in the end, his life. Ward's death came while the race was under caution. Yet there was a tragic lack of caution on display on all sides Saturday.
Stewart's mind-set will be a focus for any criminal investigation or civil trial.
Stewart and Ward had a budding rivalry of sorts. "I know Tony could see him," Tyler Graves, another racer and friend of Ward's, told The Sporting News. "I know how you can see out of these cars."
To this point, "Smoke" has accepted and embellished his role as NASCAR's senior "Bad-Ass" and outlaw, even though he's also a team co-owner and one of NASCAR's "elder spokesmen."
The future of Stewart's career as a driver, team owner, and marketing star seem so pedestrian when juxtaposed against the death of a 20-year-old driver who had a promising racing career.
That will, however, dominate the topic of conversation.
This was not NASCAR's finest hour. Organizations like NASCAR are big on control. They fight 24/7 to preserve and enhance the image of their sport and athletes. Zipadelli's "business as usual" quote will hang around the sport's neck and reinforce all the negative stereotypes the sport's critics love.
NASCAR's notable #CHEEZEIT355 tweet will do the same.
To wit: our pals at Rolling Stone. They spent two months working on a story last year to make the accused Boston Marathon bomber look like a choirboy. On Sunday, they didn't hesitate to tweet a link to a six-year-old story that called Stewart NASCAR's nastiest driver.
Of course, nothing has changed in the past six freaking years.
(Allegedly) blow up the Boston Marathon, kill a cop, and you get a glowing profile with a Jim Morrison-look-alike selfie. Strike a driver during a night race who got out of his car, and we'll use a story from six years ago to convict you of second-degree murder in the public's eye.
This is what Stewart and NASCAR are up against in the eyes of many.
Eventually, Stewart and his team did the right thing by not racing Sunday.
How he and NASCAR proceed from here will be watched by millions. If NASCAR suspends or punishes Stewart, that could be seen as a signal that they believe he did something wrong, or at the very least, negligent. If they don't suspend or punish him, there will public outcry about how they can let someone who killed someone else continue to drive without penalty.
Sadly, one thing is certain.
It will be far from "business as usual."
((*1) - In a past life, I worked in Daytona Beach and Orlando. I covered my first Daytona 500 in 1990 for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. At the Orlando Sentinel, I was part of the editorial team that produced a six-part story on auto racing safety that concluded the day of the 2001 Daytona 500. Primarily reported by Ed Hinton, our investigation found that using head-and-neck restraints and "soft-walls" would save countless drivers' lives. Earnhardt was killed in a crash during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In the aftermath of his death, NASCAR mandated head-and-neck restraints, implemented "soft-walls" and added multiple other safety procedures.)
The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Hit up Bill on his Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
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