In May of 1996, as sports editor for a newspaper in Middletown, Ohio, I had a father call me and ask whether I could do something special for his son. The young boy was slowly losing his vision, and the boy’s dad had hoped to take him to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to meet some of the drivers and to see the cars up close.
As luck would have it, I’d worked for an Indycar team just a couple years before that, and so I was able to contact the Speedway and arrange a tour for the father and son.
The weather played havoc with the track on that particular day, and so most all of the drivers took the day off to do sponsor engagements or to just enjoy some free time to themselves.
All except this rookie driver named Tony Stewart.
Driving for the Menard’s Team that year, Stewart was paired with pole winning veteran Scott Brayton. But realizing that Brayton had a sponsor engagement to attend, Stewart made sure to get Scott’s autograph and some other team souvenirs for the boy.
Brayton was later killed in a practice crash that month.
Stewart spent nearly an hour in the Speedway media center, just talking with the boy and answering any questions the youngster would send his way. He didn’t have to be there at all. Like the other drivers on that rainy day in May, Tony could’ve begged off and spent the time however he wanted to spend it. But he wanted to be there for the little guy.
He may be known for his hot temper and his tenacity on the race track. But when I first heard the accusations on various social media of Stewart intentionally hitting Kevin Ward on Saturday night in Canandaigua, N.Y., I couldn’t remain silent.
Tony Stewart, or any other professional race driver out there, would not intentionally kill a fellow race driver.
Race drivers love to race, regardless of whether it’s a 2.5-mile paved oval like Indianapolis, or a dimly lit dirt bull ring like Canandaigua. And guys like Stewart or Kasey Kahne or Kenny Schrader among others, they go to these smaller tracks to race, because they simply love the sport.
It’s not to show up the local guys; It’s to have fun doing what they love.
Now having said that, the locals love the chance to race against a known star of the sport. It’s their chance to shine and say they beat so-and-so in an auto race.
Sometimes racing accidents happen. Tempers flare. Off-track trouble ensues. I’m not condoning it, but it happens.
Tony Stewart drives car no. 14 in honor of his racing hero, A.J. Foyt, who himself has been in a few off-track scuffles. I recall seeing A.J. slug Arie Luyendyk on one occasion.
But to my knowledge, there’s never been an incident where a name driver intentionally tried to hit a driver who was out of their car with their race car. In the brief times that I’ve met Tony Stewart, I can’t say that I thought he’d ever acted in a way that he would ever even think of doing such a thing to somebody.
He’s intense on the track. But he’s a kind soul off it.
I’ve heard the argument that drivers are almost encouraged to get out of their cars and confront other drivers, “because that’s what the fans like to see.” Well, anyone who says that isn’t a true auto racing fan.
It’s a dangerous sport. In racing, you don’t just go out of bounds and start another play. In racing, people sometimes get killed. But it’s never been a sport where you see drivers intentionally trying to kill another competitor.
Racing series should create a rule stating that if a driver gets out of their car to confront another driver on the track, similar to what happened Saturday night in Canandaigua, he/she will be banned from the series. Period.
They can solve their issues in the paddock area. Not on the track.
Race track promoters like to see the big-name drivers compete at their facilities, because it puts fannies in their grand stand seats. I understand that. Maybe in the future, when they do bring the stars in to drive, they’ll set rules to avoid a tragedy like Canandaigua from ever happening again.
(John Bombatch is the sports editor for the Greene County Newspapers. He’s worked for the TrueSports Indycar team, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and the Indy Lights racing series in the past.)