In a press conference Monday morning, September 29, in Kannapolis, N.C., NASCAR Sprint Cup series driver and team owner Tony Stewart answered questions about the tragedy he was involved in on August 9 in upstate New York. Racing action, then a young man getting out of his race car and walking down a track facing active cars, culminated in a tragedy where Stewart’s car struck and killed young sprint car driver, Keith Ward, Jr. A 23-member grand jury convened in Ontario County decided on September 24 not to charge Stewart with any crime. It is not yet known whether a civil suit will be filed against him.
The press conference was livestreamed on the Internet via FOX Sports. Subdued, and sitting behind a plain gray podium and in front of a gray background devoid of any sponsor or race car logos, Stewart, wearing on his shirt only the logo for his Stewart-Haas Racing team, answered reporters’ questions for about 40 minutes. “It’s not been business as usual,” he said.
When asked if there was anything he would do differently over the last month and a half, Stewart replied, “I’d have stayed in Watkins Glen that night.” The tragedy happened at Canandaigua Motor Sports Park the night before the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race, the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, held at Watkins Glen International on August 10. The tracks are about 60 miles apart in upstate New York. After first saying he would still compete in Sunday’s race, Stewart eventually pulled out and Regan Smith sat in the seat instead.
“You know, I do this stuff and I go run those cars to have a good time and that’s all I wanted to do that night,” Stewart continued. “I wanted to go have fun. I had just spent the week at Knoxville, and it gives you the edge and desire to want to go race. It wasn’t a big paying race for sprint car standards. I just wanted to go run my sprint car for a night. I do it to have fun, and it didn’t end up being fun that night.”
When asked, Stewart described how his days have changed since the tragedy on August 9. For three or four days, he said he did very little at all, staying at home, only getting out of bed to get food. He said he thinks about “the accident” every day and only found some distraction when he returned to Sprint Cup racing a few weekends ago. When the racing is done for the day, he said, he resumes thinking about the tragedy again.
Stewart admitted to getting counseling help to aid in processing what happened and for help in moving forward from the incident. He said that his family and friends, as well as Ward’s, were continuing to grieve, and their lives have all been changed forever. Asked if he would like to speak with Ward’s family to help with “closure,” Stewart replied that he did not need to do that for himself, but he has made himself available should the Wards ever decide they would like to talk with him.
Stewart said he did not know Ward and was unsure of whether or not he had raced with him before. Stewart said he raced at Canandaigua only a couple of times a year. He said that what he had read about Ward since the tragedy suggested to him that Ward had a promising career as a sprint car racer.
When asked what he thought about the fact that toxicology testing reported marijuana was found in Ward’s system on the night he died, Stewart said it did not matter to him personally. When asked if the matter would have been different if it had been a NASCAR colleague dying on a track, Stewart replied that he has lost team mates, friends, and other people he’s known over the years to motor racing and that every racer knows it is a dangerous sport. The entire motor racing community mourns a fatality in any scenario in any series on any track, he said.
Asked if he had watched the video that was made public on the Internet, he said that he has seen it. The finding by the grand jury, he said, echoed the facts as he knows them. “I know what happened. I know what the facts are. And that’s what matters,” he said.
A reference was made to people picking sides in the Stewart-Ward matter. Stewart commented, “Picking sides doesn’t solve or fix anything. It’s a waste of time, instead of honoring a young man with a promising sprint car career. It’s like watching people throw darts at each other.”
When he was asked if he would race sprint cars again, he said he didn’t expect to do so any time soon but would not rule it out in the future. Asked if he ever contemplated giving up racing altogether, Tony Stewart said, “There was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me.”
Stewart, not in contention this year for the championship, placed 14th in last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Dover International Speedway. The next Sprint Cup series race takes place at Kansas Speedway on October 5.