Tony Stewart met openly with the media Monday morning for the first time since the Aug. 9 accident at a dirt track in Upstate New York that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. Stewart’s last meeting with the media came on the day he returned to NASCAR racing after he had sat out three races. In that meeting, on August 29, Stewart took no questions. Instead he read a prepared statement.
Last week a grand jury in Ontario County New York decided not to press charges against Stewart. That vindication was the first step towards Stewart returning to a somewhat normal life. Part of that return came Monday when the three-time NASCAR champion took questions in an open session with the media at Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis NC.
For the first time Stewart admitted that he didn’t even know the 20-year old driver who was killed that Saturday night after he charged towards Stewart’s winged sprint car. Ward became entangled in the wheels and was thrown violently, his body coming to rest on the track.
“I don’t even know how many times I had raced with him,” Stewart said. “I race with that group a couple times a year. They’ve always been a great group to race with, but I didn’t know him. Obviously, after the accident I’ve read a lot about him, and from what I’ve read, I think he had a really promising career as a Sprint Car driver. It sounded like he was doing a good job and learning a lot at a young age, so I think he had a lot to look forward to.”
The Ward family has been very vocal since the accident. After the grand jury recommendation last week the family issued a statement. In it they seemed to try and blame Stewart for the accident. Monday Stewart said he had not talked to the family since the accident or the grand jury’s recommendation.
“You know, I think at this point it’s — I want to be available to them if they want to talk about it,” Stewart said. “At this point, I don’t need to talk to them for closure. I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I’m offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure. So I said it when we were in Atlanta, and I still believe that I want to be available to them if and when they ever want to talk.”
Stewart said that he wants to try and focus on racing again. Something he’s tried to do since he returned from his three race layoff.
“Obviously, but it’s not been business as usual by any means, and this is going to be a healing process for me,” Stewart said. “It makes you think about a lot of things other than driving race cars, but the one thing that’s probably helped me more than anything is being back at the racetrack and being around my racing family and remembering that I have a passion for what I do. So that’s probably helped me more than anything when it’s come to trying to make that next step to move forward.”
Stewart seems to have a great deal of remorse. Even though all evidence seems to show that he was not at fault. Monday, Stewart was quick to say what he would do differently if given the chance.
“I’d have stayed at Watkins Glen that night,” he said. “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. 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.”
In the immediate aftermath and since the accident, Stewart said he has remained somewhat cloistered. However, he now seems ready for his self-imposed exile to end.
“I didn’t really do much of anything to be perfectly honest,” he said. “I think the first three days that I was home I really didn’t do anything. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care if I took a shower. I left my room to go get food, and that you almost had to make yourself eat. It’s the first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody, I just wanted to be by myself.”
“You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything,” Stewart added.” All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen? So you just sat there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened.”
As for his future racing outside of NASCAR, Stewart still isn’t sure if he will return. Stewart usually maintains a busy racing schedule away from NASCAR. Last year however, he was sidelined from all racing after he broke his leg in a sprint car accident in Iowa. He only returned to racing this past February. Monday Stewart was noncommittal about getting back behind the wheel of a sprint car.
“At this point I don’t really have — I’m not going to say I’m never going to get in one,” he said. “But when I got hurt, it was as soon as I got healed and as soon as things got settled in with the Cup car I was set that I was wanting to get in one, but right now I wouldn’t even be able to give you a small idea of if and when I’ll ever get back in a car. So at this point I won’t be in one for a while.”
The accident created a firestorm of controversy both inside and outside the racing community. Stewart said he was well aware of that.
“I tried to do my best to insulate myself from that,” he said. “But I finally started reading what was out there and what people were saying, and you didn’t control that. Last Wednesday the facts came out and people still through the weekend, some people that had the same opinion before the facts came out still have the same opinion, no matter what side they think about.”
“To me it’s worthless to pick sides,” he added. “A young man lost his life, and I don’t care what side you’re on, it doesn’t change that. His family’s in mourning. I’m in mourning. My family is in mourning. Picking sides isn’t solving or fixing anything. It’s a waste of time to pick sides. Instead of honoring a young man that had a promising racing career, people are picking sides and throwing — it’s like watching people throw darts at each other. It’s disappointing at this point, honestly, because instead of supporting each other and the racing community is such a strong family, that it’s dividing people that on a daily basis would help each other. There is no point in it. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t fix anything. At the end of the day, it’s not going to make anybody feel any better about it.”
“It’s just people that — everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and we know that. But everybody, and I’ve seen this for the last seven weeks now, everybody has made their decision and picked their side off of 100% of the information that they got, which is about 10% of all the information that’s truly out there. And we all do it. Our society does it. We do it every day. Whatever we see on the news we make our decision as people about what we see. But it’s not — I don’t think any of us any day whatever topic we’re trying to come to a conclusion about, ever get all the facts.”
During last week’s press conference to announce the findings of the grand jury the district attorney revealed publicly for the first time that a toxicology report showed that Ward had marijuana in his system in amounts sufficient enough to impair judgment. Monday Stewart said that revelation makes no difference to him.
“Honestly, for me, it didn’t change anything,” Stewart said. “To me a young driver lost his life. Didn’t matter why or what was going on. The end result was the same. No matter what was said, it was still a tragic accident. I just know in my heart that it was a hundred percent an accident; that detail didn’t mean anything to me personally.”
Among the darkest of days since the accident, Stewart said there was one bright spot. When he returned to NASCAR racing at Atlanta on August 29 on Sunday, prior to the race Stewart received a huge ovation when he was introduced.
“At first I thought I accidentally walked out in Dale Jr.’s spot, but it was very overwhelming,” Stewart said. “I’m glad I had sunglasses on. But it was probably the most flattering and humbling part of my career was to walk out there and have that kind of reception. Riding around in the back of the pick-up truck and seeing people against the fence that were cheering for us and they had Jeff Gordon shirts on and Carl Edwards shirts and Matt Kenseth shirts. Didn’t matter what they had on, it really showed the support. Hearing about at Bristol how something that I was really happy with was the fact that on the 13th lap, people held up 13 for Kevin, and on the 14th lap held it up for us. And I think it shows the kind of bond that race fans and the racing community have with each other.”
“ It was very flattering in Atlanta for sure,” he added. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
Finally, Stewart said he knows that eventually he will be able to move on. For now he is relying on professional help, and the support of his friends to deal with the tragedy.
“I think our whole life, I don’t think any of us ever read anything in a book at school or read anything on how to deal with a tragedy like this,” Stewart said. “To have somebody there that could help us through that and help us be able to make forward progress was very important, and it’s still — we’re still using them. It’s not something that gets back to normal overnight.”
“It’s something we’ll deal with a for a long time,” he added. “But it’s nice to have that kind of support and that kind of guidance that will help you learn how to cope with it, deal with it, and start moving on.”