Friday night Tony Stewart had a confrontation with a heckler while preparing the surface of the dirt track at the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa. Out of context, this was nothing for the three-time NASCAR Champ. Stewart did nothing illegal, and the incident should have gone unnoticed. However, in context, the incident made headlines as a cause of concern for the troubled driver. That is because for me, like others who follow NASCAR, it sparked one of my most shocked, scared, and dazed sports related memories– the night of August 9th, 2014.
Late that night while sitting at home, I began seeing references on Twitter to the incident in which Stewart struck and killed fellow sprint car driver Kevin Ward with his car during a small dirt track race. Having enjoyed watching Stewart race throughout my life, and also noting his famous temper, I was terrified as I kept searching and refreshing for more details to emerge about the incident.
Much of the initial reaction from fans immediately crucified Stewart as a murderer—a madman who intentionally ran over the 20-year-old racer following contact during the race that resulted in Ward crashing. In fact, the very first leaks of eye witness accounts and hand-made video seemed to support this notion.
But surely Tony Stewart could not possibly be that stupid, right? Surely a top-ten all time driver with his own NASCAR team, millions in sponsorships, and so much to lose couldn’t make such an evil and reckless decision?
The next wave of information supported what I thought was the more rational scenario: that Ward had enough marijuana in his system to affect his judgement, the area of the track where the incident occurred was poorly lit, and Stewart’s car appeared to fishtail prior to striking Ward as characteristic of a racecar on dirt when making a sudden turn for last-second avoidance. The Ontario County, New York Sheriff found no evidence of criminal intent by Stewart, and on September 24th, 2014, a grand jury declined to indict him.
However, for a driver who has built a career and fan base off of his aggressive driving and confrontational attitude, the incident has been impossible to leave behind. Public opinion of Stewart has remained skeptical, and the mental toll along with physical limitations have prevented Stewart from being the driver he was before the incident. The 2016 season will be his last in NASCAR.
Even if Stewart is retiring from his career as a driver, public opinion is still vital for his interests going forward. The elite four-car NASCAR team that bears his name, Stewart-Hass Racing, perpetually needs large-scale corporate sponsorship to stay successful, and not to mention the pending civil suit filed against him by Ward’s parents. These interests mean that Stewart needs to be extremely careful about the image he gives the public. Given his reputation, even the slightest indication of a short-temper could remind fans and sponsors of the night of August 9th, which makes last Friday’s confrontation with a fan at the Chili Bowl Nationals dirt track race troubling.
Although Stewart did nothing out of line besides confronting the fan, and the fan was intoxicated and clearly acting inappropriately, entering a crowd to confront a heckler is not a good look for Stewart. If Stewart wants fans and sponsors to forget the Ward incident, he needs to avoid seemingly angry reactions like this.
Even for a driver who built an extraordinary career on his aggressive temperament, Tony Stewart has way too much to lose by not carefully watching his public image.