Over the past weekend, at a dirt track in upstate New York, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart ran over and killed another driver, one lap after the two were involved in an on-track collision. The other driver, twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., climbed out of his car and attempted to confront Stewart when Stewart came back around, at which point Stewart’s car struck and fatally injured Ward.
Because the internet is almost entirely devoted to righteous indignation and ridicule these days, and because media outlets are perpetually poised to profit from the deaths of other human beings, particularly if a celebrity is involved, there has been, as you might expect, a great deal of SEO-driven debate about this tragedy. Unfortunately, even the narrow segment of conversation which has not been fueled by cynicism and exploitation has broken down along predictable lines shaped by diverging presumptions and the reflexive human instinct to convert slim facts into stories that entertain, explain, sell and reassure.
You Don’t Get To Know
What everyone wants to know, and no one will ever know, is whether Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. on purpose. That such a possibility exists is abhorrent, but also perfectly in keeping with Stewart’s established record as a hothead if not a bully. Long before last weekend’s race Stewart repeatedly made clear that he had no problem using his fists, helmet or race car as a weapon in on-track disputes — though it should be noted that he’s hardly alone in that approach to his sport. Still, if there was an established meme about Stewart going into that fateful race it was that he routinely converted emotional responses into physical confrontations.
It will never be known what Stewart was thinking before his car hit Ward. Even if Stewart comes forward and answers all such questions in an entirely convincing manner, the most anyone will be able to say is that he was entirely convincing. He might be telling the truth, but he might also be a sociopath with no compunction about lying, or so mortified by what happened that he has repressed the truth of his actions. In any case, because Stewart is alive and Ward is dead the media spotlight will inevitably feature Stewart’s version of events, backed by the full faith and credit of interested corporate entities like NASCAR and ESPN, which have the muscle to force almost any narrative into the mainstream.
If you only manage to keep one thought in your mind about this or any other tragedy that involves questions of motive, try to remember that you will never, ever know what really transpired. Because the moment you believe you do know is the moment when you stop living in the real world and start telling stories.
The Letter of the Law
Allowing for the fact that we can never prove what Stewart was thinking, the next obvious question is whether Stewart’s actions were in violation of the law. While it might seem obvious that running over and killing a human being is a crime, such questions can be convoluted and complex. If Ward doesn’t get out of his vehicle, or if he doesn’t walk toward Stewart’s onrushing car, he’s probably still alive today. That does not mean Ward caused his own death — one of the ugly arguments being floated in defense of Stewart — or worse yet, that Stewart is somehow a victim. In the eyes of the law, however, putting yourself in harm’s way and then suffering harm makes it harder to prove that anyone who did you harm is guilty of an actionable offense.
Because the letter of the law is often all we have to fall back on when tragedy strikes, and because we will never know what Stewart was thinking, it’s temping to think that a legal verdict will be determinative in this case. As with storytelling, however, focusing on the legal implications of an act also necessarily warps the reality of what transpired. For a variety of reasons having to do with reasonable doubt, fairness and justice, court proceedings may exclude plainly obvious information that might be relevant outside that narrow context. For example, in a criminal case Tony Stewart’s history of confrontations and problems with anger may be deemed irrelevant, again making any search for motive moot at best.
Tony Stewart has a long history of letting his emotions get the better of him, and when that happens Tony Stewart has a long history of lashing out. In a legal context that doesn’t prove intent in this case, but in the real world it clearly speaks to character in both a personal sense and a narrative sense. We believe, with some justification, that people are who they are, and Tony Stewart lived his life in a way that made running over another human being not only possible but plausible. Whether he meant to hit Ward or not, in doing so Stewart not only committed the cardinal sin of stepping into his own meme, that meme was of his own making.
The Dichotomous Stereotype
The problem with memes, of course, beyond the fact that they don’t prove anything, is that they are simply another form of narrative. We like memes because they help us make sense of things that otherwise seem complicated or confusing, and that’s true even whey they are proven wrong. There is safety in memes because memes are publicly held, which means memes also have a lot in common with cliches and stereotypes. Not surprisingly, most of the conversation about Stewart’s motives has indeed taken place along a cartoon divide that Rust Hills once defined as the dichotomous stereotype:
The second-generation Italian-American gangster has always been a nationality-group stereotype, the opposite of which is the warm-hearted boy who works hard, plays the violin and loves his mother’s spaghetti. Extremes — opposites – like this can be found within any grouping. Just put the mother’s picture in the gangster’s pocket and you think you’ve achieved some depth of characterization, but all you’ve got is flip-flop typing.
In trying to get into the mind of Tony Stewart commentators are flocking to one of two apparently contradictory narratives. Either Tony Stewart was a hothead who was bound to do something like this eventually, or Tony Stewart was a fierce competitor who lived on the edge and left himself vulnerable to such a tragedy. In engaging this rhetorical battle of apparent opposites, however, not only is clarity as to motive obscured by cliche rather than enhanced by insight, it turns out that both lines of thinking are equally flawed for the same reason.
Instead of asking whether Stewart intended to scare, hit, injure or kill Ward, we can flip the script and ask whether Stewart did everything he could to avoid Ward. If you think Stewart is a hothead, do his on-track actions support or reject that thesis? Did Stewart do everything possible after the initial collision to calm down, avoid escalating the conflict, and physically avoid Ward? Betraying the dichotomous cliche, the same questions apply equally if you believe Stewart is an ace driver with lightning-quick reflexes, decades of experience, and a deep understanding of the punitive physics involved. Again, did Stewart do everything humanly possible to avoid Ward, minimize on-track risks to himself and others, and put safety first? If so, and he still hit Ward, what does that say about Stewart’s ability as a driver?
The Facts of the Matter
The better you are at your profession, the better you think you are at your profession, and the more dangerous your profession, the greater the onus of responsibility on you to demonstrate expertise. Not just when you feel like it, or when it profits you, but all the time. Kevin Ward Jr. died not because Tony Stewart is good or bad, right or wrong, mean or benevolent, guilty or not guilty, but because when it came to doing the one thing Tony Stewart ostensibly does better than only a handful of human beings on the planet, Stewart failed in a way that can never been undone, and can only be redeemed in a tightly controlled warm and fuzzy narrative that glosses over the unending grief the Ward family will live with for generations.
Do not fall into the trap of telling yourself whatever Tony Stewart story you want to hear. Resist the narrative-driven need for tidy explanations or emotional closure because that only yokes you to a motive that can never be known. Kevin Ward Jr. deserves better than to become the inciting action in a cliched story about Tony Stewart, because in the end the facts of the matter prove more damning that any imagined intent. Tony Stewart, who is, by his own estimation and accomplishments one of the most experienced and talented race car drivers in the world, ran over and killed twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. on a race track.
— Mark Barrett