Of all the stories or columns I've ever written, this is probably the toughest yet. So please bear with me.
First things first: there will be no blame game played here. This is not the time, contrary to what the firestorm throughout social media might indicate. A young man has lost his life, and another man will have to deal with that for the rest of his. A family will be burying a 20-year-old boy this week. This is a time to grieve and to pray for everyone involved, not point fingers. I believe in my heart and head and will until I hear otherwise from the man himself that Tony Stewart would never intentionally hurt another racer, much less cause them to be fatally injured, but I am not going to sit here and say that Kevin Ward Jr. was at fault for the situation either. It is a tragic accident and all involved need our love, support, and prayers at this time. Shame on anyone playing the blame game right now, regardless of who that blame is directed towards. If you are a fan, you should give up on motorsports and find something else to occupy your time with. If you're not a fan, get educated or get out.
With that said...
This is nothing short of the ultimate nightmare scenario for a race fan. I wouldn't wish the situation we Tony Stewart fans find ourselves in right now on anyone. Of course, the pain we are feeling is not in the same universe as that being felt by those who loved young Mr. Ward, nor can it compare to what Tony and his loved ones are feeling either. I would never try to imply anything to the contrary. I can't begin to fathom what any of them are feeling, I just hope and pray that they can all find the strength and comfort in the Good Lord and the people around them to help them move forward.
But we are hurting. We hurt so deeply for Kevin's loved ones and we hurt about as deeply for Tony. It is the worst wakeup call and reality check as to how so many lives can be turned upside down in a blink of an eye like this. You wish that you could just give them all the biggest hug ever and take away their pain, but you know you can't. It is a very helpless feeling. I feel lost in this sea of unbearable grief, and yet those people are hurting so, so much worse. I will repeat: I can't even begin to fathom it.
Prior generations like to talk about how situations like this used to bring out the best in people. Well, I would like to think that it still does to a degree, but it also brings out the purest form of unadulterated ugliness imaginable. To see Tony referred to as a murderer and worse has cost me a lot of faith in humanity this weekend. I would expect that from the ignorant masses who don't care one iota about anything that happens on a race track until they can pump it for ratings or act like a know-it-all on a subject they literally know nothing about. For self-professed racing enthusiasts to act as though a racer would intentionally take the life of another driver, though, defies logic. Race driving is a brotherhood, an exclusive club shut out to vast majority of us. Not even the most hated rivals would try to bring harm to one another, much less someone who's love for his fellow man is as well documented as Tony Stewart's. It makes me question just how seriously these people really take their racing.
Like I said in the first paragraph, I'm not going to blame Kevin Ward either. Yes, anyone can say he shouldn't have been on the race track like he was. No driver should. Yet in his shoes, countless other drivers - Tony included - have jumped out of their cars and walked on the track with traffic approaching to express their displeasure. If I felt like I had been crashed, who's to say that I wouldn't have done the exact same thing, or that those who are blaming Kevin would have reacted any differently. We weren't in his shoes and we weren't feeling his emotion at that moment. Most of us never will be.
Alas, in this day and age of social media where everyone has an outlet to make their opinion heard instantly, many are always chomping at the bit to play judge, jury, and executioner for any situation that comes along. That is silly in even the most trivial of circumstances, but in a scenario where one man has lost his life and another's will never be the same, it is downright stupid.
Of course the wanna-be shock jocks, those festering pimples on humanity's backside, are going to say the most outrageous and hurtful thing they can just to generate a reaction because they have nothing of importance in their lives to occupy their time with. I don't get too wrapped up in what any of them say, but for supposed serious race fans to trash either Kevin or Tony right now is classless, insensitive, and just plain wrong.
Please don't get me wrong. I get that anger and grief and an entire other array of emotions are playing a bit of a role in it, and I understand that fully. The young man who was Kevin's friend and said that Tony should be in prison for life, I wish I could give him a hug right now. I have no idea what he is going through and I'm not going to blame him one bit for that kind of emotion. Were the roles reversed and Kevin had hit Tony, I would probably feel the same way his friend does and I don't even know Tony. That guy is perfectly justified in his anger. He has lost a close friend and fellow racer. My prayers are with him, and I would hope every Tony fan feels the same way.
But for some random NASCAR fan, regardless of their driver, to sit and bash away at Tony like he is a devil incarnate when history has proven him nothing of the sort or for anyone to sit and bash Kevin when he did something countless others have done and he's not even been buried yet, that crosses the line. What happened to taking time to grieve and process these situations before we start throwing opinions around and trashing one involved party or the other, often more in defense of the party we feel was not at fault than actual blame?
I can answer my own question: social media happened. And this is its dark side, the worst part of something that, when used properly to bring people together, is among the greatest inventions of all time.
The much more vexing question is, what next for Tony? Obviously that will become a bit clearer once the Ontario County Sheriff's Department and their District Attorney have completed their investigation, regardless of what their findings and decisions on how to proceed turn out to be. Still, the future is as clouded as I can ever remember being.
I am glad Tony sat out the Watkins Glen race on Sunday, and I hope he takes as much time as he truly needs to get back into the frame of mind to do his job at the level he expects of himself, regardless of everyone else's expectations for him. If that means I don't get to watch him race in person at Atlanta in less than three weeks, so be it. If he decides to take the rest of this season off, that is fine. His longterm mental well-being is far more important. And in regards to the people who have brought up his points situation and the possibility/probability of him being left out of this year's Chase for the championship, I hate to offend my mother by using one of her forbidden words but in this situation I believe she will understand: who the hell cares?
I would like to believe that Tony's peers - those that know his heart first-hand - will rally around him and help him get through this as much as they can. Not that they are obligated to, mind you, but that would be my hope. And I hope they come to his defense and show the world that has lined up to crucify him the kind of man they know Tony to be.
And I hope the whole racing community rallies around the Wards. I have no question that will happen, but it is certain to be a long road for them. Of that, there is also no question. His parents are dealing with the most unfair, unthinkable kind of tragedy with the loss of their son. Parents shouldn't bury their children, and that is what they are faced with this week. God be with them.
Before turning into a nightmare that I just can't wake up from, this had been the most euphoric week I can remember having. On Tuesday, the one year anniversary of his season-ending crash last August, I wrote a story about Tony's sprint car activities and his barnstorming in general and how it was good for our sport. Tony himself retweeted the story, which was the ultimate. I love all of our drivers, I truly do, but when the driver you all but worship as a hero acknowledges your work, there aren't words for it. So I just kind of floated on air for days until I woke up Sunday morning and saw the headlines. It was such a punch in the gut. I know that seems selfish, but I don't mean for it to.
See, I love Tony Stewart as much as any fan he has (outside of his family and friends, of course). Anything that hurts him makes me hurt for him. I can't imagine how much he is hurting right now, but just trying to do so is heartbreaking. Again, it is nothing compared to what he is feeling or what Kevin's family is feeling, and please don't mistake my words as such a comparison. As race fans go, though, no one is hurting worse about this than the regulars who watched Kevin race and Tony's fans. I honestly believe that no fanbase, not even Junior Nation, is as passionate about their driver as Tony's is. So please save a prayer and a thought or two for us as we all try to move forward from this situation, too.
In closing, I want everyone who has read what I had to say to do something. Take a look around you at the people you love, and make sure they know it. It seems a tired cliche a good deal of the time, but in a situation like this, never has the adage that "life is fragile" been more accurate. Think about it. Kevin Ward Jr. probably didn't have an inkling in the world as he strapped into his race car that it was his last night on this earth. Tony Stewart probably didn't have an inkling as he pulled into the Canandaigua Speedway that his life would never be the same. No one did, except for the Man Upstairs. And one day, we will understand why Saturday night had to happen and how it figures into His plan for Kevin's family, for Tony, and for all of us.
But gosh, it seems so unfair right now.