BROOKLYN, Mich. — On a warm, clear morning at Michigan International Speedway, Melissa Ward relaxed in a folding chair next to her 22-foot travel trailer in the track’s grassy infield.
Ward and her husband, Willie, drove from their Reynoldsburg, Ohio, home last week and arrived at the 1,400-acre complex to enjoy three days of NASCAR racing.
By that point, like so many others nationwide, they had watched the Tony Stewart video that went viral on the Internet and formed an opinion about what happened.
The video was “disturbing, very disturbing,” Melissa Ward said. But she added: “I do not see Tony at fault. I totally believe in Tony Stewart.”
During a non-NASCAR sprint-car race a week ago in upstate New York, a car driven by Stewart struck and killed another driver, 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. (no relation), who was on foot.
Ward had climbed from his wrecked car, walked onto the track and, while apparently angrily gesturing at Stewart, was hit by Stewart’s car as it circled back around.
Although the bizarre accident did not occur at a NASCAR-sanctioned race, the NASCAR world was stunned and the incident made headlines worldwide in good part because Stewart is a three-time NASCAR champion and one of the sport’s most famous drivers.
Stewart sat out Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (MIS), the second consecutive NASCAR race he’s missed since Ward’s death. His team said Stewart was grieving and undecided about when to race again.
No charges have been filed against Stewart, 43, but there is an ongoing investigation by the Ontario County, N.Y., sheriff’s office.
The accident, and the accompanying video shot by a spectator, has triggered a heated public debate — even among fans who don’t normally follow auto racing — about who might have been at fault.
The debate was pronounced on the MIS infield. If there’s a capital of NASCAR Nation, it might be the village of recreational vehicles that assemble each week at NASCAR tracks. The RVs’ owners spend the entire weekend at the speedways, many of them flying the flags of their favorite drivers.
Among the RV owners camped at MIS — an oval track 70 miles west of Detroit in Michigan’s Irish Hills — some blamed Ward, some blamed Stewart and others blamed both drivers.
“I don’t think (Stewart) meant to kill (Ward) or anything, but I think he meant to scare him,” said Nancy Vosburg, a Queens, N.Y., resident who attended the race with her sister.
“I’ve probably watched that video maybe 20, 25 times,” said Vosburg, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan who was wearing a green top with Earnhardt’s car number, 88, stitched on it. “I wanted to know what really happened.
“It shocked me,” she said. “It didn’t surprise me because Stewart — he just has a confrontation about everything. Tony’s just aggressive, very aggressive.”
Stewart is indeed a blunt, temperamental driver known for his past clashes with other drivers and the media. It’s unknown whether that had any bearing on the fatal accident, but it’s added to the narrative surrounding it.
Yet Stewart’s personality is what appeals to Dave Maynard of Bitely, Mich., who had a 3-by-5-foot multicolored flag of Stewart draped in front of his 28-foot travel trailer.
Stewart “doesn’t beat around the bush, he tells you like it is,” Maynard said. “He’s a straight-up guy.”
As for the accident, “I couldn’t believe it,” Maynard said. “He’s not the type of guy to do anything like that.” And no matter how the saga unfolds, “our thoughts are with Tony,” he said. “We’re going to keep flying that flag as long as we keep going to races.”
Others faulted Ward for putting himself in danger. “Kevin Ward should not have been going down the track” on foot, said Jennie Mirkle of White Cloud, Mich.
“I don’t think it was (Stewart’s) fault,” agreed Karl Filzer of Toledo, Ohio. “That guy (Ward) should have stuck with his vehicle and not run out in front of moving cars.”
Dan Winzler of Edwardsburg, Mich., said he “watched the video, and my general reaction is drivers shouldn’t get out of their vehicles and taunt other drivers.”
As for speculating when Stewart might race again, “I’m not inside (Stewart’s) head,” said Craig Atwell of Harrison, Mich., who’s attended NASCAR races at MIS for the last 14 years. “There’s only one person who can decide that.”
Filzer said this much was true: The debate will continue not only because a young driver lost his life but because the tragedy involved Stewart, one of racing’s most recognized figures.
If it had been a more obscure driver instead of Stewart, Filzer said, “it probably would have been on the back page of some local paper and you wouldn’t have ever heard about it.”
©2014 Los Angeles Times
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