"There are deaths all the time in racin', at small tracks like that, it's just part of the sport".
That was a quote Dale Earnhardt, Jr gave to a television crew before Sunday's NASCAR race at Watkins Glen about his thoughts on a fatal incident the night before involving fellow driver Tony Stewart. Stewart was involved in a crash with one of the local drivers on the dirt track--Joe Ward, Jr. Ward got out of his car after the crash and--has become a racing tradition--was going to shake his fist at Stewart, whom he believed to have done him wrong in causing the crash. Unfortunately, Stewart ended up hitting Ward with his car and killing him.
In what could have been a major PR disaster--and a huge black eye for the sport in general--Stewart still planned to race Sunday at the Glen--despite being the subject of a police investigation. His crew chief Greg Zipadelli even went so far as to tell the press "It's business as usual"--until Stewart "decided" not to race a few hours before the event. I use the flying quotes there because I am sure that NASCAR leaned heavily on Stewart to sit this one out--despite desperately needing the points to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Both of the comments made yesterday by Earnhardt and Zipadelli show just how callous racers are (and you could say have to be) about dying during competition. Dale, Jr's dad was famously killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 (some would say blocking for his son and the driver of his own team, Michael Waltrip). But the Stewart case is a bit different. This wasn't two cars collide and one hits the wall and a bad angle. This happened under caution, Ward was not in his vehicle at the time and Stewart was not "jockeying for position".
So what we are left with is the sticky legal question of what constitutes "a sports incident" and what constitutes a "criminal action"? Video of the scene is a little dark and grainy--but it appears that Stewart guns it at the moment before impact with Ward--maybe hoping to kick up a little dirt in Ward's face to show him who the "real star" was. Stewart supporters immediately got onto social media to defend their guy saying sprint cars are set up to jump to the right when you hit the gas in order to slide through the dirt corners--and that is why Ward got hit. Others coldly said Ward had it coming for running into traffic to throw his little hissy fit. Now it will be up to prosecutors to decide if Stewart was acting negligently or recklessly in the seconds before hitting Ward.
There is precedent for criminal charges against athletes for their actions on the field. Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitals was charged with assault for an unprovoked hit that seriously injured a player in New Jersey back in the 1990's. Canadian courts have also convicted hockey players for sucker punches on the ice. Now we are going to find out what is and isn't "in bounds" when it comes to "sending a message on the track".