The essence of Tony Stewart is that he touches nearly every part of auto racing. The three-time NASCAR champion owns short tracks, races grassroots series in his spare time and has ownership stakes in a multitiered racing empire with interests in NASCAR and sprint cars (and a partner, Gene Haas, who will enter Formula One).
After his car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a Saturday night race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, the ripple effects could be enormous across myriad racing series, sponsors and teams.
But aside from replacing Stewart with Regan Smith in the No. 14 Chevrolet for the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, Stewart-Haas Racing wouldn't address those ramifications and its future plans beyond Sunday's Cup race.
Experts in handling PR crisis management said it's the right approach while the Ontario County Sheriff's Department continues its investigation. In a statement, NASCAR said it would "continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation."
"The facts here are critically important," said Ramsey Poston, president of strategic communication firm Tuckahoe Strategies and a former NASCAR executive. "Tony Stewart and SHR should limit what they say publicly to the facts and only the facts as they continue to cooperate with law enforcement.
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"Speculation on behalf of fans, media and others as to what might have happened and why can quickly take over the public dialogue and incorrectly frame the matter, which is why SHR needs to continue to steer any further comments to the established facts that are known. Law enforcement is driving the process for the time being. What is determined in that process will obviously set the course for any further action. At some point, the Ward family will possibly weigh in from a legal perspective making the facts and Tony's statements even more important."
As the investigation continues, here are the major issues that have been raised by Ward's death Saturday night:
Safety in sprint cars already was at the forefront after a brutal 2013 season that left three drivers dead (including former NASCAR winner Jason Leffler) and Stewart with a broken right leg in a sprint car crash that sidelined him for the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup Series. His injury helped spearhead advancements in sprint car safety technology, but the focus now will turn to procedures that allowed Ward to exit his car and approach Stewart to express frustration after being spun by Stewart.
The review of such policies could transcend sprint car racing, too. In Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen, J.J. Yeley walked to the edge of oncoming traffic under a yellow flag so he could gesture at Trevor Bayne.
"Without suggesting any blame here, I think most people agree the days when drivers stand on a racetrack during a live race have to go," said Zak Brown, founder of Just Marketing, which has represented sponsors in NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One. "It's happened for years in every form of motorsport globally and that practice has to stop."
During ESPN's prerace broadcast Sunday, analyst and former crew chief Andy Petree said Ward's death would be "a watershed moment for racing in general. Even if there's rule changes or procedure changes going forward, it's going to be something every race car driver will think about it. The impact of this tragic event is going to be felt from here forward. I think you'll see a lot of changes."
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It wasn't clear how much input -- if any -- sponsors had in Stewart's decision to sit out the race, but it's certain SHR consulted them.
In NASCAR, drivers are corporate spokesmen expected to deliver a company's message with a clean image. Though Stewart is a pitchman extraordinaire whose blue-collar persona offers appeal, Ward's death is the latest of several on- and off-track incidents that have raised questions about why he always seems caught in a maelstrom of controversy.
During the 2010-11 offseason, Stewart said he was "very embarrassed and ashamed" after being questioned by Australian police (he wasn't charged) for hitting a track promoter with a helmet over a dispute over track safety while on a five-week racing tour of the country.
In 2002, Stewart nearly lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing for shoving a photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a 12th-place finish in the Brickyard 400. He sought anger management counseling and was placed on probation for the incident, as he also was for striking Brian Vickers after a 2004 Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.
There have been many other instances in which Stewart's legendary temper has flared without drawing punishment. Two years ago at Bristol Motor Speedway, he wasn't disciplined for hurling his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car after a crash while racing for the lead.
For those unfamiliar with racing, it might have seemed odd that Stewart, a 43-year-old multimillionaire and national racing icon, was racing against Ward, a relatively unknown 20-year-old racer from upstate New York, for a spot in the top 10 when they initially collided. Such moonlighting isn't unusual, though, for Stewart, who was on pace to race in more than 100 events between stock cars and sprint cars before his injury last year.
It was the second consecutive year Stewart had raced at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, where he triggered a 15-car crash in which Alysha Ruggles, 19, suffered a compression fracture in her back last July. That wreck happened a week before the accident at Southern Iowa Speedway left Stewart with a compound fracture of his right leg. It prompted much debate over whether it was worth racing in lower series and risk his multimillion-dollar commitments to SHR, which also fields the Chevrolets of Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch.
Though Stewart races dirt tracks partly because he wants to shore up a discipline he loves, his Sprint Cup organization provides the bankroll that allows him to field championship-caliber teams in the USAC and World of Outlaws Series (Tony Stewart Racing driver Donny Schatz won the prestigious Knoxville Nationals a few hours after Ward's fatal crash Saturday).
When he raced for Joe Gibbs Racing from 1998-2008, Stewart was restricted from driving in series outside Cup, and the freedom offered by being his own boss factored into his decision to become a NASCAR team owner.
Analyst Ricky Craven, who had two wins in 278 Cup starts, said on ESPN's SportsCenter that Stewart races open-wheeled cars on dirt "because he loves it. Tony doesn't have a wife, doesn't have kids, but he does have family. His family is NASCAR, and his family are the people that make up his team at Stewart-Haas Racing. His extended family is the group he travels with to the open-wheel races. He's a marquee name. He brings a lot of attention. There's a long list of drivers who have done this and continue to do it. It's just he has had some really bad circumstances in the last 12 months.
"From a commercial standpoint, you can argue until the cows come home that he shouldn't be doing that. From a commercial standpoint, if you're spending $20 million with his Sprint Cup team, you make a strong case for protecting your investment and saying, 'We're not going to allow you to do this.' But if you understand him and you realize that if we suffocate him, he's not going to be effective on Sundays. So to be great, he needs to be Tony Stewart. To be Tony Stewart, he races as many times a year as he can."
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Fatal crashes aren't uncommon on any level of racing, and the loss of star drivers has been weathered by NASCAR, which raced the week after Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and IndyCar, which canceled its 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after the death of Dan Wheldon but regrouped to run in 2012 as scheduled.
But the circumstances surrounding Ward's death are highly unusual as drivers rarely are killed on the track while outside the cockpit. There aren't many situations analogous to what Stewart will be dealing with emotionally. Among the only vaguely comparable situations might have been Richard Petty's drag racing crash in 1965 in which a part flew into the crowd, striking and killing an 8-year-old boy.
Craven said there was "no way Tony Stewart would have been 100%" for the race at the Glen and likely will need time to recover.
"He's more than just a race car driver," Craven said. "He owns the team. He is the leader of the group. Many of his peers look up to him. He's going to have to stand tall through this. He'll have to find the courage and strength to rebound and get everything back in order.
"Having said all that, there's no playbook for this. I'm not sure this is a short-term situation. I think it's going to require a lot of help from a lot of people. This is going to be very emotional. Long before Tony can get back in a race car, he's going to have to deal with or understand and come to grips with the circumstances of (Saturday) night."
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