Tony Stewart faced the media this week for the first time since the fatal sprint car accident he was involved in with Kevin Ward Jr six weeks ago. Stewart answered questions for three quarters of an hour at Stewart-Haas Racing in Concord, North Carolina. Although his lawyers wouldn’t permit him to talk about the specifics of the accident Stewart talked candidly about how Ward’s death has affected his life.
“Before the accident I didn’t know Kevin,” Stewart said. “I don’t even know how many times I had raced with him. I raced with that group a couple times a year. They’ve always been a great group to race with, but I didn’t know him. Obviously, after the accident I’ve read a lot about him, and from what I’ve read, I think he had a really promising career as a sprint car driver. It sounded like he was doing a good job and learning a lot at a young age, so I think he had a lot to look forward to.
“I want to be available to them (the Ward family) if they want to talk about it. At this point, I don’t need to talk to them for closure. I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I’m offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure. I want to be available to them if and when they ever want to talk.”
Stewart missed three races after the accident and says these are very difficult times for him. “It’s not been business as usual by any means, and this is going to be a healing process for me. It makes you think about a lot of things other than driving race cars, but the one thing that’s probably helped me more than anything is being back at the racetrack and being around my racing family and remembering that I have a passion for what I do. That’s probably helped me more than anything when it’s come to trying to make that next step to move forward.”
Stewart said he’s been living a very restricted life since the accident. “I go from the motorhome to the car, and the car to the trailer, and the trailer back to the car, and that’s literally all I’ve done since I came back. I haven’t left my house. It’s just an awkward feeling. I think now I’ll start doing some more things. I’ve got a lot of friends who have been supportive through this entire thing, and there are a lot of people that have shown how much they cared and it would be nice to go and visit and talk to those people again.
“I think the first three days that I was home (after the accident) I really didn’t do anything. I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t care if I took a shower. I left my room to go get food, and that you almost had to make yourself eat. It’s the first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody, I just wanted to be by myself.
“You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything. All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen? So you just sit there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened.
“I think after talking with you guys today we’ll start getting back into doing meet and greets and appearances again. I think it’s important for me to do that and to take another step of making forward progress is getting back to trying to resume what was the best of a normal life before this.”
He says he may never again race a sprint car. “I’m not going to say I’m never going to get in one. But when I got hurt (last year), it was as soon as I got healed and as soon as things got settled in with the Cup car I was set that I was wanting to get in one (a sprint car), but right now I wouldn’t even be able to give you a small idea of if and when I’ll ever get back in a sprint car. So at this point I won’t be in one for a while.”
Stewart said he’s become much more reflective about life. “Driving a race car is all that consumed my life. It’s all I thought about, it’s all I cared about, and everything else was second on the list of priorities for me. I think this has given me the opportunity to sit here and think about other aspects of my life and what they’re going to mean to me in the future.
“Not that I don’t love what I do, because I do love it, but just like you guys, it’s not what we do all the time. There are more things to our life than what we have as a profession. So it’s made me think about some of those other aspects of my life that kind of have been put on hold for years.”
Stewart was asked what he thought about the toxicology report that found evidence of marijuana in Kevin Ward’s system. “For me, it didn’t change anything. To me, a young driver lost his life. It didn’t matter why or what was going on. The end result was the same. No matter what was said, it was still a tragic accident. I just know in my heart that it was a hundred per cent an accident. That detail [about the marijuana] didn’t mean anything to me personally.”
Stewart was asked to rate his performance since returning to action. “I could rate a before and after almost the same,” he replied. “My year hasn’t been a stellar year by any means. When we came back, we had a decent day started in Atlanta, and had an incident that derailed it. But I think Dover last weekend was probably the best overall race from start to finish that we’ve run. Probably one of the best ones this year that we’ve actually run. I struggled on restarts. I couldn’t get going very good the first three or four laps, but it seemed like after 10 or 15 laps we were settling into a pace that was a top five race car.
“We didn’t have any major dramas on either side during the whole race. We actually put a whole race together. I know the 14th or 15th-place finish isn’t anything to brag about, but considering where our season has been, we finally put together a whole day that was consistent, and that meant a lot to us.”
He was asked if the self-confident, outgoing Tony Stewart will return. “I think the support we’ve had from our fans, I don’t know if they even care if we get back to that,” he said. “They’re just happy that we’re back right now, and that’s been very comforting for us and for me. I’ve really appreciated their support and how they’ve helped welcome me back to the track.
“This is a process that’s day-to-day. You take it one day at a time. Before the accident happened, a day would fly by, and now a day seems like two or three days. The clock seems like the batteries are running low on the clock. I honestly think every day things will get better, and things will get easier, and I think it will for Kevin’s family as well. Time heals.
“Like I said, I don’t know that it will ever be normal again, but we’ll find a place to settle into and we’ll do the best we can like we have to this point. Whether I ever get back to that or not, hopefully through this I will somehow be a better person. That’s all I can hope for.”
Stewart was asked if he had considered retiring from racing. “I’ve had drivers I’ve raced with every week and drivers that I haven’t raced with for months that said don’t let this keep you from doing what you love. This is what I’ve done all my life. This is what I’ve done for 36 years, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I love what I do. I love driving race cars. I think it might change now as far as how much of it and what I do, but there was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me.
“I don’t think your passion ever goes away. I think about it [the accident] a lot every day. That’s the great thing about getting back in the race car because it gives me time to forget about it for a minute and to stop thinking about it. After you get done at the end of the day, you start thinking about it again. It’s not something that goes away. It will never go away. It’s always going to be part of my life the rest of my life. That’s the unfortunate part.
“It’s going to be a part of my life. It’s going to be a part of Kevin’s family’s life, and it’s never going to go away for any of us. But hopefully it will get easier for all of us.”
Stewart said his spirits have been helped considerably by the support from so many people. He said he was buoyed by the response from the fans when he was introduced on his return at Atlanta last month.
“It was very overwhelming. It was probably the most flattering and humbling part of my career was to walk out there and have that kind of reception. Riding around in the back of the pick-up truck and seeing people against the fence that were cheering for us and they had Jeff Gordon shirts on and Carl Edwards shirts and Matt Kenseth shirts. Didn’t matter what they had on, it really showed the support. It was very flattering for sure. I’ll never forget that moment.
“I think in our whole lives, I don’t think any of us ever read anything in a book at school on how to deal with a tragedy like this. It’s not something that gets back to normal overnight. It’s something we’ll deal with a for a long time, but it’s nice to have that kind of support and that kind of guidance that will help you learn how to cope with it, deal with it, and start moving on.”