Tony Stewart’s about-face decision to skip yesterday’s Nascar race a day after his car struck and killed a fellow driver in a sprint car event was the right thing to do, according to a crisis manager.
“The worst thing he could have done was gone on as business as usual,” said David Johnson, chief executive of Suwanee, Georgia-based public relations firm Strategic Vision LLC. “That would have caused sponsors to begin questioning because that’s not the image they want to give. From a crisis standpoint, his team is probably working with Nascar and sponsors on how he’s going to address this personally.”
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Car Series champion — Nascar’s highest echelon of racing — initially planned to compete in yesterday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York, after the accident. He later pulled out of the race, saying there “aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel” about the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
Ward was killed when Stewart’s car struck him as he walked on the dimly lit dirt track during a race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, which is about 100 miles northeast of Watkins Glen. Stewart’s car bumped Ward’s car into the wall on the previous lap and video images showed Ward getting out of his car and then gesturing at Stewart before he was struck.
No criminal charges are pending against Stewart, 43, and the fatality is an on-track investigation, according to Ontario County, New York, Sheriff Philip Povero. Stewart has cooperated with investigators and was “visibly shaken” by the incident, Povero told reporters.
“As in any death investigation, we are going to sit down with the district attorney and his staff and review it when the investigation is complete,” Povero said.
The incident occurred 14 laps into the 25-lap race, with Ward losing control of his winged sprint car and hitting the track’s outside retaining wall after the contact with Stewart’s car. Ward, who was wearing a black helmet and firesuit, unbuckled himself, walked onto the dirt track and gestured at approaching cars, including Stewart’s.
As two cars approached Ward, the first “swerved to avoid the driver out on the track,” according to a sheriff’s department statement, and the second car, driven by Stewart, struck Ward. Video showed Ward went under Stewart’s car and was then thrown into the air before landing motionless on his back on the track. Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital about 45 minutes after the incident, police said.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Nascar said in a statement. “We will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”
Nascar also said it supported Stewart’s decision to skip yesterday’s Sprint Cup race, in which he was replaced by Regan Smith for the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Bass Pro Shops, which sponsors Stewart’s No. 14 car in the Sprint Cup Series, said in a statement that it was “deeply saddened” by the accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. “We send our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of sprint car competitor Kevin Ward Jr. and also to Tony Stewart and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing,” the company said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
Stewart is the co-owner of the Stewart-Haas team, which also fields Sprint Cup cars for Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Stewart’s sponsors also include Exxon Mobil Corp., General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet, Coca-Cola Co. and Luxottica Group SpA’s Oakley, according to his website, and his annual earnings are estimated by Forbes at $12.5 million.
Johnson, whose firm has represented Grand-Am Road Racing drivers in their sponsorships, said there’s probably a behind- the-scenes tussle going on between Stewart’s legal team and public relations team on how to handle the situation.
“Even though the sheriff said it doesn’t look like criminal charges, the legal team wants to wait until after the investigation is fully out and he’s been cleared,” Johnson said by phone. “They’re also thinking about any kind of lawsuits down the road, any type of liability. The PR team wants Stewart issuing an emotional statement expressing sympathy. The crisis team is also working on how to reach out to Ward’s family from Stewart, how to get him out in front and express emotion, some sympathy for the family without acknowledging any kind of liability.”
Stewart’s team probably consulted his sponsors and Nascar officials about how he should personally address Ward’s death, according to Johnson.
“They’re probably debating whether he goes out in front of cameras, if he does a one-on-one interview, does he do something to reach out personally to Ward’s family,” he said.
While Stewart is a team owner and one of the top drivers on Nascar’s top tier, he schedules numerous short track events every year. The Aug. 9 incident came about a year after Stewart broke two bones in his lower right leg when he crashed in a dirt track race in Oskaloosa, Iowa, costing him the second half of the Nascar season. Stewart was also involved in a 15-car pileup in a short track race on July 2013 in Canandaigua that left a 19-year-old female driver seriously injured.
The Ontario County Sheriff’s office said it’s seeking amateur video of the events that led to Ward’s death and will continue to interview witnesses.
“We’re trying to analyze video that we have as meticulously as possible,” Povero said. “We’ll also rely on evidence that has been gathered through the results of an autopsy. And again I want to clearly state that Mr. Stewart has been fully cooperative. He is extremely upset with this crash and has confirmed his continued cooperation.”