Over the past weekend, at a dirt track in upstate New York, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart ran over and killed another driver, one lap after the two were involved in an on-track collision. The other driver, twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., climbed out of his car and attempted to confront Stewart when Stewart came back around, at which point Stewart’s car struck and fatally injured Ward.
Because the internet is almost entirely devoted to righteous indignation and ridicule these days, and because media outlets are perpetually poised to profit from the deaths of other human beings, particularly if a celebrity is involved, there has been, as you might expect, a great deal of SEO-driven debate about this tragedy. Unfortunately, even the narrow segment of conversation which has not been fueled by cynicism and exploitation has broken down along predictable lines shaped by diverging presumptions and the reflexive human instinct to convert slim facts into stories that entertain, explain, sell and reassure.
You Don’t Get To Know
What everyone wants to know, and no one will ever know, is whether Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. on purpose. That such a possibility exists is abhorrent, but also perfectly in keeping with Stewart’s established record as a hothead if not a bully. Long before last weekend’s race Stewart repeatedly made clear that he had no problem using his fists, helmet or race car as a weapon in on-track disputes — though it should be noted that he’s hardly alone in that approach to his sport. Still, if there was an established meme about Stewart going into that fateful race it was that he routinely converted emotional responses into physical confrontations.
It will never be known what Stewart was thinking before his car hit Ward. Even if Stewart comes forward and answers all such questions in an entirely convincing manner, the most anyone will be able to say is that he was entirely convincing. He might be telling the truth, but he might also be a sociopath with no compunction about lying, or so mortified by what happened that he has repressed the truth of his actions. In any case, because Stewart is alive and Ward is dead the media spotlight will inevitably feature Stewart’s version of events, backed by the full faith and credit of interested corporate entities like NASCAR and ESPN, which have the muscle to force almost any narrative into the mainstream.
If you only manage to keep one thought in your mind about this or any other tragedy that involves questions of motive, try to remember that you will never, ever know what really transpired. Because the moment you believe you do know is the moment when you stop living in the real world and start telling stories.