Tony Stewart, the Suspicious Death of Kevin Ward Jr and NASCAR’s Bizarro World Ethics

If a real Columbo was on his case, Tony Stewart might be in trouble.

If a real Columbo was on his case, Tony Stewart might be in trouble.

The word “ethics” and NASCAR should never be uttered in the same sentence without irony. After all, the sport arose out of the exploits of outlaw bootleggers. The current billion dollar sport’s culture regards cheating as “breaking rules and getting caught doing it.” The fact that the team manager of one of the sport’s biggest stars would see no reason for his meal-ticket not to compete today just because he was being investigated for what might have been a mid-race homicide yesterday shouldn’t shock anyone.

In case you missed it Saturday (I did, having a visceral aversion to NASCAR stronger than my dislike of nightcrawlers), NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart drove his car into twenty-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., killing him, during a dirt-track race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park  in upstate New York. Ward’s car and Stewart’s car had swiped each other during the race, disabling Ward’s vehicle. Ward left his car and was walking on a track with the caution flag out, waving his arms and pointing at Stewart. One car swerved to avoid Ward, but Stewart’s hit him, injuring him fatally. Until the media and public began to register its objections, Stewart was preparing to race today as if nothing had happened. As recently as this morning, Stewart team manager Greg Zipadelli called it “business as usual.”

It’s business as usual in a culture where a participant who just killed someone in public under suspicious circumstances sees no reason to show, or even fake, any remorse or contrition whatsoever. Here’s the latest entry on Tony Stewart’s website, at least as I write this:

“Thanks to everyone who participated in this week’s edition of “Tony Trivia.” This week’s answer: There’s no track on the circuit where Tony Stewart is more dominant than at Watkins Glen International.”

[UPDATE: At 1:pm Sunday, Stewart finally posted the statement about the accident that is now up on the site. Note that he says nothing about his part in the accident at all. It could be about any NASCAR accident, anywhere.]

Call me a silly sentimentalist, but if I ran down another racer and killed him, I would make certain that a public statement expressing sorrow and regret at the incident would be up on my “official website” before the first ESPN headline was written about the incident. Meanwhile, why would NASCAR allow a racer to compete after an incident like this? Oh, that’s right: because the only ethics in NASCAR involve making money, protecting its stars, winning races, and keeping the fans entertained. After all, having Stewart race today would be a great story. Will he kill again? Will any driver have the guts to point at him this time?

Yes, it’s Bizarro World ethics again, another culture with inverted values like the fictional cube planet in Superman comics, where idiotic clones of Superman and Lois Lane think, live and speak illogically.

Applying real world ethics doesn’t make sense in a place where they eat the plates and throw away the food, and clearly basic ethical values don’t register at NASCAR either. All reports indicated that Stewart intended to race, his team was happy to have him race, and NASCAR wasn’t going to stop him, until someone—a lawyer? His mother? A 10-year old?— explained to him that, uh, it might not be such a good idea.

At a news conference today,  Zipadelli said Stewart had decided not to compete as planned in Sunday’s early-afternoon Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International track in central New York, where, as followers of Tony’s website now know, he is oh so dominant.

“He feels strongly this is the right thing to do,” the team manager told reporters. Riiiiiight. I wish someone would ask Tony, without coaching, now, why it’s “the right thing to do.” I’d bet his answer would be something like, “Well, I think it would look bad to race so soon after killing Kevin, and hurt my endorsements.” If Tony or anyone connected with him, NASCAR or the Watkins Glen race understood why his racing today would be callous, disrespectful and irresponsible, the decision that Stewart would not race would have been instant and automatic. Instead, his manager said, he needed to sleep on it:Hmmmm…what a dilemma! Keep on racing after killing a fellow driver, as if nothing happened, or treat it like a major tragedy, personal, professional, and human? Boy…my brain hurts.”

Where is Lieutenant Columbo when you need him? The Peter Falk-created master TV detective solved diabolical murders very similar to this incident on a regular basis, when a wealthy and powerful celebrity in sports, show business, business or politics would craft an apparently perfect murder. I’m not saying that Stewart intentionally hit Ward. I am saying that we will never know. Law enforcement, the public, the media, and especially juries  give celebrities the benefit of doubts that normal citizens do not receive. Whether Stewart committed the perfect crime or not, I predict that he will suffer little in the way of reduced popularity or income as a result of Ward’s death.

It’s NASCAR, after all. Like cheating, murder is only unethical if you get caught.


 Facts:Washington Post, Tony Stewart, CNN, Chicago Tribune

45 thoughts on “Tony Stewart, the Suspicious Death of Kevin Ward Jr and NASCAR’s Bizarro World Ethics

  1. Im gonna call Ick factor on this one. You’d like for him to make some kind of statement demonstrating the proper emotions, you’d like for NASCAR to remove him from the race, etc etc but as the case stands did he do anything unethical? Anything unethical would make the omission of those statements and actions unethical? I say absolutely not. I’ve watched the video. The kid literally got out of his car and stomped towards Stewarts oncoming vehicle. In the middle of an active race. After he narrowly avoided getting hit by two other drivers. While wearing a black full body racing suit during a night race. While pointing his finger at the oncoming car.

    I know its not polite to speak ill of the dead, but the kid was an absolute dumb ass and I have zero sympathy for him. I’m 100% prepared to say that Ward’s actions got himself killed. Not Stewart’s. As such, Stewart didn’t do anything unethical, and has no ethical obligation to make a statement or not to race.

    • When two drivers have a altercation, and one just happens to run hum down, that is called a prima facie case for misconduct.
      The argument that Ward was an idiot—I think all race car drivers are per se idiots—doesn’t mean that Stewart couldn’t have avoided him. Maybe that is the case. But as long as a fatal incident is under investigation, it is absolutely disrespectful for the individual whose care killed him to behave as if he had nothing to do with it. Yes, it’s ick (GOOD POINT, by the way, and thanks for raising it) …and it’s also disrespect for life, his family, and his sport. Name me any other workplace environment where someone could be involved in a fatal accident under investigation, and still be cleared to work the next day.

      • They bumped each other during the race, which is a common occurrence in the sport. There wasn’t a fight or some other act of outrage (the typical use of the word altercation) that might imply that Stewart held any sort of ill will towards Ward.

        If anything Ward held ill will towards Stewart for the bump. Before he’s struck by the car, Ward narrowly (emphasis on narrow) dodges other high speed vehicles, before stopping in the middle of the track and squaring his body into two incoming cars. Its not a case of “could Stewart have avoided him”, its a video substantiated case of “an idiot kid went hunting for Stewart’s race car and found it”. Everything about the video implies that Ward is responsible. The only unethical thing here is that Stewart is being investigated at all when the evidence so clearly exonerates him.

        More importantly, the fact that Stewart/NASCAR doesnt seem to care that Ward was killed isnt unethical. Its certainly not ethical behavior but it’s far from unethical and sympathy is far from required. Like I said, this is all one big case of Ick in an otherwise ethically straightforward case.

      • Disrespectful? Actors go on stage all the time after close family members and friends die. Assuming that this guy didn’t intentionally kill the deceased, I’m not sure this is different. I loathe this sport, but your elitism is showing a bit here.

        • A race can go on without a competitor; an actor goes on because the production is harmed without him. Show me an example where an actor went on with the performance after accidentally killing another actor in the production, and we”ll talk.

          I’m pretty sure I’d fire an actor who killed another cast member. I have very little tolerance for that…

          • Isn’t that what understudies are for? People pay big money (I have no idea why) to see certain drivers race. So I think the analogy is pretty spot on.

            As for actors — there are certainly actors who have died while making movies, and the film studios did everything in their power to salvage the film. You are assuming that the driver here did wrong. If that is the case, presumably he will go to prison. But unless and until he is convicted, he still gets to go to his job every day.

            • Show me where I said that the driver did wrong, other than not immediately withdrawing from a race the very next day. I didn’t. Just read the post TWICE, and I wrote it.

              Stewart’s no lunch pail Fred, he’s the biggest name in racing. The optics matter, to the sport, to the culture, to Ward’s family. Not racing the next day was a no-brainer if he had any ethics alarms functioning at all. From a non-ethical consideration perspective, planning to race and letting a spokesman say what he said was also jaw-droppingly stupid.

              • Again — what about the ticket holders who paid to watch him race?

                As for the driver doing wrong, I understand what you’ve written here. My point is that for anyone to conclude that he should not race would require some notion of fault. If there was no fault, then “the show must go on.”

                • He didn’t do anything criminal, one hopes. His actions contributed to someone’s’s not wrong in the sense of misconduct, but it’s not good either. One acknowledges responsibility and accountability whether or not one did wrong.

                  • His action contributed to ward’s death but thats NOT the same thing as being responsible or accountable for the death. The actions that resulted in Ward’s death were otherwise ethical or ethically neutral actions, which is to say racing in a legal race and bumping another car in the course of the race (contact like that is an unavoidable and accepted part of group racing). Ward’s death is the result of his own actions – literally getting out of his vehicle and running into the path of speeding race cars – and as such Stewart is not responsible and certainly not accountable. In terms of responsibility, he didnt force Ward to abandon all reason and sanity and run into the line of fire, nor in terms of accountability, can anyone expect him to pay for the actions of another.*

                    I know some people will think like dominoes and blame the death on Stewart for disabling Ward’s car in the first place, in that case I ask you: What would have happened had Ward chose to stay in his car? He would almost certainly be alive and well today. A large, shiny, stationary car is a lot easier to avoid at high speeds than a man sized target, in what amounts to a ninja suit, actively seeking out your car for a game of chicken. No matter how you slice it, Ward’s death is a product of his choices (and his choices alone) in the moments after he safely came to rest on the side of the track. Stewart may have accidentally (or even intentionally) put Ward on top of a cliff, but the man chose to run off it, and in a society that values personal responsibility the fault for Ward’s death is no one’s but his own.

                    And since, in no way shape or form can we lay responsibility or accountability for Ward’s choices at Stewart’s feet, he is under no obligation to appear distraught or remorseful or to actively change his life in anyway as a form of reaction to Ward’s death. I say again, it would be classy and ethical (and better PR) for him to do so, but it is not what we in this ethics community would recognize as an ethical obligation.

                    *Responsibility vs accountability is easier to imagine in the context of employers and business. We say someone is responsible when they caused something, and someone is accountable when they are punished for that failure. If somebody messes up at work the person who messed up is responsible for the failure, and is thus accountable, but the person’s boss is also accountable for his subordinate’s failure even though he may not be responsible. Since Ward wasnt a subordinate of Stewart, he cant be held responsible or accountable for Ward’s actions.

                    • We are often under no obligation to do the ethical thing. We’re under no obligation to be polite, or clean,or to help others in distress. We are often not under any obligation not to be dicks.

                      You make it sound like Stewart was a bystander, and had no culpability in the accident at all. That’s not how a lot pf people see it—he at best miscalculated, and he is responsible for what his car did, just as Ward is responsible for being in a position so. If a drunk is wandering on the expressway and I can avoid him but don’t, there is at least a question of negligence on my part as well as his. I agree that crashing Ward’s car was not misconduct in the context of the sport—that’s irrelevant to the issue.

                      “And since, in no way shape or form can we lay responsibility or accountability for Ward’s choices at Stewart’s feet, he is under no obligation to appear distraught or remorseful or to actively change his life in anyway as a form of reaction to Ward’s death. I say again, it would be classy and ethical (and better PR) for him to do so, but it is not what we in this ethics community would recognize as an ethical obligation.”

                      Well, as I said, Stewart is responsible for what his car did, not what Ward did. And as a human being with empathy, kindness, respect for human life and compassion, your ethical course is, in fact, to acts as if the day after your car kills a kid it isn’t “business as usual.” Then we’re at the semantic disagreement over whether “not as ethical as decent human being should be” is UNethical.

                  • The difference is more in responsibility than semantics. But with regard to semantics, there are ethical, not-unethical, and unethical actions. Not-unethical, while a double negative is meant to describe those actions that are ethically neutral. Caring about someone else’s death is ethical, not caring when you didnt cause it is neutral, not caring when you caused it is unethical. I also take the position that you only commit an ethical failure when you do something unethical. Failing to live up to highest standards of ethics, for example with a neutral action, is not unethical in and of itself. With the semantics out of the way…

                    From my perspective, the larger issue is in responsibility. You seem to claim that literal responsibility for any action in a chain of actions that results in something bad, is enough to lay functional ethical responsibility at someones feet. In this case, the fact that Stewart was involved in any way with Ward’s death regardless of how much Ward caused it, is enough for you to claim that his lack of reaction is unethical. I disagree. Ward is literally responsible in that he was driving the car that struck and killed Ward, but that is not the same thing as ethically functional responsibility. Stewart was pursuing otherwise ethical and legal actions that lead to Ward’s death as a result of Ward’s unethical and (possibly illegal) decisions. Because of this, the amount of responsibility we can attribute to Stewart IS NOT ENOUGH to warrant functional ethical responsibility.

                    In other words, yes, Stewert is partly responsible for the death of Ward, but only in the most technical sense, and not enough to functionally imbalance the ethics scales and cause his lack of regard to go from ethically neutral to outright unethical.

                    We’ve fought much the same battle over Zimmerman’s hand-of-god comment a while back.

                    • The question in summary seems to be this:

                      Is indifference unethical? More specifically, is indifference to a terrible event to which you partially contributed to, even unintentionally or indirectly, unethical?

                      If that indifference leads to conduct that helps tear down the community’s already suffering manners and already suffering sense of empathy, or conduct which contributes to the notion that entertainment is more important than life, the conduct derived from the indifference is unethical.

                      From that angle, Tony Stewart’s conduct is unethical.

          • So… Acting and driving a race car have rough equivalency in terms of danger in your mind then ? … Wow. If I may say, you just seem to dislike the sport in general and are clinging to an untenable argument, that’s not very ethical.

            • I neither said nor implied nor believe that, and I was not the one who raised the acting. Beth raised it because she knows I work in theater. Learn to read, then you might earn the right to be snarky here.

  2. The team manager of Tony Stewart should not have said it was going to be “business as usual” in regard to today’s race.
    That was a crude and callous remark.

      • It was show business as usual. The show must go on etc. Celebrity trumps all else. There is no such thing as bad publicity. You know the drill.
        Every public figure, from politics to NASCAR is a celebrity.
        Absolutely unethical and absolutely not a surprise. Is “not a surprise” one of the rationalizations?

    • Seriously doubtful. Killing someone, even accidentally, though I never have, is got to disturb your sleep. Just an FYI, everyone I have ever killed was on purpose.

        • Not really, Sharon. All of them do, but you get over it eventually. What troubles me a bit is the automatic assumption that Stewart is somehow behaving unethically because someone died, not Stewart. This kid jumped out of a terrifically protected race car so he could shake his fist at Stewart. He basically died because he was STUPID and left the safety of his vehicle in order to, I guess, make a statement. Did Stewart kill him on purpose? I doubt it. But stupidity is not a survival trait, and Kevin evidenced an ample share of it. Racing is an inherently dangerous sport, as Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death, among other, demonstrates. Dumping an above-average load of dumb on the race track is, in fact, unethical, but the ethics of the guy who cannot avoid running over you when you do so should not then be questioned, unless it is clear (or at least suspected) that you did it on purpose.

          • In a baseball game, a pitcher who beaned and killed a player who had taunted him, even if the player stood over the plate, even if the pitch wasn’t too wild, would be thrown out of the game, and certainly the subject of an investigation. The fans would not tolerate him pitching so soon after the accident, and if he did not express appropriate regret and sorrow, suspicion that he threw at the player would be rampant. Casey Anthony went partying after her (murdered) daughter disappeared, and it was deemed as circumstantial evidence. Jeffrey McDonald just went on with his life, having a great time, after his family was slaughtered, causing prosecutors to wonder. The fact that Stewart was ready to go back to “business as usual” (why doesn’t he fire the team spokesman, unless those were his own sentiments?) after killing a colleague shows me he’s missing a humanity chip, and if so, my suspicions about his actions increase accordingly.

          • At this point, it seems that Stewart’s handlers have been doing all the talking. I really don’t have any facts to go on to determine whether Stewart even wanted to race the next day. I don’t watch any of this NASCAR stuff but from what I have read, it seems pretty typical for the drivers to get out of their cars and go at it a little which makes me wonder why this hasn’t happened before. None of it sounds too smart to me.

  3. “… having a visceral aversion to NASCAR stronger than my dislike of nightcrawlers”

    I stopped reading after this. Anything else you have to say about NASCAR will obviously be biased and negative, so what’s the point?

    • I stated a bias so you could be aware of it; all biases should be stated as full disclosure. Having stated it, I also take care to allow for it and adjust for it: that’s what ethical human beings do, or should. Your conduct and comment is illogical. Are you saying only NASCAR fans should be able to discern whether acting as if racing in the wake of being part of a fatal incident is “business as usual”? Are you saying that those who hide their biases (like, say, journalists) are more trustworthy than those who are aware of them and calibrate accordingly? Was there anything in my conclusions regarding Stewart’s conduct that could be reasonably attributed to a bias? Oh, right—you didn’t even read the post.

      When I state a bias, it not only isn’t “obvious” that I can’t be objective; the opposite is more likely to be true. Those who examine their biases and take them into account are making a concerted effort to objective.

      • And that is one of the things I like about you and your blog…you strive for honesty and objectivity pretty much all the time. Since we are two different people, we will never agree on every subject, but I find I am learning a great deal from you.

  4. Over at Althouse (who obviously has more racing-fan readers than I do, commenter Kansas City, a lawyer, had some interesting commentary:

    “…Stewart pretty clearly throttled the car.

    “Ward’s conduct was incredibly stupid, in violation of the rules and the cause of his death. However, I don’t think any of those points are dispositive on the separate issue of whether Stewart was negligent or reckless (or I guess intentional, but that would be virtually impossible to prove).

    I think the legal issue is whether, when faced with the situation of the recklessly stupid Ward on the track, Stewart engaged in negligent, reckless or intentional conduct that caused Ward’s death.

    It sounds like Stewart clearly throttled the car. If so, and the result was to throw out the back end so it hit Ward, Stewart better have a very good explanation for why he throttled the car. I thought of the following: (1) get past him more quickly; (2) trying to get the back end to move left rather than right; or (3) a technique that controls the car better and arguably lessens the likelihood of the rear spinning out. I thought the potential problem was that it could have been a “macho” answer to the guy or a technique that would cause the rear to spin right and scare the guy.

    It also is another situation where what Stewart said when he “cooperated” with the authorities will be very important. From a purely legal perspective, he should not have talked to the authorities, but that would have been a PR disaster. In hindsight, the best PR/legal approach would have been to plead that he was too upset to talk about it, get legal advice, and then “cooperate” fully. Of course, from the point of justice, I’m glad he talked to the authorities so justice will be done (either pro or anti Stewart).”

    Well done. But IF Stewart intentionally came close to Ward, or, in the worst case scenario, intentionally clipped him in a sudden impulse, justice will never be done, for the reasons I cited, and more. 1) You can see it already in the commentary here and elsewhere: it’s a dangerous sport, people get killed, Ward was an idiot, it he hadn’t been out on thr track, he wouldn’t be dead. All true, all irrelevant to the issue of whether Stewart’s negligence and/or malice contributed to his death. But a jury won’t see it that way. 2) He’s a celebrity, and cognitive dissonance applies. Celebrities just can’t be killers. They’re famous, and people love them! 3) Unless Stewart has a Perry Mason-style moment on the stand or in a police interview and confesses that he just impulsively killed the kid, there’s no way we will ever know what was in his mind when the incident occurred.

    That’s why I referenced Columbo. If it was a crime, it was a perfect one.

    But crime or not, Stewart could still pretend to give a damn that a car he was driving ended a life, because that’s how civilized human beings are supposed to be. I don’t see how pointing that out is “elitism.”

  5. Bad title of this article. …. Tony Stewart killed a man by throwing his car sideways into the man on purpose. He had could have stopped or steared around the man. …but chose to do a risky move that caused the death of another.

  6. I’m sorry, but who was the DUMBA$$ that got out of his protective cage and car while there was an ACTIVE Race going on??.

    Who’s the One with “Anger Management” & too high levels of Chest Beating “Call me a Waaaaamubulance, Someone ran me off the track because I SUCK at racing” Testosterone???.

    Really?? The only person who should be charged with a crime & with 2nd degree stupidity?? Already Reaped what he sowed.


    That’s like taking someone to court or charging them with a crime if some blithering off-spring of yours wants to run across a 12 Lane highway (just because he doesn’t want to walk on over to the protection of the OVER-PASS) & gets HIT & Killed by either one or many drivers…notwithstanding that ANY of them saw him & avoided him first.

    Really?? You American’ts cannot see who to really blame here??.

    Sure wasn’t & shouldn’t be “Stewart”.

    • Missing the point entirely. Too bad.
      The fact that Ward was acting like a reckless ass does not relieve Stewart of the duty to do everything he can not to harm him. If he tried to hit hi, tried to come close to hi, tried to scare him, and killed him as a result, he could be legitimately charged with a degree of murder. And he still has an obligation to behave like a decent human being.

      An intense or vociferous comment is not necessarily a persuasive one.

    • See, Beth: here I am admitting a bias! Olbermann is smart, observant and witty, especially as a baseball analyst, but he is such a narcissistic and pompous asshole that I simply cannot watch him or listen to him any more. I try…I juts can’t It’s all bias at this point. I just flat out detest the man.


  8. Did Kevin Ward actually exist? With all of the recent fake ‘tragedies’, I wouldn’t put anything past them. Good for ratings….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.