You don’t even have to follow NASCAR, or auto racing in general, to know the dangers involved in the sport. But few expected what happened last Saturday night after Kevin Ward Jr. and Tony Stewart tangled on the racetrack, leading to a far more serious turn of events than the outcome of any race.
As of now, no criminal charges have been placed against Stewart, and his intent remains unknown. The one thing that remains fact is that Ward was killed after the 20-year-old left his vehicle to confront the NASCAR star and was struck by Stewart’s car. Getting out of a car to yell and gesture at a driver that just caused a crash is a common practice for drivers in all levels of racing — but this time the result was fatal.
This was not a NASCAR race run in stock cars. Stewart, who was scheduled to race in the NASCAR event at Watkins Glen in New York the following day, did what he’s done so many times before — take a winged sprint car for a spin at a local dirt track. In race where he didn’t have to worry about catering to his sponsors or dealing with media, Stewart now finds himself in a public relations battle as well as the fear that he may lose many of those advertisers.
The news of Ward’s death spread like wildfire, as can be expected in this age of social media. Even on a late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, Twitter erupted within minutes once the news broke. Shortly after, a video emerged showing Stewart hitting Ward. By 3 a.m. television stations broadcast the video with a 20-30 second disclaimer beforehand, warning the audience of just how gruesome the footage was. Everyone, including myself, couldn’t fathom how this had happened.
My first instinct was to blame Stewart — I mean, how can a professional NASCAR driver not maneuver out of the way in time? Isn’t that a part of his job description? To be able to turn at a moment’s notice? Later on, I read on Twitter that he still planned to race at Watkins Glen the following day. Wait, what? He still wants to race a day after killing someone? I was caught up in the social media frenzy and didn’t even realize it.
But I’ve had more time to learn about what really happened on that dirt race track in Canandaigua, N.Y., and I’ve learned this — we as a society need to slow down when it comes to processing news on social media. As easy as it is to jump to conclusions and make assumptions about what happened and whose fault it is, Twitter just doesn’t tell the whole story.
Like it or not, social media has influenced journalism mightily, has changed the way news is disseminated. Twitter often breaks news first, but that doesn’t mean it’s always accurate. Our first instinct is to clutch onto whatever it is that is “breaking” and believe in it even if we have yet to receive all of the facts.
The same applies to the Tony Stewart situation. Pictures have come out this week showing Stewart’s view inside of his sprint car — it’s pretty much impossible to see out of the side of the thing. There has been some questions raised as to why Ward was even on the track in the first place, a sign that maybe one day organized racing events will make it a rule that drivers can’t leave their cars and create confrontational situations. And, Stewart released a statement Sunday morning saying that he would not race, expressing grief and remorse from the previous night’s events. He never suited up for the NASCAR race after all, despite what Twitter and its “sources” first reported.
This does not mean I am on Stewart’s “side,” or exonerate him from what he’s done. I think some blame can be attributed to both drivers. But I do believe it is important for people not to overreact, as easy as it is to do so when you see hundreds of people tweeting at the same time about the same thing. Most of the people on my news feed posted minutes after the video became viral that Stewart did it on purpose — whether that is true or not, we may never know.
Many times over the years, the Twitter collective has reported false news, even fake “murdered” people by posting “RIP so-and-so” to try and gauge a reaction out of other users. So forgive me if for a second or two I didn’t believe the news when I heard of Robin Williams’ passing earlier in the week. Social media is where I first heard about his tragic death, and once I took the time to see that credible news sources were reporting his passing, I knew that Twitter wasn’t trying to trick me — this time.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.