Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage came to the defense of Tony Stewart on Monday, calling him one of the good guys in racing and vouching for his integrity as a driver.
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, hit and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track race Saturday night in New York.
“Just stunned because Tony, contrary to his public image, is the mildest, soft-spoken, easiest-going guy that I know,” Gossage said. “He’s ultra-competitive, but he’s not about to do something to hurt somebody.
“Obviously this is just a horrible tragedy for everybody involved.”
Gossage said TMS is still planning to host Stewart’s charity event called the “Smoke Show” on Sept. 23. He also hopes to see Stewart racing Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series stop at Michigan International Speedway.
“I would encourage him to race, personally,” Gossage said. “If you were involved in an incident through the course of the weekend and someone was killed in an automobile accident, but you didn’t have any criminal role in it, I’d expect you to be at work on Monday.”
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told reporters that the initial findings have shown no criminal intent.
And Gossage doesn’t believe that will change even though Stewart is known for his aggressive driving style and public tantrums. He once hurled his helmet toward Matt Kenseth’s windshield, has had confrontations with drivers such as Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon, and can be prickly with the media.
It’s part of what earned him the nickname “Smoke” and made him become a polarizing driver in the sport. Gossage said it’s unfair that those incidents have made some believe Stewart caused Saturday’s incident intentionally.
“I know the guy and he wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Gossage said. “He’s going to race you hard and be incredibly competitive, but he’s not going to hurt somebody. For people who don’t know him, weren’t there, none of us were in his shoes to know the circumstances he was dealing with.
“None of us know so we can’t say he could’ve done this or that. It could’ve been as simple as he was looking down at his gauges in his car. There’s a lot of things that occur. An accident is a confluence of a bunch of factors that all come together to cause a tragic situation.”
A video of the crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park shows Stewart and Ward colliding and then Ward climbing out of his car and trying to confront Stewart on the track while the race was under caution.
Stewart’s car clipped Ward and tossed him approximately 50 feet. Ward, 20, was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Stewart pulled himself out of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen and will not compete in the dirt-track race Saturday at Plymouth, Ind., Speedway. He hasn’t announced whether he’ll race in the Sprint Cup event in Michigan.
Gossage hopes the accident changes how drivers confront each other. It’s not uncommon to see drivers get out of their car and walk into the middle of the track to display their anger with a competitor after a wreck.
“We see it in NASCAR and that has to stop because drivers all down the line emulate the pros,” Gossage said. “We need that to stop at this level so the guys climbing the ladder don’t do it. I hate that it ever occurred.
“I remember a time when you’d never see a driver do something like that. Instead, they’d wait to go over and have a discussion with the driver in pit road. It might get ugly, but that’s how you have to address it.”