Can a NASCAR driver be tried and convicted by social media?

After a horrible racetrack incident last night that took the life of a young competitor, Tony Stewart will soon discover the answer. Did Stewart intentionally kill Kevin Ward Jr?

Another question: why have major news networks so willingly offered uncensored / unedited clips showing Ward standing on the track and then being hit by an apparently throttle-happy Stewart? Have they found it impossible to compete with YouTube and other sharing sites? Not long ago, they would NOT have made this real-life snuff video available to all.

Taken from CBS News, this is the clip in question for those seeking understanding of what happened. But we recommend taking a pass, it’s horrible:

Even with footage widely available, it’s not possible for any viewer to definitively determine what happened. That’s why we have law enforcement investigators and NASCAR officials.

But few are waiting for any of that, instead, they’ve made up their minds one way or another. Many feel Stewart is guilty of murder and belongs behind bars.

Stewart Tony 2Particularly absurd are long pieces analyzing the incident from elitist publications that aren’t known for a past interest in NASCAR other than to deride its fans as a bunch of hayseed morons from Deep South backwaters.

Take Slate, for instance: who knew they could be pulled away from NPR, poetry jams, foodie trends and independent film festivals long enough to delve into the world of auto racing?

Amazingly, there’s an admitted NASCAR fan serving as deputy editor:

It’s already clear, though, that Tony Stewart’s role in this tragedy will dominate the news in coming days. The Ontario County, New York, sheriff says his office is conducting an investigation, but no criminal charges are pending. The sheriff has asked anyone who shot video of the race to send it in for review.

Your view of Stewart’s culpability will be colored by your opinion of the driver, and perhaps of auto racing more generally. I am a fan of both, though one whose faith in the man and the sport is shaken today. The things I love about Stewart, and the things so many of his fans love about him, are the very traits that at least set up the conditions for Saturday night’s disastrous wreck.

Stewart is a prickly, hot-headed competitor. That turns a lot of people off—he’s one of the more divisive figures in NASCAR. But for his fans, who make YouTube tributes that highlight his irascibility, that attitude is what makes him great. For nearly a decade, NASCAR has been dominated by Jimmie Johnson, an incredible talent who doesn’t get enough credit for his remarkable run of championships. It’s hard to think of an athlete who has dominated a sport as definitively as Johnson—he’s Lance Armstrong without the doping. But Johnson is also a clean-cut, mild-mannered guy, who smoothly rattles off the names of his sponsors when he emerges from his Chevy in Victory Lane. Stewart, by contrast, is more likely to emerge from his car cursing one of NASCAR’s corporate partners—deriding Goodyear, say, for providing substandard tires. As both a team owner and a driver, he’s as beholden to corporate support as every other driver, but he speaks his mind and shoots from the hip, a refreshing throwback to the ornery icons of stock-car yore.

How populist of you! Who knew Slate could relate to the average Joe Sixpack out there?

Though we’re concerned about the rush to judgement, at the same time some of the most insightful reactions have come from the comments section of publications such as the New York Times:

Dean
Stuttgart, Germany

Stewart was obviously trying to scare Ward by speeding up and driving as close as he could without hitting Ward. Problem was, he miscalculated.

 

RJSciolino
Cape Coral, Florida

I am absolutely no fan of Tony Stewart and he lost me as a fan years ago when he had much more of a temper. To be honest, I wish this was clear and its absolutely not. Sorry. The guy is clearly pointing and yelling at the car well before Tony Stewart even enter the turn. Tony Stewart is coming off a turn as this guy is walking back up the track. This headline is misleading at best and a lie at worst. The photo is obviously designed to hype up drama…and all of this it to generate eyeballs on ads in the Times people. The video is far from damning of Stewart. I wish it was, I don’t like the guy! Never did, never will, but for crying out loud look at the video…the idiot kid who lost his life by getting out of his car with cars flying by him is pointing to the another car and another driver five seconds before being hit!

 

Cyberdactyl
Raleigh, NC

I think we can all agree, at a minimum Stewart should be side-lined during the investigation. If his GoPro or other onboard video is “lost” or destroyed, he should be banned from motor sports . . . at a minimum.

If it is determined he kicked out the rear of the car to intimidate or “jostle” Ward, then manslaughter charges should be brought on Stewart. With most all other drivers, there could be a fair amount of ‘benefit of doubt’, but with Stewart’s long history of anger, sometimes extreme, during driving, that doubt is vacant.

Don’t expect this debate to die down anytime soon. But Stewart may be considered tried and convicted long before that point.