HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — For Tony Stewart, there was no greater joy than escaping his everyday life and climbing behind the wheel of a sprint car.
He loves the feel, the way they drive, the purity he finds at tiny dirt tracks across the country.
When he broke his leg racing his sprint car a year ago, an injury that sidelined him for six months, he was almost defiant in his desire to never give up his hobby. But after the death of Kevin Ward Jr., who was killed when Stewart’s car struck him as Ward walked on an upstate New York dirt track Aug. 9, Stewart may never get back in a sprint car.
“I would say it’s going to be a long time before you ever see me in a sprint car again, if ever. I don’t have any desire at this moment to get back in a car,” Stewart said in his first interview since a grand jury decided he would not be charged in Ward’s death. “If I had the option to go right now to a race, I wouldn’t. I don’t even know when I’ll go to a sprint car race again to watch. I can promise you it’s going to be a long time before you ever see me back in one.”
Sitting on his couch Thursday night in his North Carolina home, a sprint car race in Arkansas was on mute on his television. Stewart’s eyes were constantly drawn to the action.
He can’t help himself. It’s where he came from, how he made his name and the one form of racing he simply couldn’t walk away from, even as he was criticized for jeopardizing his NASCAR career by messing around in the dirt.
He just couldn’t give it up. Not when he became a multi-millionaire and one of NASCAR’s biggest names, not after good friend Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car race last year and not after his own injury led to three surgeries and a month in bed, forcing him to miss NASCAR races for the first time in his career.
Stewart is addicted to the simplicity of sprint car racing, to racing at venues across the country where the crowd is starving for gimmick-free racing. He didn’t care that a field full of drivers of varying ages and talent was racing for purses that rarely reach $5,000.
He made it his goal to give back to the sprint car community at every turn, especially after his accident. He improved the part that broke and caused his broken leg, and he spent $110,000 on firesuits and helmets for nearly 50 drivers who needed updated safety equipment.
Stewart has been grappling with the decision to leave sprint racing since his 2013 crash at an Iowa dirt track. He’d only returned to sprint car racing a month before Ward’s death.
“It’s hurt for 16 months to sit and be scrutinized for it,” said Stewart, “and to try to give back to a sport that you love, and every time you turn around, you’ve got to constantly defend yourself for doing something and trying to support something that you believe in and care about.”
Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion at his Indiana home after Ward’s death and describes those weeks as the darkest of his life.
On the advice of legal counsel, Stewart would not describe what he remembers about the crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park but insisted what happened “was 100 percent an accident.”
Ward and Stewart had been racing for position when Ward crashed, exited his vehicle and walked down the track to confront Stewart. A toxicology report found Ward had marijuana in his system.
Ward’s family has said “the matter is not at rest,” and Stewart may face a civil lawsuit. Stewart wants to discuss the accident and said not being able to talk about what happened “keeps me from moving forward. It just stays there, hanging over my head.
“It’s just been a really tough six weeks.”