Matt Arrington had just beaten Tony Stewart’s driver to win a three-quarter midget race at Montpelier on Saturday night, and Arrington was feeling pretty excited about it.
But while traveling back to Columbus with his family in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Arrington’s mood suddenly made a U-turn.
He began noticing reports about the fatal sprint-car accident in New York in which Stewart was involved and the vitriol that was being spewed at the fellow Columbus native.
“We were on our way home when we started seeing it on the Internet,” Arrington said. “We’re a little disappointed in some of the comments out there, but some people are ignorant of the situation and don’t understand. Obviously, Tony wouldn’t try to hurt someone.”
Video footage of the incident shows Stewart’s sprint car striking Kevin Ward Jr., 20, after Ward had gotten out of his car to confront Stewart about a wreck on the previous lap. Arrington and Jon Steed of Milroy, both of whom have raced midgets against Stewart, felt he was trying to avoid hitting Ward.
“I’ve known Tony for a long time, and I couldn’t see him doing that intentionally,” Steed said.
“Sprint cars don’t turn on a dime. They’re 1,300-pound cars, and you’re going to go straight into the wall if you let off the gas. The kid was wearing a black suit, a black helmet, the track was rubbered down and the car that was in front of (Stewart) almost hit (Ward),” Steed said.
“Tony’s car comes into play the last second in the video,” said Keith Kunz, owner of Keith Kunz Motorsports, for which Stewart drove in 1992-93.
“It almost looked like Tony’s view was blocked by another car in front of him. There’s probably more video out there. I think everybody is jumping to conclusions. It’s definitely a tragedy. It’s unbelievable that these things happen.”
Bartholomew County 4-H Fair Board president Larry Fisher agrees. Stewart grew up racing at the fairgrounds and competed there most recently in July 2013.
“It was certainly a tragic accident on the track,” Fisher said. “I have no idea why the other gentleman got out of his car and walked across the track. (Stewart) probably didn’t have any place else to go.
“I’ve known him since he’s been racing go-karts out here, and he’s always been a conscientious driver,” he said. “They can have their differences out on the race track, and when they get back in, they’re back to being buddies again. I know that down deep, he’s a very sensitive fellow, and if his car wasn’t just right, he’d say ‘I’m not going to race.’”
Stewart originally planned to compete in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, New York, but changed his mind Sunday morning.
Steed said he’s grounded himself from social media because he’s upset with people being one-sided against Stewart for his role in the accident.
“Obviously, there’s an investigation going on for a reason,” Steed said. “I don’t think he intentionally did that. Anybody else would have been driving a sprint car last year and broke his leg, you never would have heard of it. Just because it’s him, they blow it out of proportion.
“I’m sure he feels bad about it,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for the sport for awhile because they’re really going to harp on the safety.”
Kunz said he texted back-and-forth with Stewart before last month’s Brickyard 400. Stewart recently began driving sprint cars again following his August 2013 accident that left him with a broken leg.
“It’s his passion,” Kunz said. “It’s what he loves. That’s what he’s grown up with, and it’s in his blood. It comes back to your roots.
“He’s made his money, and he has every right to do what he loves,” he said. “I don’t think it would hurt his feelings if he was totally out of the NASCAR stuff and got to do (sprint-car racing) the rest of his life. You have to do what makes you happy.”
Kunz said NASCAR racing is more of a job, while racing sprint cars is more enjoyable.
“They all like (sprint cars), and it’s a good thing to do,” Kunz said. “Every racer wants to get there, but once they get there, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The most fun they have is when they get to race sprint cars.”
“You go from being a local racecar driver and having fun to a job,” he said. “With all the corporate stuff you have to do, it takes a lot of the fun out of it.”
Arrington, meanwhile, is keeping Ward’s family and Stewart in his prayers.
“I know it has to be a difficult time for them,” Arrington said. “I can’t imagine what Tony’s going through right now. He has to be heartbroken.”