An O’Neillian NASCAR Tragedy

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Sports Saturday

I don’t follow NASCAR racing in the least so you know that something bad had to happen for people like me to start reading about the sport. But when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart accidentally killed a young driver who had gotten out of his car to yell at him, I took notice.

Apparently Stewart is a love-him-or-hate-him type of driver, one who is “old school” and loves to push the limits. He also appreciates his racing roots and sometimes returns to the dirt tracks of his youth to race on, as he did the night of Kevin Ward’s death. An aggressive driver who likes to bump other cars when they get in his way, Stewart has also been known, when he himself is bumped out of contention, to get out of his car and yell at the offender. Ward was acting like Stewart when he got out of his own wrecked car to yell at the veteran. No one is sure what happens next but it sounds to me like Stewart wanted to scare Ward and miscalculated, perhaps because he was riding on a dirt rather than an asphalt track. As he buzzed him, his back fishtailed, dragging Ward under and killing him.

The episode sounds like one of those generational tragedies that Eugene O’Neill writes, say Desire under the Elms. In that play there is a grizzled old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, who is hard as the rocks in his New England fields as he raises three sons. He even chooses to return to his old farm—like Stewart returning to the dirt tracks of his youth—rather than opting for easier farming out west. None of his sons are as tough as he is. At one point, after momentarily acknowledging weakness, he boasts of his toughness:

I’m gittin’ old–ripe on the bough. (then with a sudden forced reassurance) Not but what I hain’t a hard nut t’ crack even yet–an’ fur many a year t’ come! By the Etarnal, I kin break most o’ the young fellers’s backs at any kind o’ work any day o’ the year.

His youngest son, Eben, is tough as well, however. When Cabot describes him as soft, the other brothers disagree:

Cabot–(with a contemptuous sneer) Ye needn’t heed Eben. Eben’s a dumb fool–like his Maw–soft an’ simple!

Simeon–(with his sardonic burst of laughter) Ha! Eben’s a chip o’ yew–spit ‘n’ image–hard ‘n’ bitter’s a hickory tree! Dog’ll eat dog. He’ll eat ye yet, old man!

Eventually Eben encroaches on his father’s prerogatives, impregnating his young wife. She kills their son when she realizes that he is getting in the way of their love (Eben fears the child will inherit the farm). She repents and turns herself in and then Eben, taking responsibility for putting the idea in her head, does so as well. In this world, those who are soft go under. Unfortunately in the NASCAR tragedy, standing up to the old man and getting crushed were not metaphorical.

How will Stewart respond? He has disappeared from view–gone into hiding, as one newspaper headline puts it–as the authorities consider whether to bring charges. In the play, Cabot has a few moments of self doubt but then embraces the hardness that has brought him nothing but loneliness and forges on as before. We’ll see if the veteran driver does the same.

O’Neill’s play offers him an alternative, however. Eben could throw off Abby since he’s not technically responsible and continue to chase the farm. However, by choosing to align with her, even though it will mean going to jail, means that he has found a higher value. The stage directions even let us know that he gets a look of “grudging respect” from his father when he does so. Stewart could learn something profound from the tragedy. Will he soften any or remain rock hard?

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  • Barbarabweaver

    I’ve watched Tony Stewart race for more than 10 years (my husband is a big racing fan) and I don’t think he, or any driver would deliberately “buzz” a driver outside their car. It’s unthinkable. For a sports analogy, it’s like a major league pitcher throwing at the head of someone not wearing a batting helmet. These particular cars are like mid- engine sports cars, you steer, in part, by acceleration, sliding on wet dirt. Also, Stewart was badly injured last year (compound leg fracture) driving one of these cars, he knows as much as anyone what can go wrong. Many of the people writing or commenting about this were particularly I’ll-informed about NASCAR in general and Sprint cars in particular. No one I’ve read who is knowledgable about NASCAR believes Stewart was trying to scare Kevin Ward and those who know Stewart say that he is grieving rather than hiding. Racing is far safer than it was before Dale Earnhardt was killed racing at Daytona, but it is still a dangerous pursuit. This was a terrible tragedy but, I believe, and accidental one. So a comparison with deliberate infanticide is over the top, I think.

  • Robin

    I’ll defer to your superior knowledge of Tony Stewart, Barbara. The question, as I understand it, is whether Stewart accelerated when he saw Ward on the track. Some people argue that he should have been able to see him, others the opposite–but that if he saw him, he should have done more to avoid him. That’s what led me to imagine he just wanted to scare him. But I freely admit that I’m just speculating.

    If the speculation has any truth in it, however, then I’m not accusing Cabot of Abby’s infanticide but rather of his putting down his upstart son when he dares to confront his dominating father. I was imagining an Oedipal relationship, a veteran-rookie relationship, between Stewart and Ward. Mythical archetypes have deep explanatory power. Having said that, however, if the myth is misapplied, then the wrong lessons are learned.

  • Barbarabweaver

    I understand the Oedipal reference but thought the infanticide muddied the waters a bit. I only saw the video once, since I found it so disturbing. But when cars are under caution, they are closely bunched together and their ability to maneuver and to see ahead is limited. Also, several drivers have commented that it was unclear to them what happened. A friend of Kevin Ward’s said he didn’t see any intent to get close by Stewart, just “steering by acceleration”. There was an especially insightful piece on ESPN.com where a columnist who has worked in the pits talked about taking his young daughter to a race and visiting the an empty pit during a face and being appalled by how dangerous it was. He got her out quickly but talks about how you forget the danger. Familiarity breeding contempt or, at least, disregard. Like working high iron. A friend of my husband who did that said after 5 stories it doesn’t matter, a slip and you die. (This was before safety gear which is now standard as I understand it.) I only wish Kevin Ward had completely imitated Stewart and thrown his helmet at him! I think we talk about Oedipus issues without fully appreciating that the “resolution” can involve fatalities.

  • Robin Bates

    This is very useful, Barbara. If Stewart had no intent to send a message to Ward and the death was only the result of what Thomas Hardy calls “crass casualty,” then there’s no O’Neillian or Oedipal or any other kind of drama. Life, unlike literature, often fails to provide all the facts that one needs.

  • Robin

    This is very useful, Barbara. If Stewart had no intent to send a message to Ward and the death was only the result of what Thomas Hardy calls “crass casualty,” then there’s no O’Neillian or Oedipal or any other kind of drama. Life, unlike literature, often fails to provide all the facts that one needs.


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