WEST ALLIS, Wis — IndyCar driver Ed Carpenter offers a word of caution to those who are jumping to conclusions about Tony Stewart's actions in the horrifying incident that took the life of young sprint car racer Kevin Ward Jr. last week.
Carpenter, who comes from a sprint-car racing background similar to Stewart's, is bothered by speculation surrounding the incident during the past week.
"I feel for the Ward family, and I feel for Tony Stewart, too," Carpenter said, during a break from preparations for the IndyCar Series race at the Milwaukee Mile. "He's going through a hard time and I don't agree with how much he's been vilified. I don't think that part's fair, with how much speculation there's been. It was a tragedy. In my eyes, it was an accident. It should never have happened."
After an on-track incident in a sprint car race in Canandaigua, N.Y., last Saturday night, Ward climbed out of his car and walked out onto the track in an apparent expression of displeasure with Stewart's driving. Stewart's car struck Ward, killing him.
Stewart did not race last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and is sitting out Sunday's Cup race in Michigan. Apparently overcome with grief, it is not clear when Stewart might return to racing.
Carpenter is concerned that mainstream sports fans who don't normally watch racing might be getting a one-sided picture of Stewart's personality, as news clips show highlights of his infamous temper.
"He's done a lot of great things for a lot of people," Carpenter said. "Until I'm presented with some more clear evidence, I have a hard time believing he did anything with malicious intent. It was a bad circumstance. I'm sure he's having a much harder time than probably a lot of people realize. No one can undo what happened. It's a terrible tragedy."
Carpenter raced non-winged sprint cars growing up, but has sat in the winged style of sprint car Stewart was racing last weekend and knows how difficult it is for a driver to see anything that's not directly in front of them.
"You have a hard time seeing something to the right side," Carpenter said. "There's only one person that knows what happened and he's, wisely I think, not saying anything right now. I think it was just a terrible accident."
Other IndyCar drivers have distanced themselves from talking about the incident.
When Team Penske drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Will Power were asked about it during a Saturday news conference at the Milwaukee Mile, Montoya responded on behalf of all three drivers: "We don't have any comment on it."
Montoya was, however, willing to talk about the need for drivers to wait for safety workers to arrive on the scene before getting out of wrecked race cars.
"You don't get out of the car without the safety (team)," Montoya said.
NASCAR introduced a new rule this week requiring drivers to stay in their cars after a crash until safety workers arrive, then proceed directly to an ambulance without walking out on the track. IndyCar already had a similar policy in place.
"I think the reminder is, you never know what can happen," Carpenter said. "It's easy to forget when you're all mad, we're racing very powerful, dangerous machines. They're dangerous when we're sitting in them, and they're dangerous if you're standing outside of it. There have been instances over the course of my lifetime where people have accidentally been run over by Indy cars, whether it's safety personnel trying to turn a car around on a road course, whatever it is. It's dangerous being around."
Continued Carpenter: "They're machines, and machines aren't always controllable. It's a tragedy, you hate to see it happen. I feel like IndyCar's procedures generally protect us from something like that, but for the ultra-violent temper, this is a reminder that the best place to be is in the car."
Even in a sport where dealing with -- and quickly compartmentalizing -- tragedy is sometimes part of the job description, Carpenter said last weekend's incident was particularly jarring.
"I think we all understand there's a risk of getting injured or even dying in a race car, but that's not the way that you think it would happen," Carpenter said. "It's unfortunate, it's a tragedy and I think we're all curious to see how it's going to play out."
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