The Hit: Tony Stewart’s fatal collision with Kevin Ward Jr still lingers

The Hit: Tony Stewart’s fatal collision with Kevin Ward Jr still lingers

One evening, eight years ago this month, a 20-year-old stock car driver named Kevin Ward Jr turned up to a mud-packed oval circuit in upstate New York for a minor-league race. About halfway through, he was bumped by a rival car and sent spiraling into a barrier. Seeing red, Ward exited his vehicle and charged down the banked circuit to vent his frustration. Several cars tacked down to the inside-most line to avoid him. But when the car that had ended Ward’s race approached, it veered up toward the young driver, and flung him 25 feet across the track to his death. Spectators at Canandaigua Motorsports Park gasped. They hadn’t just witnessed the horror of a driver killed in competition. They saw Ward, a local hero and ascendent talent, run over by Nascar megastar Tony Stewart.

A three-time Cup champion, Stewart, then 43, was moonlighting in the race ahead of a Nascar road race at Watkins Glen. Immediately after Ward’s death, officially ruled an “accident,” public sympathy swamped Stewart. Ward, on the other hand, was demonized as a hothead – and shortly afterwards a drug user when a post-mortem toxicology report didn’t just find THC in Ward’s system, but enough to impair his judgment according to Ontario county district attorney Michael Tantillo. Something about that picture always seemed off. Now a recent documentary shows just how far off, down to the pixel.

The Hit premiered at this year’s DC Independent Film Forum. And the sports world-rocking accident it painstakingly revisits wasn’t an obvious project for writer-director Chris Halsne. An award-winning investigative reporter and broadcaster-in-residence at American University, Halsne doesn’t cover motorsport or follow it for fun. But then he was tipped off about a presentation on the accident that would be given at a conference for the National Academy of Forensic Engineers. “[I thought], wow, that’s a visual, interesting, new piece of science,” he told the Guardian.

Until then, the death of Ward was a story told through grainy cell phone and trackside video that left plenty of room for reasonable doubt as to whether Stewart was truly at fault. The analysis in Denver narrowed that knowledge gap considerably. Using a 3D animation sourced from more than a billion data points the analysis makes clear that Stewart accelerated and fishtailed his car in the direction of a defenseless man. The only thing it couldn’t say for certain is whether Stewart did this on purpose (He has never been charged with a crime over Ward’s death.)

The analysis, which is freshly presented in The Hit, is the biggest bombshell in the 80-minute documentary. And it comes well after Halsne and his team bombard viewers with multiple replays of the crash, and in HD-caliber quality that was not available at the time of Ward’s death. In between, The Hit takes stock of the two drivers who came together on that fateful night in Canandaigua – one, a throwback on the downslope now racing for the pure fun of it; the other, a dirt track lifer who couldn’t have been more satisfied with his minor-league lot. (Not surprisingly, Halsne and his team had vastly more access to Ward’s family than to Stewart, who declined to participate in the film.) And the film thoroughly explores the world of sprint cars – which aren’t just dynamically different from tarmac-based open-wheel machines, but also a subculture where pros mix it up with weekend warriors and provide rural communities like Canandaigua reliable weekend entertainment.

But where The Hit really hits its stride is in its review of the accident investigation. Not least, it reveals local authorities stumbling over the accident scene and the mechanics of sprint cars, which are engineered to turn left and are guided as much by the throttle as by steering wheel. It exposes the VIP treatment that was extended to Stewart – who flew out of town under cover of darkness without having to part with any in-car recording equipment following Ward’s death. His police interview barely takes up half a page. As to the question of Stewart’s intent, The Hit scoops never-before-seen deposition footage of Stewart – the only time on record in which he explains his side of the accident. He says he was actually trying to speed downtrack, away from Ward, when the car fishtailed. But that account clashes with depositions from witnesses, including two nearby racers who said they saw him turn up the track toward Ward – behavior that jibes with a tempestuous and confrontational personality who responds to the nickname “Smoke.”

“We said from day one it looked like he moved up the track and obviously hit the throttle,” Kevin Ward Sr tells Halsne. “I know them cars do what they do when you hit the throttle. Why did he hit the throttle?”

Still: In the aftermath of the accident, no piece of evidence would prove quite as damning in the court of public opinion as the contention that Ward was “high on marijuana” at the time of his death. That, too, The Hit finds was overblown – interviewing a medical toxicologist who points out that THC levels often become substantially elevated or concentrated after death. The Ontario county coroner’s office, which cited Ward’s official cause of death as “massive blunt trauma,” drew Ward’s blood samples 39 hours after he died. “I knew we had to dig into his use of THC,” Halsne says. “Of course the family thinks it’s BS. But the truth is it was in his system. It’s just scientifically unlikely that he was as impaired as the district attorney so clearly said in his press conference.”

Stewart wasn’t subject to a field sobriety test at all. In the end Stewart took three weeks off from work before returning to his Nascar Cup racing duties. And although he’d only grab the checkered flag once more before retiring from driving following the 2016 season (leaving him with 49 career wins), the bigger victory for Stewart was an Ontario county grand jury declining to indict him on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

While Stewart has carried on as a Nascar team owner, TV analyst and motorsport entrepreneur, Ward’s survivors have struggled to turn the page. The Hit gives his close friends in the racing community time and space to reckon with their still-raw feelings. When Ward’s parents aren’t guiding cameras around their son’s untouched room for the documentary, they vent about how Stewart – despite his public acknowledgements of their family – never reached out on the night of the accident, never visited them when Ward was in hospital or otherwise made direct contact. Mind you, this is after their civil suit against Stewart was settled out of court in 2018 in confidence, just weeks before a trial was scheduled to begin.

If there’s a knock against The Hit, it’s that the masses can’t watch it. Halsne had been in conversation with a few interested parties during The Hit’s film festival runs in DC and LA, but nothing has materialized as yet. That’s a shame. The Hit is a film that should be as accessible as the raft of videos of Ward’s death. Halsne’s documentary doesn’t just shine; it illuminates a tragedy to the point where it can finally be seen clearly.

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