Kevin Ward Jr. died on Saturday night when he came in contact with Tony Stewart's vehicle during a Sprint car race at the Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. Until the late hours of Saturday night, I had no idea who Kevin Ward Jr. was, and most likely, neither did you.
Ward, a 20-year-old kid, is about to become the jumping-off point for an entire nation to rant about motorsports in general and Stewart in particular. Before that happens, before we go barreling down the road into a world of ill-informed speculation and sweeping judgments and thundering ignorance, take a moment to think about this kid.
Look at his picture. Given his age, it was obviously taken in the last couple years, and yet that face wouldn't look out of place in a Civil War photograph, defiant and a touch surly and still nowhere near old enough to be suffering the cold realities of the adult world.
Read his bio, cordially entitled "Getting to Know Kevin Ward Jr." It's written in a slightly stilted style, like a Sunday suit that doesn't fit quite right, and it's dated and yet still in a heartbreaking present tense: "Kevin Ward Jr is just 17 years old and he is the pilot of the Rider Racing Engines Powered #13 360 Sprint Car. He has had racing in his blood for all 17 years of his young life, and has raced for the last 13 of those years." It goes on from there, more than 400 words of minute detail about races and tracks and 14th-place finishes, and you know whoever wrote this loved, absolutely loved, the fact that Kevin Ward Jr. was living the life of a racer.
Think about where he came from. Ward was from Lyons Falls, N.Y., a town whose entire population could all comfortably shop at the same time in a single Wal-Mart. Growing up in small towns, you've got two choices: you decide you're going to settle in where you are, or you race as hard and fast as you can to achieve escape velocity. And you don't have long to make the choice.
Consider how fast he had to grow up. This is a kid who started racing go-karts when he was only four years old, a kid who had to hustle on and off the track. Racing isn't like football or basketball, where you join a school and a summer program with the infrastructure already in place. In racing, you've got to carve your own path, and you've got to get others to buy into your dream right from the start. Ward and his family hustled enough to get sponsors that believed in the kid, that were willing to put up money for him to race against drivers two and three times his age.
And now, this. The kid's gone. Maybe one day years from now he'd have reached NASCAR's highest levels; maybe he'd just be sitting around the local garage, telling the same story over and over about the time he raced Tony Stewart. He should have gotten the chance to go as far as his talent and drive would have taken him. He didn't get it. This is beyond unfair.
So here's what racing can give him, what Kevin Ward Jr. deserves: to be remembered. To be known as more than just a name in a much more famous driver's story. To be an inspiration to some other four-year-old kid who's got racing in his blood right now.
After Saturday night, Tony Stewart's future as a driver is in serious question. But no matter whether Stewart ever drives again, he's not the most important part of this story. Kevin Ward Jr. is, and always will be.