CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There are hundreds of guidebooks on how to handle grief, how to navigate the emotional suffering that follows a significant loss.
None of those studies offer a clean timetable on when the roller coaster of emotion will come to a stop. So there is no timetable on when Tony Stewart will get back into a race car.
The three-time NASCAR champion has skipped two races since his car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during an Aug. 9 sprint car race. His Stewart-Haas Racing team will not pressure him to return, and wins and trophies and a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship have all been put into perspective in a sport in which the show always goes on.
“The Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now,” said Brett Frood, executive vice president at SHR. “Right now it’s about getting Tony in a better place than he is. When he’s ready to do that, he’ll get back in the car.”
Stewart has been in seclusion since Ward’s death, his whereabouts undisclosed.
He’s been described as heartbroken, devastated for Ward’s family and overcome by the outpouring of behind-the-scenes support he’s received from the NASCAR community. But very few people have spoken to Stewart, who seems to be grieving away from many he’s close to at the track.
Kevin Harvick, his longtime friend and teammate, said Sunday he’s not spoken to Stewart. Nor had Rick Hendrick, one of the most steadying voices in NASCAR and a mentor to many, including Stewart.
Dr. Joseph R. Ferrari, a social psychologist at DePaul University, said Stewart could be acting on the advice of legal counsel, or simply struggling through a tricky emotional process.
“Does he feel guilt or shame? I think that’s what is going on,” Ferrari said. “There’s a difference between shame and guilt and people often confuse this. With guilt, you’ve done some moral offense, you’ve done something to really offend somebody, and you say ‘I’ve done something wrong.’
“Shame-prone people, they will begin to devalue themselves and begin to examine their character, wonder, ‘What a terrible person I am.’ It could be so bad, so demoralizing, that he just isn’t ready to come back.”
Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University, believes Stewart is likely suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But he believed taking time away from racing is helping Stewart heal, and likened Stewart’s situation to that of war medics who seek isolation while struggling with combat.
“Everybody needs to be able to focus inward — if you go back to work, it’s almost like nothing has happened and you are hoping people will forget,” Figley said. “He is taking this seriously. Staying away indicates this is a very serious thing that causes him to reflect to the very core.”
Nobody in the NASCAR community doubts Stewart is suffering. You could walk from one end of the garage to the other listening to stories of Stewart’s generosity and willingness to help in an emergency. He’s gifted cash to a crew member who had an unexpected and urgent need, sent his plane to pick up family members of a stricken employee, scrambled to get someone home in time for the birth of a child.
When someone in NASCAR needs an immediate favor, they go to Stewart, who always says yes.
Stewart won the Nationwide Series race at Daytona in 2013 when a last-lap crash sent Kyle Larson’s car into the fence and the debris shower injured dozens of fans. He had an appropriate and muted reaction in Victory Lane: “The important thing is what’s going on on the frontstretch right now,” he said upon climbing from his car. “This is a dangerous sport. We assume that risk, and it’s hard when the fans get caught up in it.”
Two days later, after finishing 41st in the Daytona 500, he visited all the fans still hospitalized from the crash. Many said Stewart cried with them.
Stewart, like the late Dale Earnhardt, doesn’t talk about his softer side. He never spoke publicly about that hospital visit in Daytona, or the firesuits and helmets he’s given to sprint car racers, or the money he’s doled out to struggling drivers in need of a break.
But those who know him and have seen his compassion talk of that Stewart, not the helmet-throwing grizzly bear who also has a storied history of sparring with reporters.
“Everybody in this garage knows Tony. Tony doesn’t beat his chest and talk about the things he does for people. We know it, we see it, but nobody else does,” said Jeff Burton, who replaced Stewart on Sunday. “Earnhardt was like that. Earnhardt didn’t want anybody to know the things he did for people.
“A lot of people only know Tony because he threw a helmet. They only know Tony because he got mad. I just hate people jump to conclusions.”
Harvick bristled at the way Stewart has been portrayed since Ward’s death, and dismissed it as implausible that any professional race car driver would intentionally run someone over.
“It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over,” Harvick said. “It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.”
The beating he’s taken in the court of public opinion and the feelings it has created could be what’s keeping Stewart away from the race track, and could be what’s preventing him from replying to the many messages he’s received from his peers. Maybe he’ll be back this weekend at Bristol, maybe it won’t be until next week at Atlanta — or maybe he won’t be back at all this year.
Figley, the psychologist, believes Stewart will be back and will be stronger than he was a week ago.
“Guys grieve, too, guys have feelings, too. We aren’t all John Waynes,” Figley said. “When you have these people who really take death seriously, they learn from this instead of people who just go through the ropes or go through the emotions. When someone dies, you wonder if this is an omen, and deal with guilt and sense of responsibility.
“If you have the ability to go through that, you can apply it later and you are far more prepared for the future. But, in order to have a quality of life, they have to first clean up after themselves.”
If and when he does return to the track, he’ll find a community eager to embrace him and help him in all the ways he’s helped others in need.
“Racing is a community,” Burton said. “I don’t know the Ward family at all, but I know they raced and that means that I share something in common with them. The racing community cares about each other.”