Tony Stewart is perhaps the most temperamental driver in NASCAR, a trait’s that caused him to be involved in numerous run-ins with others during his career yet also has made him endearing to a legion of NASCAR fans.
On Saturday night, Stewart struck another driver who was on foot during a caution period in a sprint-car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. The driver, 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Nicknamed “Smoke” and often unshaved on race day, Stewart is a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and, earlier, he won an IndyCar series title. He co-owns his NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing.
Stewart also is outspoken, brash and capricious. He can be charming one minute and short-tempered the next.
Over the years he’s frequently clashed with drivers and the media, and he often bristles at reporters’ questions. He’s also publicly criticized NASCAR on several occasions.
At the end of a Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana last year, Stewart — furious at how fellow driver Joey Logano had blocked him — marched down pit road and confronted Logano, and the two got into a swinging match.
Stewart also was angry at Matt Kenseth at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2012, where Stewart stood on pit road and threw his helmet at Kenseth’s car. And after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, Stewart punched a photographer.
Stewart nurtured an “us-against-them” theme that made his followers feel set apart in NASCAR Nation.
He once dedicated a victory to “every one of those fans in the stands that pulls for me every week and take all the bull from everybody else.”
His personality appealed to many fans partly because Stewart was the exception to the notion that too many NASCAR drivers, conscious of protecting their valuable sponsorships, are publicly bland.
Many fans also liked Stewart’s penchant for driving sprint cars — smaller, open-wheel cars — on dirt tracks in small towns throughout the country, just as he did Saturday night.