Tony Stewart has addressed the media in full for the first time since the August 9 accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr., and since Stewart was cleared by a Grand Jury of all legal charges last week.
While Stewart had had a written statement in the immediate aftermath, a brief response upon his return to the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway and a several-part interview with the Associated Press last week, he had not fully addressed the media in a news conference until Monday morning.
Questions related to the accident itself, however, were off limits. Stewart-Haas Racing PR chief Mike Arning said the statements from Michael Tantillo, the Ontario County (N.Y.) District Attorney, last week outlined the facts of the incident itself.
Still, there were some elements revealed from this press conference.
Stewart confirmed he had seen the video of the accident.
He also said he would be available to speak to Kevin Ward Jr.’s family if they want to speak with him; however, he said he would not need to speak to them for closure.
Asked if he could do anything different, Stewart said simply, “I’d have stayed at Watkins Glen that night. I do this stuff to have a good time. That’s all I wanted to do that night.
“I just wanted to go run my sprint car for a night. It didn’t end up being fun that night.”
Stewart dismissed retirement talk, when asked if that was an option. While he reiterated what he told the AP in terms of his not racing sprint cars for a while, he said he can’t quit what he’s done his whole life, for 36+ years.
“Right now I couldn’t give you a small idea of when I’ll get back in. I won’t be in for a while,” Stewart said of his sprint car driving presence.
“There was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me,” he said.
Stewart spoke of his struggles in managing his Sprint Cup race team, Stewart-Haas Racing, and all his sprint car products, be it race teams or Eldora Speedway.
“I’ve let my team down from that standpoint. I’ve been a bit of a cheerleader, but that’s all I’ve been the last seven weeks,” he said of SHR.
On the dirt track side: “I’ve watched and paid attention, but I haven’t been engaged in it.. Watched online at Eldora, listened online. But I haven’t been engaged with the teams or drivers.”
Stewart said sponsors have been supportive throughout the process; communication with Johnny Morris (Bass Pro Shops) and Mobil 1 has been positive.
Stewart’s last seven weeks, especially at the outset, had mainly been in seclusion. He said days were going by slower, and he did not want to do much of anything.
“The first three days, I didn’t get out of bed, didn’t care if I took a shower,” he said. “I had to force myself to get food. First 3-4 days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Finally started moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier. Didn’t have any desire to do anything. You asked yourself ‘Why, why did this happen.’
“It’s been awkward because I know what a typical day was like for me, and what I thought about. You get in a pattern. This was something that changed that pattern. It won’t get back to normal, but it will get better.”
Still, the overriding message Stewart had Monday was of the level of support he has received from the NASCAR garage, community and fans, in what has been a trying and difficult seven weeks.
“Initially, I was hurt by some of the things I read,” Stewart said. “But it’s people who don’t know me, and never spent time with me. They ran with it based on what was presented or if they were people who didn’t like me to begin with. I really stopped wasting my time worrying about it. That’s all that matters.”
Stewart also thanked drivers for reaching out and the fans for welcoming him back when he was introduced ahead of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series return at Atlanta.
“Honestly I thought I had walked out in Dale Jr.’s spot,” he joked. “But it was very overwhelming. I’m glad I had sunglasses on. It was the one of the most flattering, humbling parts of my career to have that kind of reception.”