Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stewart's quantum of solace

Forget the words. The words were just ad copy.

The words were a press agent's script that touched all the requisite bases, up to and including naming every member of the immediate family of the young man whom Tony Stewart killed on a backwoods ring of dirt in upstate New York not quite a month ago. They were the vehicle for Stewart to re-enter his very public life again, and they meant nothing in and of themselves.

What did mean something, what meant everything, was the look and sound of the man who delivered them.

Three weeks and change after he struck young Kevin Ward and killed him, Stewart still looked haunted Friday as he sat up there in front of the media in Atlanta. No press agent could photoshop what was in his eyes and his voice and his manner as he said what you expected him to say, that what had happened would "definitely affect my life forever," and that it was "a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."

And then he got up, went out to the track and strapped the sadness and the pain into a race car. And that is as it should be.

If you're a racer, you race, and so Stewart will race tonight. God alone knows what movies will be playing in his head when the green drops and the muscled-up growl of 43 stock cars winds up and up to full scream. God alone knows how high his heart will leap into his throat the first time he flies into a corner wearing some other speed junkie on his quarter panel, whether his foot will lift infinitesimally or whether he'll keep the hammer down and let the sadness and pain fend for itself for a time.

In any case, and as trite as it sounds, it's exactly what has to happen for him now. At some point he had to get back in the car again, because it's who he is and how he defines himself.

Racing gets inside a man (or woman) like hardly anything else, and that's doubly true of Stewart. If there's an element of never forgetting one's roots that drives his compulsion to buy country dirt tracks and then go racing on them, it's also because he can't help himself. Racing is who he is, his vocation and his avocation. If he can't do it anymore, where does that leave him?

And so he'll be out there again in Atlanta tonight, because there's simply no other way for him to get past such an unspeakable tragedy. The compulsion has become his solace, and maybe it always has been. Maybe it is for everyone.

"I'm sure he hasn't even worked through it yet," his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick said the other day. "But one step is to get back to something that feels normal again."

However abnormal that might seem to the rest of us.


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