There was only one right thing for auto racer Tony Stewart to do after his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a dirt track race Saturday night. That was to sit out of his scheduled NASCAR race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. the following day.
It almost didn’t happen, and because of a comment made by his management team that suggested Sunday would be “business as usual,” poor judgement and publicity clouded what was already a disastrous weekend for racing communities, not to mention Ward, Stewart, their teams and their families.
I’m not privy to who made the initial race decision Sunday, but I can say flat out that it was wrong to say anything regarding a race on the calendar whether it was hours or a month later. There were facts to sort and emotions to check. Neither could be assessed in such short time.
To be sure that I was thinking beyond a public relations sense, I consulted a sports agent about what he would advise a client in that situation, and his answers reflect what I would have as a publicist. First and foremost, say nothing until facts are gathered. That goes for the driver’s team, which may or may not have consulted with Stewart prior to its statement.
Auto racing at any level is physically risky. That alone suggests that every team should have a crisis communications plan in place. It should be discussed and frequently reviewed among all team members so that should disaster strike, composed reaction is displayed to the public and words don’t come back to haunt.
In this, a most unusual and unfortunate case, I further found disturbing that Stewart’s website remained unchanged in the hours and days after the tragedy. While he released a statement that spoke of his regret, it would have been appropriate and respectful for him to display a one-sentence statement on the home page and nothing else but the shaded background that already exists on the site. Instead, it was, in fact, “business as usual” on his proverbial storefront.
Not only is Stewart’s reputation at stake, but so is his legal standing as an investigation continues, and his relationship with sponsors are undoubtedly under review.
Auto racing owns a minority segment of the overall sports fan base. In the Stewart-Ward tragedy, an entire nation watched video, read statements and it continues to monitor a driver’s response. Let’s hope that level-heads and compassion prevails as this story plays out.