If I was auto racer Tony Stewart’s publicist, I would, as I told the Bill Michaels Show, tell him to sit out at least another week.
For those not following any media (the story made national mainstream news, not just sports) Stewart, a well known NASCAR driver, drove a sprint car that struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a dirt track race Saturday night. After an indefensible comment from his team that it would be “business as usual” when asked if Stewart would drive in a NASCAR event in Watkins Glen, N.Y. a matter of hours later, he smartly reversed his decision and sat out of that race.
I suggest he do the same this week. He is scheduled to race at Michigan International Speedway but his status has not been determined. I suggest that at a time when the events of last weekend are fresh in the public’s mind, whether he is culpable or not in the deadly event that took place, he sit at least one more week.
When Stewart does return to auto racing competition, he will have to answer tough, but predictable questions from the media: did he see Ward walking on the dirt track? Did he intend to hurt Ward or even scare him? And these are the least of them.
Stewart is one of the faces of NASCAR and after this horrible event, he is known by thousands more outside of the racing community. He has a reputation to repair, sponsors to soothe and families that grieve as a result of his actions (his, as well as Ward’s). He will do well by all to meet with those who help his team financially and functionally to essentially rest another week, then engage a plan going into his eventual return to the track.
As a publicist, I would advise Stewart to:
• Own reports and reminders that he can be a hothead, but assure that temper played no role the night that his car hit Ward.
• Show compassion. Share grief and regret with which he will live the rest of his life.
• Whatever he does, do not place blame on others, particularly on Ward for getting out of his car and walking onto an active track.
• Assure the media and therefore the public, that he and his team aspire to continue the racing season professionally and will do so with heavy hearts.
• On his own, tone down the attitude. Work to tamp anger issues as not to throw fuel on what is already a marred season personally and professionally.
• Do not answer legal questions. Even after the investigation is complete, direct any legal queries to a lawyer because charges of wrongdoing are still possible.
• Advise all on his team that no statement regarding his racing schedule, legal standing or even the direction he stood while he brushed his teeth be spoken or released unless approved by a designated spokesperson.
Auto racing is competitive, and I get that participants’ emotions can override sensibility. It is imperative for Stewart to lie low these next few weeks, however, if he wants to salvage his role as a professional auto racer, public figure, for NASCAR’s benefit and his sponsors.