COLUMBUS, Ind. – The lunch crowd was thinning at Dairy Queen, and longtime owner Bob Franke looked distressed. He was recalling what he heard someone say on the radio the other day about Tony Stewart — the celebrated native son who grew up here, 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, and for decades has visited Franke's joint for chili dogs and chocolate milkshakes.
Tony Stewart used his car like a weapon, that's what fellow racer Stewart Friesen said in an interview with ESPN.
"That's totally unfair,'' said Franke, who became Stewart's first sponsor when Tony was riding go-karts at the 4-H Fairgrounds as an 8-year-old. "We don't know what was going on in his mind….Only Tony knows.''
Franke is among the legion of Stewart loyalists who say it's unthinkable the three-time NASCAR champion acted with malicious intent in the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., killed in upstate New York Saturday night when the car Stewart was driving hit Ward, who had exited his wrecked car but remained on the track. Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff Philip Povero has said twice there is no evidence at this time that indicates a crime has been committed.
But this week, in the tragedy's aftermath, Franke and others grappled with the saga. Some things they know — positive things about Stewart's character that they say have gone largely unnoticed, such as his giving spirit. They also know their hometown hero has an edge and a history of confrontational behavior. There are some things only Tony knows.
In 2005, Stewart, by then a multimillionaire, moved back into his own childhood home in a middle-class neighborhood two blocks from where he went to high school.
Even after he moved into a 15,000-square foot, custom-built log cabin that sits on 400 acres of wooded land, Stewart still dropped by the Dairy Queen to get his chili dogs and milkshakes.
And last year, Stewart's charitable foundation helped pay for a racing-theme playground in the neighborhood in which Stewart grew up. In a city of 45,429 residents, Stewart is well-known – as a fiery competitor and a do-gooder. The Tony Stewart Foundation, created in 2003, is active with several causes, especially helping injured drivers, chronically ill children and abused animals.
"Tony's done so much for so many different organizations,'' Franke said, adding that Stewart has sponsored a bevy of young drivers. "Tony is a race car driver that cares for people.''
SEEING BOTH SIDES
Down at The Garage Pub & Grill, Stewart's good-guy reputation among locals didn't quiet the debate about Stewart's intent in the fatal incident.
Bartender Mike Schofield said Stewart conducted himself impeccably during a handful of visits to his restaurant over the past two years. He waited patiently for a table, even signed autographs. But Schofield also has seen footage and read accounts of the incidents that have cemented Stewart's reputation as hot-tempered.
Such as the time Tony knocked the headphones off a track official at a midget race, or when he kicked a reporter's tape recorder or shoved a photographer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, leading him to agree to anger-management counseling. He once took a swing at fellow driver Robby Gordon, and he threw a helmet at Matt Kenseth's car during a race.
But of all the controversy he'd faced, there's been nothing like this.
Stewart and Ward were battling for track position when Stewart spun out Ward's car and sent him into the wall. A lap later, Ward had climbed out of his car and was gesturing angrily toward Stewart's car, which struck Ward.
"Once again, Tony was acting like a (jerk),'' Schofield said.
But the bartender found himself engaged in an animated discussion with pub regular Trent Temperly about Stewart's intent. And ultimately the bartender gave way when Temperly, a marketing manager with an environmental company, pointed out the amateur video and eyewitness accounts gathered by investigators amount to scant evidence.
"At the end of the day," Temperly said, "only Tony knows.''
It's a view that has been echoed by Ward's family, from a far different perspective. In an interview with The Syracuse Post-Standard, his father noted that Kevin was dressed in an orange and black suit with fluorescent stripes down the sides that glowed under the lights. There was a caution flag, racers were slowing and the other drivers saw Kevin walking, he said.
"The one person that knows what happened that night is possibly facing 10 years in prison. Is he going to say what he done?" Kevin Ward Sr. said in the interview published on syracuse.com.
Authorities say Stewart, 43, has been cooperative in their investigation. His only public comment was a statement Sunday to express sadness over Ward's death and offer condolences to his family.
On Monday, Stewart-Haas Racing director of communications Mike Arning said there is no timetable on a decision on when Stewart will return to NASCAR's premier circuit. His non-NASCAR schedule is suspended indefinitely.
"The decision to compete in this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Michigan will be Tony's, and he will have as much time as he needs to make that decision," Arning said in an email to USA TODAY Sports. "It is still an emotional time for all involved, Tony included. He is grieving, and grief doesn't have a timetable."
At the end of the day Tuesday, Larry Martz — among Stewart's closest friends — acknowledged he also knew only so much.
He'd sent Stewart a text message after the tragedy but had yet to hear back. And he began to think about their history.
Martz was an early sponsor of Stewart when he was a lanky kid racing midget cars. Stewart lived with Martz and his family for almost a year and a half in nearby Rushville. Over that time, Martz said, they drilled the temperamental young driver with a single refrain: Do the right thing.
"I know my wife was constantly on him about doing the right thing,'' Martz said. "You're just hoping everything is all right.''
Only Tony knows.
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