I have a power.
Not a Superman punching a villain through three skyscrapers kind of power or Alex Mack turning into a silver puddle power.
But I do have a power.
It just took Tony Stewart, a brief lapse in judgment and my first experience with hate mail to fully realize it.
The morning of August 10, 2014 won’t be one I forget anytime soon. Hopefully none of us do. It was around 10 a.m. and I rolled over to look at my phone.
My dad had sent me text message at 9:11 a.m. asking, “Are you aware of [the] Tony Stewart story?”
On the same screen was an alert from ESPN, stating that NASCAR star Tony Stewart, while driving, had hit and killed another person who was on foot.
In my groggy state and due to ESPN’s lack of context, I came to the conclusion that Stewart had accidentally hit someone while driving on the street in his civilian car.
But that’s not what happened. Exactly a month later, we still don’t know what occurred on that night at a New York dirt track.
This all happened during my first weekend living in Charlotte, North Carolina, the center of the NASCAR world. Its headquarters, a majority of its teams, Charlotte Motor Speedway and even the NASCAR Hall of Fame, are located here.
It’s also the home base of America’s oldest sports publication, Sporting News, one of the few national news organizations that covers NASCAR regularly and where I am working as an editorial intern through January.
Combine this and my love of NASCAR, which dates back to my dad taking me to the inaugural Winston Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 (won by Jeff Burton), and I might as well be at Disney World 24/7.
But you also have the confluence of ingredients that created the scenario where I made a blunder. The blunder that made me finally realize what power I have.
In the immediate days following Stewart striking and killing 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., I had no hand in Sporting News’ coverage.
It was properly in the hands of reporter Bob Pockrass and editor Jeff Owens, two men with decades of experience in journalism and the sport.
I’m just a fresh-faced intern who’s covered exactly one weekend of NASCAR racing as a credentialed member of the media.
Stewart is a driver with a reputation for being a hot head on the track and in the garage area.
So it made sense when I was asked to put together a simple timeline of every known incident where Stewart flew off the handle.
I took a day and night to put together an article that was explicitly framed as outlining each time Stewart “retaliated” in some form. This included him reaching into Kenny Irwin’s moving car in 1999, his shoving match with Robby Gordon a few years later, his 2013 altercation with Joey Logano and even his punching of a race official in Australia.
Then came my blunder.
At the end of the article I listed the event of August 9, 2014. The night Kevin Ward Jr. died.
In the moment it made sense to include, especially since it mirrored the Stewart-Irwin incident in 1999. I submitted it and soon it was published.
Then, 24 hours later, I looked at my email. I’ve been in journalism in some form for a total of seven years now, dating back to my two years as the sports reporter for my high school television news broadcast.
In that time, I had never received anything resembling hate mail.
But there it was the next morning, waiting. Some had “Tony Stewart” subject lines and others were left blank.
In one I was told that “Hell awaits.” Another was from a woman whose writing style was all caps.
On Twitter I was told I was worse than Nancy Grace. I was informed via hashtag to #GoBacktoSchool and that I and Sporting News were hacks.
Fans of NASCAR and Stewart were upset, hurt and confused. For a week the sport and driver they supported had been attacked and criticized from all angles. Many of those came from voices and outlets who had no previous experience covering, let alone pontificating, on auto racing or the character of Stewart.
There’s undoubtedly some deep-seeded resentment among auto racing fans toward how they’re perceived by outsiders to the racing community
And here was my timeline, another outlet seemingly piling on to the situation.
Then I received this Tweet:
— Art.Zimer (@arszmr) August 16, 2014
Good point. No telling how many read the timeline thinking I believed Stewart struck Ward on purpose.
The article was amended the next day. But the emails kept coming.
But then one came that was different from the rest. The subject line read “So what” and arrived in my mailbox from “Mark” at 12:41 A.M. on Aug. 17. Here’s what Mark sent, verbatim:
“What is this article about Stewarts history supposed to do besides stir people up and bring false messages to people who do not understand the sport. Write an article about the caring Stewart and all the generous things he has done. This is a time when compassionate and care should be expressed. Not hidden innuendoes. How awful this tragic accident was. If it were any other driver you guys would not be writing anything. Is is just an assignment to get people to read it.
Mark then linked to Robin Miller’s column on the incident, saying it “brought some much needed relief.” Mark then concluded:
I wish I could write to all the writers that have written such slanted and implied, and even outright accusations about someone they don’t even know and a sport that they are not familiar with.
Thank you for making it possible to be able to contact you this way.
Most writers and news agencies make it hard to comment on what they say.
I appreciated Mark’s diplomatic way of venting when others were on full blast. Mark wasn’t attacking to defend, but he still got his feelings across.
I decided to respond. I thanked him for sharing his thoughts about the article and that I understood what he was going through. I told him about the correction that was made and how Sporting News had written about the charitable acts of Stewart as well as having to chronicle all the other factors surrounding the story.
I agreed with him that there had been people jumping to conclusions and making accusations with no background to do so outside of having viewed one or two videos of the incident.
I also shared with him by background with the sport, including that first race at Texas in 1997 and the fact I received my first autograph from Stewart at a Home Depot in 2000.
This has been a dark week for the sport and it saddens me when most of the world outside of auto racing only cares about it when something like Kevin Ward Jr., the cheating scandal at Richmond, the Kyle Larson wreck at Daytona last year or the death of Dale Sr happens.I’m pursuing a career in auto racing journalism because I want to tell the stories no one hears about. I want to change the misconceptions many have about the sport (only rednecks watch, it’s just going in circles, etc.). I wrote a piece for SN this week about first time winners in NASCAR, but it’s understandably been over shadowed by Stewart and Ward. The timeline wasn’t my best work in my young career, but I do stand by it in it’s current form.Thank you again for sharing your feelings on the matter. You did it in much more diplomatic manner than others I have received and I appreciate it. I hope you will revisit Sporting News in the future for NASCAR coverage, especially when we’ve been able to move on, as much as we can, from the turbulent times the sport is currently in.
I hit send and went about my day at work, wondering if I’d even get a reply from Mark, someone I’d never met and knew nothing about. He was clearly taking the Stewart-Ward situation hard. I just hoped it came off the right way. But pretty soon, Mark did reply and in an even softer way.
Thank you for reading my note and responding in such a professional manner. I do not know what it us like to be a journalist though I love to write and communicate on paper.
It must be hard sometimes to have to write articles that may rub people the wrong way.
I hadn’t really thought about rubbing anyone the wrong way. I just researched the events and put them into chronological order. It was all factually correct until I mistakenly included the Ward incident.
It has been a hard week for me and my wife says I need to back away for a while. My heart aches for what Tony must be going through and hope he doesn’t see all the ugly things that people are saying. Hopefully he and everyone else will find a way to move on, in spite of all the raging emotions that will continue to rise and fall. Again thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I hope you find success in your career and that it is fulfilling as well.
I know I am not the only one who feels this way but I felt like I was surrounded by so much injustice and I had no voice to do anything about it.
Then came the kicker. The sentence where Mark told me something I, a 23-year-old intern who hopes do something with a life in journalism, really needed to hear before I got in too deep.
I hope you value the privilege and the power you have to be able to write in a public forum and that you continue to do so with integrity and passion.
Remember when I said I had a power? That nailed that point home.
I don’t think I take my job as a journalist for granted and I definitely haven’t become jaded. However, these words were a welcome reminder.
I’m not writing for a 14,000 student campus or for an obscure academic website. Everything I write now as a credentialed member of the media is being read, digested and analyzed by people across the country and around the world.
Journalism isn’t just a tool for exposing the secrets of the world to the public or for letting your audience know what your favorite athlete thinks about this weekend’s opponent.
At its best, journalism is an effective tool for helping people better understand the world and complex stories, including the Tony Stewart saga.
Mark’s word also reinforced a belief I’ve had for a while: sometimes the best messenger is a complete stranger.
It took me a month to write this because it’s the most challenging topic I’ve ever been associated with and I wanted to get it right, especially by Mark.