Craig Murto: Abreu wins, Stewart confronts fan

CRAIG MURTO

Rico Abreu won his second straight Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals at Tulsa, Oklahoma, grabbing the lead and the win Saturday night from Bryan Clauson in the final 10 laps of the 30th annual running of the event.

Last year Abreu put himself on the map with his win, and has a full-time NASCAR Truck ride waiting for him in 2016. And though the 23-year-old was only one of about 300 drivers who attempted to qualify for the race before a sold-out crowd at the Tulsa Expo Center, it was an incident the day before the feature that commanded the world’s attention.

Three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart was at the Chili Bowl, helping with track preparation. Winner of the race in 2002 and ’07, Stewart loves open-wheel dirt racing and has said he may compete in the Midget event again once he retires from NASCAR after the 2016 season.

Of course, not every fan likes Tony Stewart. And on Friday a fan whom police publicly stated was under the influence of alcohol heckled Stewart every time he walked by the general admission grandstand. Eventually the fan flipped Stewart off and yelled at him one too many times, and Stewart headed up the stands to confront him as the crowd chanted, “Tony! Tony! Tony!” and recorded the incident on their cell phones. The videos went viral on social media.

Stewart appears to lightly touch the fan’s shoulders, at which point the fan immediately grabs Stewart’s hands and appears to push him back. Words are exchanged that can’t be understood due to crowd noise, and the fan shoves Stewart. At this point another man, who some identify as track security, motions toward the fan, who then falls backward in his seat. Stewart then leans over and has a few more words with the fan. The video ends before the confrontation is resolved.

Tulsa police escorted the fan from the track, and let him know he could come back to see Saturday’s feature if he behaved himself. Police cite the fan as the instigator. Stewart told police he had no ill will toward the fan and didn’t ask for any further action to be taken.

It did, however, prompt a police investigation because the fan was identified as off-duty Tulsa County Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Kyle Hess.

With all the bad publicity police officers around the country face these days, it doesn’t help when a drunk off-duty deputy can’t control himself in public at a racetrack. I hope there is some punishment involved for Hess; officers are held to a higher standard, even when off duty. It doesn’t look good that his drunken heckling got him escorted off the premises.

But as much as Hess may have deserved to be escorted off the premises, Tony Stewart really didn’t have to confront him.

Stewart faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Kevin Ward Jr., the Sprint Car driver who was struck and killed by Stewart in 2014 at Canandaigua (New York) Motorsports Park. Ward was killed that August when he got out of his car under caution during a race to confront Stewart after an incident, but was struck by Stewart’s car as he walked down the track. Stewart was cleared by a grand jury of criminal wrongdoing and has maintained the incident was an accident. A toxicology report revealed that Ward had smoked marijuana within hours of the incident. Ward’s parents claim that Ward — who never should have gotten out of his car — was struck because Stewart tried to intimidate him. Stewart maintains that he never saw Ward on the track until moments before he was struck.

With the lawsuit pending, wouldn’t it have been better for Tony Stewart to simply send security into the stands to deal with the fan? Does a three-time Cup champion really have to lower himself to the level of a drunk who flipped him off and yelled at him? There’s nothing like giving Ward’s parents’ attorneys more fodder to demonstrate in court that there’s an anger issue.

Stewart is known for his temper. In January 2011 he was questioned by police in Sydney, Australia, following an incident at a racetrack. In October 2014 NASCAR fined him $25,000 for ramming another car on pit road following a race.

Just as off-duty police officers shouldn’t be getting drunk in public and heckling athletes from the stands, Tony Stewart — or any race driver, for that matter — shouldn’t confront those hecklers. Sometimes it’s best to let it go.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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