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Why Tony Stewart's Going to Daytona, Not Dannemora

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Not sure if you're a NASCAR fan, but something unusual happened this weekend.

Tony Stewart is one of the top owner/drivers in the sport, makes $20 million a year or more. In his spare time, he likes to race at the smaller tracks around the country, the kind of places where he got his start. It's a little like Michael Phelps challenging you to swim a couple of laps in your pool at the YMCA.

Stewart is known as an angry guy, a competitor who gets into fistfights with other racers. A guy who holds a grudge. His nickname is "Smoke." So last Saturday night he's racing at a small, poorly lit track in upstate New York. Against a 20-year-old driver, Kevin Ward, Jr., with whom he's had a history - not a long history, but a history nonetheless - of competitive friction. Now it's like Phelps coming out of his lane to grab you and hold you under the water until you say uncle, assuming you can say anything underwater.

Stewart taps Ward's car and puts him into the wall. Hey, that's racing, right? "He crashed me, so I crashed him back." But Ward's pissed. So he does something dumb. He gets out of his car. Wearing a dark suit and a dark helmet. And starts walking toward Stewart's car. On a darkened track.

Here comes Stewart... who fishtails slightly... and catches Ward under his front tire. And kills him. You can join the millions who've already seen this sequence on YouTube. The prosecutor in Ontario County, New York, up in the Finger Lakes region, says there are no criminal charges pending against Stewart.

Stop right there.

If you or I had a beef with somebody, and everyone knew it... there would be a term for that. Premeditated murder. Stewart won't be charged with anything. The local motels and restaurants would be salivating over all the hordes of lawyers, reporters, and NASCAR fans who would overrun the region during a murder trial, but it won't happen. Ontario County doesn't have the budget to host a murder trial of that magnitude. Many times, prosecutors decide to let a suspect go, even if they've got the guy dead to rights. They just don't want the circus to come to town.

O.J. Simpson is a great example. In between committing double murder and false imprisonment (the crime for which he's now a guest of the state in Nevada), O.J. ran a business stealing satellite signal in south Florida. For a certain amount of money, you could get the Heisman Trophy winner and first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season to come to your home and set you up with (illegal) satellite TV. The case against him was rock solid. The FBI had him on two dozen wiretaps. The D.A. declined to prosecute. Who needed the O.J. circus? Who needed that headache?

So NASCAR will wring its hands over Ward's untimely and all-too-public demise. Fans will tweet and post on Facebook. Stewart will make the appropriate apologetic noises. And probably write an eight-figure check to Ward's family to make the whole thing go away.

There are two sets of laws in this country. Actually, there's only one set of laws. It's just that if you're rich and famous enough, those laws don't apply to you.

There's a men's prison in Clinton, New York called Dannemora, about a four-hour drive from the Ontario County track where Stewart killed Ward. Okay, a two-hour drive if you drive like Tony Stewart. But Stewart won't be going to Dannemora, which is where you or I would have gone had we committed the same crime. By next February, we'd be going to Dannemora, convicted felons. Next February, Stewart, his reputation cleansed by PR flacks, will be going to Daytona. With the killing of Kevin Ward, Jr. in his rear view mirror.

Is this a great country, or what?

 
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