Questions about how Tony Stewart’s race car came to strike and kill another driver in a sprint car race Saturday include what prompted the other driver to stand on the track — and why Stewart, an elite NASCAR driver, was racing in the lower-level event. Police who are looking into the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr. say no charges are pending.
Stewart was racing at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park track Saturday because he was in the area for Sunday’s NASCAR race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., about an hour away. While Stewart has frequently driven in sprint car races over the years, the sideline events have recently given him trouble.
As The Sporting News reports, Stewart “was involved in another wreck at the same track last July in which 19-year-old Alysha Ruggles suffered a broken back. Stewart took the blame for the accident.”
And just over a year ago, Stewart suffered a badly broken leg after crashing at another sprint car track. That incident at the Southern Iowa Speedway forced the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion to miss the rest of the season.
We’ll remind you that NASCAR’s elite circuit is sponsored by the Sprint telecom company; sprint cars like the one Stewart was racing in Saturday are smaller than stock cars and rely on large wings to help them stay upright as they speed into – and often slide sideways through – a racetrack’s corners.
Saturday’s incident took place on a dirt track where Stewart, 43, was racing alongside Ward, 20. The two drivers had been jockeying for position when Stewart’s car drifted high, sending Ward’s car, on the outside, into the wall between the track’s first two turns. After Ward came to a stop with a flat tire, the incensed driver climbed out and began pointing at Stewart’s car.
Graphic video of the incident shows Ward walking down the track toward oncoming cars, seemingly to confront the approaching Stewart. In the video, as Stewart’s No. 14 car comes into view, its right side strikes Ward, who was wearing a dark crash helmet and firesuit. The collision sent Ward tumbling and left his inert body lying on the track.
The video seems to show that Stewart revved his car’s engine, setting off a debate among some viewers over whether the maneuver was meant to intimidate Ward or to control the car on the track’s slick corners.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said Stewart was “cooperative” and “very upset” after the incident.
NASCAR’s website published an update from Povero Sunday:
“Right now, we’re less than 16 hours into this investigation and it continues to be ongoing. … There are no criminal charges pending at this time and I would follow that up by saying that as we have reviewed the investigation to this point with the Ontario County District Attorney,” Povero said. “I want to make it very clear that as we speak at this time, there is no evidence in hand or no facts that would support a criminal charge or support criminal intent on the part of anybody.”
Povero added that the authorities are interested in reviewing any video recordings or witness accounts of the incident.
Ward will be buried Thursday near his native Port Leyden, N.Y. That information was announced by New York’s Empire Sprint Series, which also passed along word that Ward’s “family wants to see the biggest turn out there ever. They are very proud of Kevin Jr.”
The notice said, “The entire Ward family sends their sincere thanks to all that has send their heartfelt notes, calls, texts, anything that has been sent their way.”
On Sunday, Stewart released this statement about the crash:
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It’s a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I’ve decided not to participate in today’s race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”
As the Two-Way reported Sunday, the initial decision by Tony Stewart’s racing team to go ahead with its plans for him to drive in Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen was widely criticized after his team manager, Greg Zipadelli, called it “business as usual.” That comment came hours after Ward was killed; the morning after the crash, Zipadelli said Steward wouldn’t race and that the team would use a substitute driver.