It’s the talk of the racing world – and it’s both heartbreaking and controversial. An on-track confrontation leaves a promising young racer dead and a veteran driver facing blame.
During a low-stakes race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York Saturday night, the car driven by three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart appeared to have clipped that of fellow racer Kevin Ward, Jr., a 20-year old up-and-coming sprint car racer. Ward’s car hit the wall and spun out, prompting race officials to display a yellow caution flag. Before emergency workers or a safety car could reach the site, a visibly angry Ward, clad in all black, unbuckled, climbed out of his car and walked onto the dimly lit track, pointing and gesturing apparently toward Stewart.
That’s when tragedy struck. Ward was nearly hit by another passing car. Then, while standing on the track and continuing to point, Stewart’s car approached just to the right of Ward, fishtailed from the rear and hit him. Judging by video and witness accounts, it appears that Ward’s body was sucked beneath Stewart’s car and thrown through the air before landing on the ground. Officials report that Ward was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Stewart said in a prepared statement, noting his withdrawal from Sunday’s Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Watkins Glen International, where Ward also had been slated to compete. “It’s a very emotional time for all involved… My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, and everyone affected by this tragedy.”
Sheriff’s officers since have questioned Stewart at least twice, are reconstructing the accident and asking spectators to turn over any videos or photos the may have captured of the crash. They’re closely eyeing every possible factor of the incident, including the track’s muddiness, dim lighting and whether Ward’s black firesuit may have played a role in the accident, given visibility conditions. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told reporters on Sunday that investigators lack evidence that suggests criminal intent, but that charges have not yet been ruled out.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of speculation among racing pros and fans as to how the investigation will progress. Some point to the apparent knee-jerk reaction by Ward, while others wonder if Stewart intended to send his own message to his young competitor with a menacing close-call drive-by that went fatally wrong.
“It’s going to be tough to prove that this was more than just an accident and that it was even culpable negligence, which he should’ve known or should’ve believed that by getting close to this guy, that it was going to cause the accident,” Miami attorney David S. Weinstein told reporters.
Driver Cory Sparks, a friend of Ward’s, was a few cars back when Ward was killed.
“The timing was unsafe,” said fellow driver Cory Sparks of Ward’s decision to exit his car and walk onto the track. “When your adrenaline is going, and you’re taken out of a race, your emotions flare.”
In any case, a young racer with a promising career ahead of him is gone and a favored veteran driver faces possible charges.
“He showed a lot of promise and talent,” race director Chuck Miller said of Ward. “On the track, you couldn’t tell him apart from a veteran. He had that kind of talent.”