Tony Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, was moonlighting Saturday night. He had gone back to his racing roots for a few hours, competing in a local dirt-track event at Canandaigua Motorsport Park in upstate New York, bumping and grinding his high-powered open-wheel sprint car with the mostly unknown competitors on the track.
There was nothing unusual about Stewart’s presence there, or about the little hit that he delivered to Kevin Ward Jr.’s race car that sent it spinning into the outside wall during the race. And it was not all that surprising to see Ward, 20, unbuckle his seatbelts, jump out of the car and look to confront Stewart on the track. It happens sometimes in racing. Stewart himself had done that to a driver in a 2012 NASCAR race.
But what happened next was hard for anyone to fathom, but available for the world to see in a widely circulated video.
As Ward stood on the track and pointed at Stewart, Stewart’s race car fishtailed, the right tire hitting Ward and dragging him under the car. Ward was thrown several feet and lay motionless on the track. He was later declared dead at a local hospital.
The accident left a racing community in mourning, a NASCAR star’s future in question and a sport under the microscope for its history of verbal and often violent confrontations between adrenaline-fueled drivers.
The death occurred about an hour away from Watkins Glen International, where Stewart was supposed to compete in a NASCAR race Sunday. But after his team had said it would be “business as usual’’ for Sunday’s race, Stewart announced that he would not compete.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,’’ Stewart, 43, said in a statement. “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.’’
The accident is being investigated by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department, which said Stewart was cooperating. No criminal charges have been filed.
“Of particular interest at this time is forensic examination of any videos that exist of this crash that occurred last evening,’’ Sheriff Philip C. Povero said. “We’re also finishing a law enforcement reconstruction of the crash.
“At this very moment, there are no facts at hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual.’’
Ward was from Port Leyden, New York, a small town at the foot of the Adirondacks about 140 miles northeast of Canandaigua. According to his website, he began racing go-carts at age 4. He moved up to the Empire Super Sprints series when he was 16, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2010.
Although he typically raced against drivers older than him, Ward held his own.
“He was a very strong competitor, he fit right in on the racetrack,’’ said Chuck Miller, president and race director of the traveling Empire Super Sprints series, which runs throughout central New York, long a hotbed of dirt-track racing. “He had a promising future ahead of him.’’
Ward’s family issued a statement Sunday, saying, “We appreciate the prayers and support we are receiving from the community, but we need time to grieve and wrap our heads around all of this.’’
They were not alone. Standing beside the dirt-caked maroon Volkswagen rally car he races some weekends, Russell Norton, 45, said the tragedy had left many of upstate New York’s racing enthusiasts traumatized.
On Friday and Saturday nights, he said, the rusting grandstands are packed with fans whose devotion to racing is almost religious.
Children start racing as young as 9 or 10 in go-carts, Norton said, and slowly work their way up to the sort of dirt track races that are held at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. At those races, it was not unusual for fresh 20-something racers to be bumper-to-bumper with veterans of the track, and for 500-horsepower cars to share the stage with much tamer vehicles.
“There’s a family component to it, especially at the grass-roots level,’’ he said, standing outside a Canandaigua auto shop.
Witnesses offered conflicting opinions about Saturday’s wreck, some blaming Ward for approaching Stewart, or the darkness of the track. Still others pointed to Stewart.
Although it seemed Ward put himself at grave risk by walking onto the track while racecars were on it, that kind of action is not unheard-of in racing. Drivers have confronted other drivers directly on the track, and fist fights on pit road or in the garage are not uncommon.
In 2012, Stewart walked onto the track at Bristol Motor Speedway after a wreck with Matt Kenseth and threw his helmet at Kenseth’s racecar in disgust.
Earlier Saturday afternoon during a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen, driver J.J. Yeley walked onto the track after a crash to make a gesture at Trevor Bayne, who had bumped him into the wall.
A witness to Saturday night’s crash, the sprint car driver Tyler Graves, told Sporting News that Stewart would have been able to see Ward from his car and that Stewart hit the throttle as he got close to Ward.
“When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways,’’ Graves said. “It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two.’’
It does not help that Stewart has a long history of combativeness on the track and off, battling drivers, NASCAR officials and even the media. He was once fined $50,000 after a confrontation with a photographer and said he would seek anger management counseling.
Norton said the thought that Stewart might have been sending a message to a younger driver haunted him.
“As a race car driver, that really scares me,’’ he said.
“In no way do I think it’s Tony’s fault,’’ said Scott Caton, bartender at nearby Canandaigua Brew Company, who has been attending races at the track for 43 years. He said the crash had rattled this small, racing-crazed town, turning their beloved dirt track into an emblem of the dangers of racing.
“People don’t want it to be known as the track where someone got killed, but it’s too late,’’ he said.
This was not Stewart’s first accident at Canandaigua, where a few bundles of flowers now leaned against the chainlike fence that surrounds the park. He was involved in a 15-car wreck at the track in July 2013, and two drivers were taken to the hospital. He later apologized for being too aggressive on the track and causing the crash.
Stewart has been racing in sprint cars, which are much different than the closed-wheel stock cars of NASCAR, for years. He suffered a broken right leg in a crash at a dirt-track sprint car race last August, forcing him to miss the rest of the NASCAR season. He returned to NASCAR in February, and was back in a sprint car by July.
There was never any question he would return to his first love. Although his fame and fortune have come from racing stock cars in NASCAR’s Cup series, Stewart remains committed to dirt-track racing.
Stewart’s accident last year followed a series of deaths in sprint car racing, including the loss of former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler. After Stewart’s crash last year, he helped spearhead changes to the race cars to improve safety.
“I get to see it and I get to see the benefits of it,’’ Stewart said in January. “I get to see guys I am friends with and love racing with are all going to get to see the benefit of it.’’
After Stewart had returned to sprint car racing in July, he posted on Twitter, “1yr ago today my life changed. Thank you to everyone that worked so hard to get me back to where I’m at today. It’s your life, live it!’’