Tragedy struck the racing community this weekend when the right tire of a race car driven by Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. and drug him beneath the car. Ward was thrown several feet into the air and later declared dead at a local hospital. He was 20-years-old. The accident left a racing community in mourning, a NASCAR star’s future in question and a sport under a microscope for its history of verbal and sometimes violent confrontations between drivers.
Stewart, 43, issued a public statement saying, “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.”
The accident was being investigated by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department, which said Stewart was cooperating with the investigation. No criminal charges have been filed at this time.
“Of particular interest at this time is forensic examination of any videos that exist of this crash,” Sheriff Philip C. Povero said. “… 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.”
Witnesses offered conflicting opinions regarding Saturday’s fatal crash, some blaming Ward for approaching Stewart while others blamed Stewart. Some argue Ward put himself at grave risk by walking on the track while racecars were on it, even under a caution flag – though the action is not unheard of in racing.
Sprint card river Tyler Graves – a witness to Saturday’s crash – 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.”
Empire Super Sprint race director Chuck Williams said Stewart enjoyed racing in the series and that he and Ward most likely competed against each other in other races since 2010.
“There is no history between them as far as bad blood, and that’s the sad part of it,” Williams said. “It was just racing. Kevin got on the short end of it.”
Ward, from Port Leyden, N.Y., began racing go-carts at the age of 4, according to his website. He moved up to the Empire Super Spring series when he was 16, winning Rookie of the year in 2010.