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NASCAR star Stewart hits, kills driver on track

08/11/2014, 12:19am EDT
By BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

Death clouds Sprint Cup visit to Michigan on Sunday

NASCAR's Stewart hits, kills driver on track

It is unknown if Tony Stewart will race this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. ASSOCIATED PRESS

CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. — NASCAR driver Tony Stewart struck and killed another driver Saturday night while competing in a dirt track sprint car event at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York state.

A graphic video posted on YouTube showed Mr. Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion in NASCAR, hitting the driver, Kevin Ward, Jr., 20, as Mr. Ward stood outside his race car on the track.

Mr. Ward and Mr. Stewart had bumped cars during an earlier lap, sending Mr. Ward’s race car into an outside wall and prompting a caution flag. Mr. Ward then exited his car and approached on foot as Mr. Stewart’s car came around again. As Mr. Ward stood on the track and pointed at Mr. Stewart, Mr. Stewart’s car fishtailed, the right tire hitting Mr. Ward and dragging him underneath.

WARNING: EXPLICIT VIDEO: NASCAR star Stewart hits, kills driver on track

Mr. Ward was thrown several feet behind Mr. Stewart. In a matter of seconds, ambulances and medical personnel began to treat Mr. Ward on the track. Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff Philip Povero said Mr. Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua at 11:15 p.m., 45 minutes after the accident. Mr. Stewart was unhurt.

Mr. Ward was from Lyons Falls, N.Y., about 140 miles northeast of Canandaigua. According to his Web site, he began racing go-carts at age 4.

“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,” Mr. Ward’s family said in a statement.

Mr. Povero said in a news briefing Sunday that the investigation was continuing, with the police seeking pictures and videos from spectators and finishing a 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,” he said.

Although it seemed Mr. Ward put himself at grave risk by walking onto the track while race cars were on it, that kind of action is not unheard-of in racing. Drivers will often try to confront other drivers directly on the track. In 2012, Mr. Stewart walked onto the track at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway after a wreck with Matt Kenseth and threw his helmet at Mr. Kenseth’s race car in disgust.

The death occurred about an hour from the site of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for the Stewart-Haas Racing team, announced Sunday morning that Mr. Stewart would not race in the Sprint Cup event.

Mr. Stewart was reportedly cooperating with an investigation by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Office, and he was allowed to return to Watkins Glen.

“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 statement released by Mike Arning, Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman. “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.”

A.J. Allmendinger won the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen on Sunday, but the mood was somber.

When the Sprint Cup schedule continues this Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it could go on without Mr. Stewart.

As of Sunday night, SHR had not decided whether Mr. Stewart or someone else would drive the No. 14 Chevrolet this weekend in Brooklyn, Mich. An MIS spokesman wrote in an email to The Blade that a driver, team, or NASCAR decides whether a driver will compete in a race.

“A tragic accident took place Saturday night during a sprint car race in which Tony Stewart was participating,” Stewart-Haas Racing said in a statement Sunday morning. “Tony was unhurt, but a fellow competitor lost his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We’re still attempting to sort through all the details, and we appreciate your understanding during this difficult time.”

NASCAR also released a statement before Sunday’s race: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race, and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward.”

Mr. Stewart is a noted aficionado of sprint cars and typically drives in nonsanctioned sprint-car events when he is not driving on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Mr. Stewart was involved in three sprint car accidents last year. He broke his right leg during a sprint car race in Iowa, which sidelined him for the final 3½ months of the 2013 Sprint Cup season. Mr. Stewart flipped his car in a sprint car race July 29, 2013, at Oshweken Speedway in southern Ontario, less than two weeks after he was part of a pileup July 16, 2013, at Canandaigua Motorsports Park — an accident in which driver Alysha Ruggles, 19, suffered a compression fracture in her back.

“I've always liked racing sprint cars, and it’s just what I enjoy doing,” Mr. Stewart said last month. “Everybody has hobbies. Everybody has stuff they like to do when they have downtime, and that's just what it is for me. That's what I like to do when I have extra time.”

Blade staff writer Rachel Lenzi contributed to this report.

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.

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