It was a night of racing like most others at a dirt track in upstate New York Saturday, full of close calls, adrenaline, wrecks and anger. It was a normal night of racing even when 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. stepped out of his wrecked sprint-car during the yellow flag to point and express his anger at the driver who just spun him out. That driver just happened to be NASCAR legend Tony Stewart.
It was just another night at the track until it turned unbelievably tragic when Stewart’s sprint-car fishtailed. The angry Ward was then struck and sucked up by the back tire of Stewart’s car. He was launched into the air and landed motionless a few feet away. Ward was pronounced dead at a nearby New York hospital not long after the incident. The autopsy revealed he died of massive blunt trauma to his head, despite the fact he was wearing a helmet.
In an instant, a young, up-and-coming race-car driver was horrifically killed and the future of a three-time NASCAR champion became uncertain.
As of Tuesday, no charges had been filed against Stewart. The bizarre incident, captured on an amateur video, is being investigated by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Philip C. Povero told The New York Times on Sunday that Stewart is cooperating with investigators.
“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,” Povero told the Times. “Of particular interest at this time is forensic examination of any videos that exist of this crash that occurred last evening. We’re also finishing a law enforcement reconstruction of the crash.”
Following the incident, it was reported that Stewart was visibly shaken. He withdrew himself from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen on Sunday and (it seems, as of Tuesday), won’t be participating in NASCAR events in Michigan this coming weekend.
“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 reported in the Times. “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 amateur You Tube video of the tragedy has gone viral and with that, it’s turned millions of people into judges, including me. When I first watched the video, seeing that Stewart hit the throttle right as he approached the finger-pointing Ward, causing his sprint-car to fishtail sideways, I thought for sure he did it on purpose. Knowing Stewart’s anger-stained racing background, I assumed he was trying to teach the young Ward a lesson. Give him a little scare with the throttle.
I thought for sure Stewart would be locked up soon on manslaughter charges after I saw the video.
Of course, my reasoning in all of this includes Stewart’s past anger incidents. After a wreck in 2012, Stewart climbed out of his car and threw his helmet at racer Matt Kenseth’s car in anger. In another incident, Stewart was fined $50,000 by NASCAR after an anger-ridden confrontation with a photographer in Indianapolis.
As ESPN.com’s Ed Hinton wrote, if you start digging into Stewart’s past outbursts, “you could fill a one-hour documentary.”
Is it fair to use Stewart’s past actions on the racetrack to help judge whether or not Saturday’s accident was on purpose? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but I do believe it’s important refrain from any quick judgments of Stewart in this case – although that’s hard to do, when you see the video. Maybe Stewart couldn’t see Ward, who was wearing a black racing suit. I’ve been told that sprint-car drivers hit the throttle to steer the car as much as they use the steering wheel. Maybe he was just turning his car by goosing the throttle a bit? Intentional or not, investigators will work hard their best to get to the bottom of it.
Perhaps the bigger problem here is the fact that it wasn’t unusual for Ward to unbuckle his seatbelts, climb out of his car and walk across the track to express his anger at another driver. It’s the kind of drama that’s not unheard of in many levels, including the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. We’ve all seen highlights of two-big name drivers jumping out of their cars pointing and yelling at each other. Sometimes it leads to fisticuffs or a few punches. At the higher levels of NASCAR, drivers are fined for such behavior, and it’s generally frowned upon, but in a way, it’s always been accepted as a part of racing, as well. If racing officials really wanted to crack down on drivers leaving their cars, they could impose very, very severe punishments to the point that they wouldn’t do it anymore.
If anything is going to come out of last weekend’s tragedy in New York, it should be a written rule that drivers are to never, ever leave their cars unless it’s an emergency. You leave your car, you are banned from racing for a full month. It should never be commonplace for a driver to leave his or her car. It’s the kind of rule that could have been implemented on a serious basis years ago. Perhaps it could have stopped Ward from leaving his car last week.
I’m not sure investigators will ever be completely sure if Stewart’s actions were intentional. Did he throttle his car to give Ward a scare? Or did he throttle the car simply to begin a turn? I’m not sure anyone will ever really know except Stewart himself. But it’s a decision that he’ll have to live with forever.