Police investigate whether the incident was an accident or case of road rage.
Was it an act of road rage or a simple accident that caused the death of 20-year-old race car driver Kevin Ward Jr.? That’s the heated question following an incident involving NASCAR driver Tony Stewart and Ward during the Empire Super Sprints race at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Upstate New York on Saturday night.
Video from the incident clearly shows Stewart’s No. 14 sprint car using its back rear right wheel to clip Ward’s No. 13 sprint car’s front left wheel, sending it in a tailspin crash against the wall. Infuriated, Ward stepped out of his car, adamantly pointing toward Stewart. He continued trying to confront Stewart, walking toward the middle of the track. One sprint car, No. 45, dodged Ward, but Stewart’s car hit Ward with his back rear right wheel, seemingly dragging him under the wheel for a few seconds before throwing his motionless body several feet ahead on the track. Ward was rushed to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
On Sunday morning, just hours removed from the terrible incident, the Stewart-Haas racing team decided to withdraw Stewart’s name from the race at Watkins Glen. He also released this statement to the media.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr,” Stewart said. “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.”
Ward's family released their own statement to the media: “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.”
So, was Ward’s death caused by an accident or road rage from Stewart?
One of Ward’s friends and a fellow sprint-car racer, Tyler Graves, told the Sporting News that he thinks Stewart struck Ward on purpose Saturday night. Graves was sitting in the Turn 1 grandstands, witnessing the horrific incident.
"Tony pinched him into the frontstretch wall, a racing thing," Graves said. "The right rear tire went down, he spun on the exit of (Turn) 2. They threw the caution and everything was toned down. Kevin got out of his car. … He was throwing his arms up all over the place at Tony for most of the corner.
"I know Tony could see him,” he added. “I know how you can see out of these cars. When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways. It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two and then it threw him about 50 yards."
There’s no video or audio evidence gathered from the inside of Stewart’s sprint car, according to reports, and although police are investigating the incident, there are no criminal charges pending against Stewart at this time.
“There are no criminal charges pending at this time,” Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said at a news conference Sunday. “We have reviewed the investigation to this point with the Ontario County district attorney. At this very moment, there are no facts in hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge, or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual.”
There’s no telling how Stewart’s involvement in this incident will affect his sponsorships either. Forbes reports that Stewart earned $6 million from licensing and endorsements last season.
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(Photo: Derik Hamilton/AP Photo)