Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart is facing not only a police investigation into a racing accident Saturday night that left 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. dead on the track, but increased negative speculation and condemnation from race car fans and critics alike. The incident, which was captured on video by a spectator, occurred after Stewart had spun the same driver into the wall on a previous lap and he, Ward, was attempting to confront Stewart's passing vehicle on its next circuit around the track. Within seconds, as Deadspin reported Aug. 10, Ward was dead.
The horrific accident took place at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York Saturday night. Tony Stewart, who is known to race in small venue racing events as somewhat of a hobby, was participating in the dirt track Sprint Car event. His car got into Kevin Ward Jr.'s, sending it into the wall. As often happens in motorsports, such car-on-car confrontations lead to angry outbursts and acts from one or more of the drivers involved, and Saturday night's race was no different.
In the video, which was posted to YouTube, Kevin Ward Jr. can be seen exiting his car and running along the track, apparently angry, gesticulating wildly. He dodges several cars and moves to confront the car driven by Tony Stewart, then suddenly disappears. He reappears as a figure being thrown through the air, only to land on the track several dozen feet from where he was flung. He remained motionless and the track's emergency crew surrounding the body within seconds.
According to witnesses at the racetrack, Ward was sucked under Stewarts left rear tire when Stewart hit the gas as he passed the angry young driver. The acceleration apparently caused the sprint car to shift suddenly sideways on the dirt track, striking Ward. The 20-year-old was then caught under the tire and thrown.
According to Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero, Ward was dead on arrival at the nearest hospital.
Stewart was scheduled to participate in the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen the following day. At first, there was every indication that he would do so, but he later bowed out, issuing a statement concerning the previous night's incident.
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.," the statement read, in part, according to the Associated Press.
Saturday night's incident in New York comes exactly a year after a Sprint Car wreck in Iowa fractured Stewart's leg and he wound up missing the second half of the NASCAR season. Stewart was also involved in a wreck at a race at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York last year as well, a multiple-vehicle crash that ultimately involved 15 cars. He later took the blame for causing the chain reaction pile-up that saw 19-year-old Alysha Ruggles seriously injured with a compression fracture in her back.
Still, Saturday's death of Kevin Ward was a bit unusual in that there was such a large police presence at the track following the incident. The race itself had been canceled within five minutes of Ward being struck.
Given Tony Stewart's history of hotheadedness and numerous NASCAR feuds, it was also no surprise to see speculation on social media trending toward questions of intentionality on Stewart's part.
One commenter on the Deadspin article, a supposed eye-witness to Kevin Ward Jr. being hit, seemed to insinuate that there might be good reason for a police investigation, noting that Stewart's crew changed the tire that struck Ward and that Stewart's spring car was equipped with a GoPro camera. The commenter hoped police were able to confiscate the items before they could be destroyed.
Another eye-witness, Tyler Graves, a friend of Ward's, told The Sporting News that the fatal car-into-human collision seemed deliberate. He said Kevin Ward Jr. was gesturing wildly, "throwing his arms up all over the place at Tony" while Stewart came around the track.
"I know Tony could see him," he said in a phone interview, "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."
The race track Facebook page posted a statement reading (per Deadspin): "Tonight's racing events were suspended due to an accident. Please hold off on any speculation until we have further information to share." The post has since been removed.
Sheriff Povero confirmed, Fox Sports reported, that his department's investigation is not criminal. He said Stewart was "fully cooperative" and appeared "very upset" over what had happened. No charges have been filed in the matter.
However, a second video with a vantage point on the opposite side of Stewart's car has surfaced. The Ontario County Sheriff's Office's investigation is ongoing.