The world of NASCAR stock-car racing was stunned by a bizarre incident in which star driver Tony Stewart’s car struck and killed an up-and-coming driver during a non-NASCAR race in upstate New York.
As the story and graphic amateur video of the sprint-car incident went viral on the Internet, Stewart pulled out of Sunday’s NASCAR race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., only hours after the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident,” Stewart said in a statement.
Stewart, 43, is one of NASCAR’s most accomplished and popular drivers, and he commonly races so-called sprint cars at small tracks around the nation when he doesn’t have a NASCAR race.
NASCAR stock cars have complete bodies and bear at least a slight resemblance to everyday passenger cars. Sprint cars are smaller yet powerful open-wheel race cars that often have oversized wings on top.
On Saturday night, Stewart was racing his sprint car at the half-mile Canandaigua Motorsports Park dirt track in the Finger Lakes region of New York when his car collided with Ward’s car which then crashed into the fence.
As the caution flag came out and the cars slowed, the video shows that Ward, dressed in a black driving suit, quickly climbed from his car. He walked a few steps on the track and gestured toward the cars coming back around, seemingly intent on confronting Stewart.
Ward dodged a couple of passing cars but then he appeared to be hit by the right side of Stewart’s car. Although rescue workers reached Ward within seconds, the Lyons Falls, N.Y., driver later was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told reporters there was no evidence that indicated criminal intent on Stewart’s part and that no criminal charges were pending, but that an investigation continued.
Stewart was “visibly shaken” after the crash and was cooperative, Povero said, adding that his office was seeking additional video footage as part of its probe. Stewart was traveling 35-40 mph when he struck Ward, Povero estimated.
“We are looking at any information that’s relevant to the crash,” Povero said.
Motor racing is among the most dangerous sports, of course, and it’s not uncommon for angry race-car drivers to climb from their cars and point accusatory fingers at other drivers as those rivals circle back around.
But the upset drivers often do so with a safety worker standing next to them and far enough removed from harm’s way as the other cars zip past.
Stewart himself threw his helmet in disgust at rival Matt Kenseth’s car at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2012, but that was on pit road.
The Ward family issued a statement saying, “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,” according to WHAM-TV in Rochester, N.Y.
Some of NASCAR’s other stars took to Twitter in response. “When a loss is sudden and unexpected, the pain & sadness is suffocating,” wrote Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose legendary father was killed in a NASCAR crash in 2001.
“Thoughts and prayers for the Ward family,” Jimmie Johnson tweeted.
It’s unclear when Stewart might race again. NASCAR said it supported his decision to skip Sunday’s race and was monitoring the situation, but it’s unlikely NASCAR would take any immediate action because the fatal incident did not occur during a NASCAR-sanctioned event.
NASCAR is America’s most popular form of motor sports, and Stewart is a three-time champion in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series.
(The NASCAR series is named after its telecommunications sponsor and is unrelated to the sprint-car racing involved in Saturday night’s incident.)
Stewart also co-owns his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, whose drivers include Danica Patrick. The team’s other owner is Gene Haas, head of Haas Automation, a maker of machine-tool equipment based in Oxnard.
A native of Columbus, Ind., Stewart — nicknamed “Smoke” — also is among NASCAR’s most headstrong and mercurial drivers with a history of clashing with other drivers and the media. He has also criticized NASCAR on several occasions.
In one case, at the end of a NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana last year, Stewart — furious at how fellow driver Joey Logano had blocked him — marched down pit road and confronted Logano, and the two got into a swinging match.
But many NASCAR fans find Stewart’s brash personality appealing because it sets him apart from other drivers who often stick with bland statements to avoid upsetting their sponsors.
The fatal incident Saturday came almost exactly a year after Stewart’s right leg was shattered when his car crashed during a sprint-car race in Iowa. Stewart is one of the few top-tier NASCAR drivers who compete in other forms of motor racing.
The injury required Stewart to undergo three surgeries and he missed the rest of the NASCAR season. He returned to sprint-car racing last month and won in his return, at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Michigan.
The Saturday incident further clouds Stewart’s chances for qualifying for this year’s NASCAR Chase for the Cup playoff that determines the sport’s champion.
Stewart has not won a NASCAR race this year and currently is not high enough in the points standings to qualify for the playoff. Because he did not start Sunday’s race, he did not collect any additional points.
Regan Smith drove Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race at the Watkins Glen International track. He was collected in a late-race crash and finished 37th in the 43-car field.
Follow Jim Peltz on Twitter: @PeltzLATimes