Racetrack death involving Tony Stewart horrifies fans nationwide

08/10/2014 6:25 PM

08/11/2014 10:36 AM

Former Lakeside Speedway champion Tim Karrick shuddered Sunday morning when he saw the video of NASCAR star Tony Stewart’s striking and killing a driver on a dirt track in upstate New York the night before.

The incident was eerily similar to a confrontation Karrick was involved in last month at Lakeside.

“That could have very well been my incident,” Karrick, of Basehor in Leavenworth County, told his wife, Jeanette, before heading to church on Sunday morning.

Stewart fatally injured sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., 20, on Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt oval track. After Ward went spinning and hit an outside wall, he climbed from his car between turns one and two and advanced toward Stewart’s car, gesturing.

Amateur video shows Ward being struck by Stewart’s car and knocked to the ground, where he lay motionless. Ward was transported by ambulancetaken to a hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.

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Ward was standing to the right of Stewart’s familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit him. According to video and witness accounts, Ward’s body was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror.

Stewart dropped out of Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, hours after Saturday’s crash.

“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.

Authorities questioned the 43-year-old Stewart once on Saturday night and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again Sunday. They described him as “visibly shaken.”

On Sunday, the Ontario County sheriff Philip Povero said investigators don’t have any evidence at this point in the investigation to support criminal intent.

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Last month, a Lakeside Speedway track official avoided injury on the backstretch following a confrontation between Karrick and Mark Hoover in a Modified race. But their clash underscored the dangers of short-track dirt racing in which cars collide and tempers flare.

“Racers wear their emotions on their shirt sleeves, I don’t care if it’s Tony Stewart or Tim Karrick … but someone ended up getting killed (on Saturday),” Karrick said. “That’s what bums me out the most, it could have been … anybody.”

The high-powered sprint cars race just once a year at Lakeside Speedway when the World of Outlaws national series visits the half-mile track each June.

But track officials emphasize to their drivers in all classes not to get out of their cars after crashes and not to retaliate against other drivers, said Mike Johnson, co-owner of the track in Wyandotte County and at I-35 in Winston, Mo., where sprint cars race regularly.

“We’ve had drivers do some crazy things,” Johnson said. “Those actions of the Modified drivers could have killed one of my track workers. No life is worth losing in any sport.”

In the race at Lakeside last month, Hoover was black flagged — or ordered to pit and meet with officials — after slamming into Karrick, but he didn’t come off the track. Karrick then decided to send Hoover a message by ramming into him, but unbeknownst to Karrick, a track official had just come onto the track to check on Hoover and could have been struck.

Both drivers were suspended for two weeks for their actions.

“It’s over with …” Karrick said. “Mark Hoover and I had a run-in on the track, I took care of it that night. I didn’t carry it out any further. We shook hands a couple of weeks ago.

“Unfortunately what happened (Saturday night) is going to change Tony Stewart’s life, and it definitely changed that kid’s family’s life.”

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Stewart has not commented on the crash other than issuing a general statement of sorrow and bowing out of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen. On Sunday afternoon, the Ontario County sheriff ruled there was no evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart.

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Ward’s family says it “appreciates all the prayer and support.” Ward’s website said he began racing go-karts in 1998 at age 4 but didn’t start driving sprint cars until 2010. This year was his fifth season racing the Empire Super Sprints.

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It appeared on the grainy video that Stewart / might have / hit the throttle before striking Ward, but area short-track veteran Tom Charles gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“They said he gassed the car and ran over the guy …” Charles said. “(Ward) was upset, he jumped out of the car … he kind of moved at Tony, he was mad, he was angry, I’m not so sure he might not have flipped and fell into the car.

“I think Tony saw the kid coming at him and gassed the car to get on out of there … and it was a terrible, unfortunate accident,” Charles said.

Once Stewart accelerated in the sprint car, it would have been difficult to control the vehicle’s unpredictability on the dirt surface.

“Dirt sprint cars are the most radical form of race car in the world,” said Charles, a two-time Modified champion at Lakeside. “The power-to-weight ratio is incredible. They run that monster right rear tire, and you’ve got that teeny left rear tire. If you stomp the gas, that thing will spin like a top. I’m sure the car made a turn because that right rear takes over, and unfortunately that’s where the kid was, and that tire got him. I believe it was an accident.”

Had Ward stayed in his car, he probably would have been unharmed.

“When you’re dealing with a massive piece of equipment like a race car, in this case an 800 horsepower, and rear tires that are absolutely huge, you get out of your car and you’re no match,” Charles said.

“He should have just kept his cool, got in the car, and even if he got out of the car, keep his distance. Flip Tony the bird, give him the fist, let him know you’re unhappy, but don’t run toward that car because you’re going to lose. Tony didn’t do this on purpose. There is no question in my mind. He did not try to run this kid over.”

Sprint Cup stars such as Stewart often compete at local short tracks on the weekends NASCAR visits communities. That includes Lakeside, which was the home track of Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., before he hit it big. And they set themselves up as targets for young drivers looking to make names for themselves.

“Sometimes maybe they drive a little over their heads to impress the stars,” Johnson said. “I don’t think they take a shot at them. At my track, I don’t care what your last name is, and I think we’ve proved that this year with some of the suspensions that were handed down, we cannot have foolishness on the track.”

The aspiring drivers often take their cues from the Sprint Cup drivers’ actions on Sundays. Stewart has been involved in his share of finger-pointing on the track and in the garages, including a memorable helmet toss at Matt Kenseth in 2012 at Bristol.

“What that young man did was no different than what Tony did to Matt Kenseth a few years ago,” said J.D. Green, director of operations for Lakeside Speedway. “We’re in the entertainment business, but that’s the kind of stuff that sometimes NASCAR promotes, and it filters down to the local level.

“When we tell some of our drivers to stop bumping each other, and they say, ‘That’s what they do on the Cup level.’ Well, we’re not Cup.’’

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to rcovitz@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.

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Driver’s family asks for ‘time to grieve'

By The Associated Press

APNewsNow. With AP Photos.

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Kevin Ward Jr.’s family says it “appreciates all the prayer and support” but that members “would like time to grieve” a day after Ward was killed on a racetrack when he was hit by a car driven by NASCAR star Tony Stewart.

On Saturday night, Ward had crashed following a bump with Stewart in the sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York. Video showed Ward walking from his crashed car onto the racing surface as cars circled by, and, as he gestured at Stewart’s passing car, the 20-year-old was struck.

Ward’s website said he began racing go-karts in 1998 at age 4, but didn’t start driving sprint cars until 2010. The 20-year-old from Port Leyden, New York, was Empire Super Sprint rookie of the year in 2012 and this year was his fifth season racing the Empire Super Sprints.

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441pm

As probe begins, Stewart steps away from the track

By JOHN WAWROW and DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writers

New approach. With AP Photos.

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CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (AP) – The collision was as common as any in racing. Kevin Ward Jr.’s car spun twice like a top, wheels hugging the wall, before it plopped backward on the dimly lit dirt track.

In a sport steeped with bravado, what happened next was another familiar, but treacherous, move: Wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, the 20-year-old Ward unbuckled himself, climbed out of the winged car into the night and defiantly walked onto the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

He gestured, making his disgust evident with the driver who triggered the wreck with a bump: three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

Ward, a relative unknown compared to NASCAR’s noted swashbuckler, was nearly hit by another passing car as he pointed with his right arm in Stewart’s direction. As he confronted Stewart in his passing car, disaster struck.

Ward was standing to the right of Stewart’s familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit him. According to video and witness accounts, Ward’s body was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror.

Ward was killed. Stewart, considered one of the most proficient drivers in racing, dropped out of Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, hours after Saturday’s crash. And the sport was left reeling from a tragedy that could have ripple effects from the biggest stock car series down to weeknight dirt track racing.

“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.

Authorities questioned the 43-year-old Stewart once on Saturday night and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again Sunday. They described him as “visibly shaken” after the crash and said he was cooperative.

On Sunday, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said that investigators also don’t have any evidence at this point in the investigation to support criminal intent. But he also said that criminal charges have not been ruled out.

The crash raised several questions: Will Ward’s death cause drivers to think twice about on-track confrontations? Did Stewart try and send his own message by buzzing Ward, the young driver, only to have his risky move turn fatal? Or did Ward simply take his life into his own hands by stepping into traffic in a black firesutsuit on a dark track?

The only one who may have that answer is Stewart.

David S. Weinsten, a former state and federal prosecutor in Miami who is now in private practice, said it would be difficult to prove criminal intent.

“I think even with the video, it’s going to be tough to prove that this was more than just an accident and that it was even culpable negligence, which he should’ve known or should’ve believed that by getting close to this guy, that it was going to cause the accident,” he said.

The sheriff renewed a plea for spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash. Investigators were reconstructing the accident and looking into everything from the dim lighting on a portion of the track to how muddy it was, as well as if Ward’s dark firesuit played a role in his death, given the conditions.

Driver Cory Sparks, a friend of Ward’s, was a few cars back when Ward was killed.

“The timing was unsafe,” he said of Ward’s decision to get out of his car to confront Stewart. “When your adrenaline is going, and you’re taken out of a race, your emotions flare.”

It’s often just a part of racing. Drivers from mild-mannered Jeff Gordon to ladylike Danica Patrick have erupted in anger on the track at another driver. The confrontations are part of the sport’s allure: Fans love it and cheer wildly from the stands. Stewart, who has a reputation for being a hothead nicknamed “Smoke,” once wound up like a pitcher and tossed his helmet like a fastball at Matt Kenseth’s windshield.

“I’ve seen it many times in NASCAR, where a driver will confront the other one, and a lot of times they'll try to speed past them. And that’s what it appeared to me as if what Tony Stewart did, he tried to speed past Ward,” witness Michael Messerly said. “And the next thing I could see, I didn’t see Ward any more. It just seemed like he was suddenly gone.”

The crash also raised questions about whether Stewart will continue with his hobby of racing on small tracks on the side of the big-money NASCAR races. He has long defended his participation in racing on tracks like the one where the crash happened, even as accidents and injury have put his day job in NASCAR at risk.

Saturday’s crash came almost exactly a year after Stewart suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa. The injury cost him the second half of the NASCAR season and sidelined him during NASCAR’s important Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Stewart only returned to sprint track racing last month.

The crash site is the same track where Stewart was involved in a July 2013 accident that seriously injured a 19-year-old driver. He later took responsibility for his car making contact with another and triggering the 15-car accident that left Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back.

“Everybody has hobbies,” he said last month, adding that “there are a lot of other things I could be doing that are a lot more dangerous and a lot bigger waste of time with my time off do than doing that.”

Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, said Stewart felt strongly he should not race after the wreck. Regan Smith replaced him in his car.

“We’re racing with heavy hearts,” Smith said.

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AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer, AP Sports Writer John Kekis and AP Writer David Klepper contributed to this report. Gelston reported from Philadelphia.

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