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 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 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. Ward was taken to a hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival.

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 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 said investigators don’t have any evidence to support criminal intent.

Last month, a Lakeside Speedway track official avoided injury 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 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.”

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.

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.

“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.”

Sprint Cup stars such as Stewart often compete at local short tracks on the weekends NASCAR visits communities. That includes Lakeside. 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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