Tony Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, was moonlighting Saturday night. He had gone back to his racing roots for a few hours, competing in a local dirt-track event at Canandaigua Motorsport Park in upstate New York, bumping and grinding his high-powered open-wheel sprint car with the mostly unknown competitors on the track. • There was nothing unusual about Stewart's presence there, or about the little hit that he delivered to Kevin Ward Jr.'s race car that sent it spinning into the outside wall during the race. And it was not all that surprising to see Ward unbuckle his seatbelts, jump out of the car and look to confront Stewart on the track. Stewart himself had done that to a driver in a 2012 NASCAR race. • But what happened next was hard for anyone to fathom, but available for the world to see in a widely circulated video. As Ward stood on the track and pointed at Stewart, Stewart's race car fishtailed, the right tire hitting Ward and dragging him under the car. Ward was thrown several feet and lay motionless on the track. He was later declared dead at a local hospital. He was 20. • The accident left a racing community in mourning, a NASCAR star's future in question and a sport under the microscope for its history of verbal and often violent confrontations between adrenaline-fueled drivers. • The death occurred about an hour from Watkins Glen International, where Stewart was supposed to compete in a NASCAR race Sunday. But after his team had said it would be "business as usual" for Sunday's race, Stewart announced that he would not compete.
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.," Stewart, 43, said in a statement. "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."
The accident was being investigated by the Ontario County Sheriff's Department, which said Stewart was cooperating. No criminal charges have been filed.
"Of particular interest at this time is forensic examination of any videos that exist of this crash," Sheriff Philip C. Povero said. "… At this very moment, there are no facts at hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual."
Ward was from Port Leyden, N.Y., a small town at the foot of the Adirondacks about 140 miles northeast of Canandaigua. According to his website, he began racing go-carts at age 4. He moved up to the Empire Super Sprints series when he was 16, winning Rookie of the Year in 2010.
Though he typically raced against older drivers, Ward held his own.
"He was a very strong competitor, he fit right in on the racetrack," said Chuck Miller, president and race director of the Empire Super Sprints series, which runs throughout central New York. "He had a promising future ahead of him."
Miller said Ward's family was heavily involved in Kevin Jr.'s racing career. The family business, Westward Painting Co., sponsors racing events in New York state.
Ward's family issued a statement Sunday, 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."
Kathleen Lamanna, a classmate of Ward's, told the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily News: "It's a small community. Everyone is upset. Nobody wants to answer any questions right now."
Witnesses offered conflicting opinions about Saturday's wreck, some blaming Ward for approaching Stewart. Others blamed Stewart.
Though it seemed Ward put himself at grave risk by walking on the track while racecars were on it, even under a caution flag, that kind of action is not unheard of in racing.
Stewart has done it himself.
In 2012, he walked onto the track at Bristol Motor Speedway after a wreck with Matt Kenseth and threw his helmet at Kenseth's racecar in disgust.
A witness to Saturday night's crash, sprint car driver Tyler Graves, told Sporting News that Stewart would have been able to see Ward from his car and that Stewart hit the throttle as he got close to Ward.
"When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways," Graves said. "It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two."
This was not Stewart's first accident at Canandaigua. He was involved in a 15-car wreck at the track in July 2013, and two drivers were taken to the hospital including 19-year-old Alysha Ruggles, who had a fractured back. Stewart apologized for being too aggressive on the track.
Stewart, 43, came up though sprint cars early in his career and has continued to race them, own sprint car teams and promote their races on the side as he rose to IndyCar, then Sprint Cup stardom. He broke his right leg in a crash at a dirt-track sprint car race last August, forcing him to miss the rest of the NASCAR season.
Empire Super Sprint race director Chuck Williams said Stewart enjoyed racing in the series and that he and Ward probably competed against each other in other races since 2010.
"There is no history between them as far as bad blood, and that's the sad part of it," Williams said. "It was just racing. Kevin got on the short end of it."