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, who continues to race in sprint cars on dirt tracks. Many NASCAR drivers, including Stewart, got their start on the short ovals.
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.
Povero said on Monday there were no plans “at this time” to talk to Stewart again. There is no timetable as to when the investigation will conclude or autopsy results will be finished, he said.
Canandaigua Speedway promoter Jeremie Corcoran said Monday the track has canceled Wednesday’s event to give “my family, staff, fans and racing teams time to grieve and process all that has occurred.” Plymouth Speedway in Warsaw, Ind., said on its website that Stewart would no longer compete in Saturday’s race.
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 firesuit on a dark track?
The only one who may have that answer is Stewart.