Kevin Ward Jr.’s protest of a racing accident with Tony Stewart ended in his death on Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.
Ward, 20, was racing nationally- known racer Stewart for the sixth position when his No. 13 360 Sprint Car slid up over the bank exiting turn one and stopped hard against a outer concrete wall.
Upset with Stewart, Ward quickly exited his car. Still wearing his helmet, he hustled to the center of the half-mile dirt track racing surface to gesture to Stewart when he drove past him, under caution, the next time around.
According to video released by many sources, driver Chuck Hebing, who ran in front of Stewart in the line-up, appeared to jerk his car to the left to avoid Ward. Stewart, who was next in line, seemingly hit the throttle to either get away from the protester or to scare him.
Slow motion video of the accident appears to show Ward trying to change direction and get away from Stewart’s car at the last minute. Unfortunately, he appears to be clipped by the right-front tire and then the rear of Stewart’s car as it drove past.
Ward’s body landed without movement on the outer edge of the speedway. Officials quickly called for a red flag and all cars came to a stop.
Safety workers who quickly came to the scene appeared by video to be stunned from what they saw and immediately went to work. A life-support helicopter was reportedly considered and a landing strip with flares set-up but then cancelled.
Stewart stopped his car towards the third turn. An official then pushed him back to the pit area and his car was loaded up. Stewart reportedly didn’t know he had hit Ward and when given the news was emotionally upset.
The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver then went to his hauler.
Officials released other team members from the pit area to push their cars back to the pit area. Ward’s parents, Kevin Sr. and Pam, made their way to the accident scene where they stayed until their son was transported by ambulance to the local Thompson Health facility in nearby Canandaigua and was pronounced dead on arrival.
The ESS-sanctioned Sprint Car feature was called official with more than half of the race completed. The results posted came from the last completed lap, 13, which ironically was Kevin Ward’s car number. He was listed in the seventh position, one spot behind Stewart. Tommy Wickham, the race leader at the time, was declared the winner.
Fans in the packed grandstand might have missed what sent Ward spinning, but most witnessed his protest and saw some part of him being hit. A source at the scene said the grandstands were silent. Track announcer Shane Andrews as quickly and safely as possible. The lights around the speedway were soon turned off to encourage their movement.
By police order, the pit gate was locked until local authorities arrived and secured both the accident scene and needed witnesses.
A tow truck was used to block the accident scene from the fans in the grandstands and photographers. Ward’s own trailer was brought to the race track to load up his car after the investigation was complete.
Stewart’s hauler was the last to leave the pit area around 1 a.m. The car was unloaded and police investigated and took needed photos. Stewart was interviewed at the scene by police and then was allowed to go. He reportedly returned to the Watkins Glen Speedway infield where he was staying in his motor coach.
Because of Stewart’s national recognition, news of the accident quickly spread, first through social media (Twitter and Facebook) and then through all national news agencies. Word also spread at the renowned Knoxville (Iowa) Sprint Car Nationals that was in progress at the time. A Tony Stewart owned car, driven by Donny Schatz, would win that event.
ESPN, Fox Sports and many other television news sources carried the news quickly and led with updated information all day on Sunday. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series coverage began with what had transpired.
On Sunday morning an announcement was made that Stewart had decided not to compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race that afternoon. Nationwide Series regular driver Regan Smith was flown from Charlotte, N.C. to replace Stewart in his No. 14 entry, a car he co-owns with Gene Haas, at Watkins Glen
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” wrote Stewart in a prepared statement released from his public relations department.
“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.” County sheriff Philip C. Povero held a press conference. He said Stewart had cooperated with authorities and was “upset” and “shaken.” He said in a televised interview that the death continues to be investigated as “an ontrack incident”, and that to date there was no evidence of “criminal intent.”
Later in the day, driver Stewart Friesen was interviewed by phone by ESPN. Friesen was not at that Canandaigua event, but his fiance Jessica Zemkin was competing and in line behind Stewart at the time. Friesen was very critical of Stewart, saying he used his racecar as a “weapon.”
Later on Sunday, FOX Sports brought in one of their legal analysts, Rob Becker, to review possible charges that could be placed against Stewart. While local authorities have stressed there are no current charges, but that the investigation is continuing, the FOX expert felt a minimum charge of second degree manslaughter was highly possible. If charged and found guilty, Stewart could face between one and 15 years in jail.
However, Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst and former New York homicide prosecutor, expressed a different opinion. Callan felt charges against Stewart were highly unlikely. He said that on an average, New York State only prosecutes five percent of vehicular accident death cases as criminal matters.
“In this case it will be impossible to know what was going through Stewart’s mind as he approached the Ward vehicle under the warning of a yellow flag,” wrote Callan in a CNN Opinion article. “To prosecute this case as an intentional murder or even as a more serious form of manslaughter, there would have to be proof that Stewart ‘intentionally’ aimed his car at Ward seeking to kill or injure him seriously.”
Ward was wearing a black uniform, which may have made him difficult to see as he stood on the track. As another factor, although the cars were moving slowly under the yellow, the wings of those cars in front of Stewart could have blocked his view of Ward until the last moment.
“Stewart’s intent here is impossible to prove, regardless of his bad boy reputation, unless he were to confess to an intentional murder,” wrote Callan.
“I think it’s safe to say that is not going to happen.”
Appearing on CNN Monday morning, Sheriff Povero said, “This is an ongoing investigation, and all options remain available. We’re continuing to gather and analyze every piece of evidence we can.”
Several tracks have a rule in place that a driver is not allowed to exit their car on the speedway except in an emergency. If a driver does exit the car, officials turn on the red lights and make all cars stop.
If a driver does exit their car on the track without permission, for whatever reason, the disqualification, fine and/or suspension.
N.Y.’s Brewerton and Fulton Speedways issued a statement on Monday that they have adjusted their rules to follow this type of safety requirement.
Canandaigua Speedway promoter Jeremie Corcoran was having a needed great evening before the incident. While promoting racing is a business for him, he loves the sport dearly and was reportedly greatly affected by the outcome.
Corcoran announced on his Facebook page that he had cancelled an event set for this Wednesday, August 13. A decision regarding his weekly Saturday night event was to be announced later in the week.
“I am extremely devastated from the tragic incident that occurred,” Corcoran posed on his Facebook page.
“I have made the decision to cancel our upcoming ‘Whacko Wednesday’ event,” wrote Corcoran, “to give my family, staff, fans and racing teams time to grieve and process all that has occurred. I will let everyone know about next weekend as soon as I can.”
Corcoran offered his sincerest and deepest condolences to the Ward family.
“This is a tremendous loss to this family and the racing family as well. I have spoken to the family and they spent prayer time at the track Sunday in the early morning hours. Godspeed No. 13!”
Corcoran also felt badly for the fans who came to enjoy a night of auto racing and then witnessed something they’ll soon not forget.
“This has been difficult to process and it surely is not what you come to the races for,” wrote Corcoran.
He asked fans to think before posting material on social media. Many web-sites, included his own track site, had to remove “insensitive and hateful comments.”
“I do ask that you hold on to your integrity and have compassion for everyone that was involved in this,” wrote Corcoran. “I understand that we all can have opinions and have the right to express them, I just ask that you think about all the lives that have been affected over this before you speak out. So many people are affected. So many are hurting. No one deserves more pain or blame. We need unity to support all that are hurting and the sport of racing we care so much about. That is the only way for us to heal and move forward.”
Corcoran was very proud of the job done by his track officials and safety workers.
The past two racing seasons have been tough of Corcoran and his staff. In 2013 the track also received national recognition when Stewart was involved in a 15 car homestretch crash that injured 19-year old lady racer Alysha Ruggles. Stewart felt badly about what had happened to her and the race team, kept in touch with the family and became friends.
Sprint Car driver Michael Parent and Modified driver Mark Flach were also injured in crashes at Canandaigua in 2013.
“To all my staff that responded to this terrible tragedy I thank you for your professionalism and dedication,” wrote Corcoran regarding Saturday night’s tough ordeal on them.
“Our Medical Staff did everything they could and I know you are all hurting. All the Safety and Track Officials that scrambled to secure the track and keep everyone focused and calm I thank you.”
ESS series president Dean Reynolds has the same love of the sport shared by Corcoran.
“The Empire Super Sprints are deeply saddened and in shock,” said Reynolds to AARN by phone on Sunday night.
“Our hearts go out to everyone involved, including members of the Ward family, the track management at Canandaigua, the track crew and the fans.”
Reynolds was having a hard time coming up with words.
“I’m really speechless,” said Reynolds. “It’s probably the worst thing you’ll ever see at a race track. It’s easier to understand someone getting killed in a race car, it’s unfortunately part of our sport, but this is beyond belief. It’s not something anyone ever expected would happen. I have never seen anything like this in my 50 years in racing.”
Because racing is a business as well as sport, the show will go on. Reynolds said that the ESS event planned for Friday night at N.Y.’s Brewerton Speedway would be held.
“The ESS season will go on as scheduled,” said Reynolds. “ESS will be at Brewerton on Friday night and we will do something special in Kevin’s memory.”
Reynolds expected Friday’s event to be emotional for everyone.
“ESS is a sanctioning body,” said Reynolds. “It’s a business, but we don’t treat it like it is, we treat it as a family. That’s what we are and that’s why we’ve had success.”
Reynolds said Stewart has raced with ESS several times in his career and has been a perfect gentlemen. He asks for no favors, only to be treated like all other racers, and enjoys the challenge since he’s never won an event against the club racers.
“He pays his $50 membership like everyone else,” said Reynolds. “He enjoys being treated like everyone else and has many friends in the club. He knows us all by name.”
Because Stewart participated in Sprint Cup qualifying on Saturday, he remains eligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. To secure a spot in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, however, Stewart likely would have to win one of the four remaining races in the regular season.
Stewart-Haas representatives declined to address Stewart’s plans beyond Sunday’s race. The series heads to Michigan this weekend. Stewart will not race, however, in a Sprint Car this week in the Michigan area as was earlier predicted.
Stewart’s love for auto racing and driving a Sprint Car are well documented. Despite his severe injury in a Sprint Car crash in Iowa a year ago, he recently returned to dirt racing just a few weeks back. In his return to winged Sprint Car competition, he took the feature event win.
A Stewart interview by Ralph Sheehen on a recently aired MAV-TV Speed Sport Magazine program showed the the passion and love he has for Sprint Car racing.
While Stewart’s anger management has been well documented after several NASCAR incidents, his recreation or method of relaxing has come at the wheel of a Sprint Car, either in local or World of Outlaws competition. He enjoys being behind the wheel himself, or at the track to cheer on his WoO team drivers Donny Schatz and Steve Kinser; along with Bryan Clauson on the USAC nonwing curcuit.
Whether Saturday’s incident will change Tony Stewart’s life style or direction is uncertain. But nothing will ever dim his love for Sprint Cars and the sport of auto racing.