WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Tony Stewart released a statement Sunday saying he is saddened by the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., whom the three-time NASCAR champion struck and killed during a race at an upstate New York dirt track a day earlier.
Earlier Sunday, Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, announced Stewart would not compete at a NASCAR race at Watkins Glen following the fatal incident.
In a statement, Stewart said: “There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. 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.”
Regan Smith will replace Stewart in the car. Stewart’s team initially said he still planned to race Sunday, saying it was “business as usual.”
Ward had crashed following contact with Stewart during a race Saturday night in Canandaigua, and then got out of his car as it was stopped along the fence. Video of the incident showed Ward walking from his crashed car onto the racing surface as cars circled by, and, as he gestured at Stewart’s passing car, he was struck.
Authorities questioned Stewart but said no criminal charges were imminent.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said Stewart was “visibly shaken” and had been cooperative in the investigation. Authorities were asking spectators and others to turn over any video they recorded of the crash.
“This is right now being investigated as an on-track crash, and I don’t want to infer that there are criminal charges pending,” Povero said. “When the investigation is completed, we will sit down with the district attorney and review it. But I want to make it very clear: there are no criminal charges pending at this time.”
A witness said it appeared Ward was trying to confront Stewart. The video showed Ward standing to the right of Stewart’s familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to kick out from the rear and hit him.
Moments earlier, Ward and Stewart were racing side-by-side for position as they exited a turn. Ward was on the outside when Stewart, on the bottom, seemed to slide toward Ward’s car and crowd him toward the wall. The rear tire of Stewart’s car appeared to clip the front tire of Ward’s car, and Ward spun into the fence.
WARNING: Video of the incident may contain images some viewers find upsetting.
Povero said Ward, who was wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, had walked into the racing area and one car swerved to avoid him before he was struck by Stewart.
“The next thing I could see, I didn’t see (the other driver) anymore,” witness Michael Messerly said. “It just seemed like he was suddenly gone.”
The dirt track, about 30 miles southeast of Rochester, canceled the remainder of the race and later posted a message on its Facebook page encouraging fans to “pray for the entire racing community of fans, drivers, and families.”
Ward’s website says 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.
Stewart often competes in extracurricular events. The multimillionaire is known to participate in races with purses worth less than $3,000 and drive alongside drivers of varying ages and talent levels.
The accident Saturday 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. Stewart only returned to sprint track racing last month, and won in his return, at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Michigan.
But the broken leg cost him the entire second-half of last season and sidelined him during NASCAR’s important Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Stewart wasn’t cleared to get back in a race car until February, the day the track opened for preparations for NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 began.
“Everybody has hobbies. Everybody has stuff they like to do when they have downtime, and that’s just what it is for me,” he said last month following his return to sprint car racing. “That’s what I like to do when I have extra time. I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing it. I feel like 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.”
Stewart was a spectator at the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the accident, and posted on his Twitter account: “Thank you to everyone that worked so hard to get me back to where I’m at today. It’s your life, live it!”
Among Stewart’s many business interests is his ownership of Ohio dirt track Eldora Speedway, which last month hosted the NASCAR Truck Series, and his stake in Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields cars for Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
He’s struggled a bit this year since returning from his leg injury, and is winless on the season and ranked 19th in the standings.
The site of Saturday night’s crash 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.
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