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Car driven by Stewart hits, kills driver on track

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart speaks with crew members during practice for the Daytona 500 qualifying at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, in this file photo taken February 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Brian Blanco/Files)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — A sprint car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart struck and killed another driver who was standing on the track while a Saturday night race at Canandaigua, N.Y., Motorsports Park was under caution.

Sheriff Philip Povero confirmed during an early morning news conference that the driver struck on the track was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua. The driver was identified by track officials as 20-year old Kevin Ward Jr. of Port Leyden, N.Y.

Povero said authorities questioned Stewart at the scene and said he was cooperative and “very upset” about the incident. Povero asked anyone with video of the incident to contact police. He said the investigation was being treated as an on-track incident and the information gathered will be turned over to the Ontario County district attorney’s office.

The are no charges currently pending against Stewart, who returned after the incident to his motorhome at Watkins Glen, N.Y. International, site of Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.

Stewart decided not to compete in the race. He released the following statement Sunday:

“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.”

Stewart-Haas Racing’s vice president of competition, Greg Zipadelli, said Stewart feels strongly that sitting out the race “is the right thing to do.”

“It’s an unbelievable tragedy,” said Zipadelli, who has worked for Stewart for 18 years. “Very tough, very emotional.”

Stewart was expected to return to the Charlotte area. A NASCAR spokesman said the decision not to compete was Stewart’s and that NASCAR supported Stewart’s decision. Zipadelli said Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith was on his way to the track and would drive Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet in the race.

Here’s what a video of the Saturday night crash appears to show:

The right of Stewart’s car slid into the left front of Kevin Ward’s while the two raced on a turn, pushing Ward’s car into the wall. Ward’s car spun and bounced off the wall, placing the race under caution.

It appears that just before the wreck Stewart had room to be driving lower on the track and to avoid a collision. But his car also appeared to be sliding toward the right.

After the crash, Ward exited his wrecked car, walked around the back of it and began pointing as other cars circled the track under caution.

Ward walked rapidly toward the oncoming cars, then took several quick steps to the right, which put him directly in the path of the oncoming cars.

Ward pointed in what appeared to be an accusatory way toward Stewart. One car narrowly missed him.

As Stewart approached, his car appeared to speed up. It sounded as though Stewart hit the throttle.

Then the right of Stewart’s car hit Ward and dragged him down the track. Ward was left lying on the track as emergency workers arrived.

One year ago, Stewart was also involved in a 15-car accident at the Canandaigua track, which seriously injured 19-year-old driver Alysha Ruggles. Stewart took the blame for the wreck that left Ruggles with a fractured back. Ward was also in the 2013 race at Canandaigua, finishing 22nd in a field of 25.

Chuck Williams, race director for the Empire Super Sprint Series, the sanctioning body of both races at the Canandaigua track, 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.”

Chuck Miller, president of Canandaigua Motorsports Park, said Stewart races hard on dirt tracks because he needs to.

“Whenever he comes to our races, he’s great to everybody in the field,” Miller said. “He tries so hard because he’s never beaten our guys.”

A spokesman for Stewart provided the following statement to the Observer early Sunday morning:

“A tragic accident took place last night during a sprint car race in which Tony Stewart was participating. Tony was unhurt but a fellow competitor lost his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We’re still attempting to sort through all the details and we appreciate your understanding during this difficult time.”

According to the track, all racing activities were halted for the night following the incident and fans were asked to return home.

About midnight, the track posted the following statement on its Facebook page:

“Canandaigua Motorsports Park will not have an official statement on the accident that happened in the ESS race until tomorrow. Please pray for the entire racing community of fans, drivers and families.”

On Sunday, Miller released a statement:

“I can’t see that anybody would’ve done anything intentional like that. (Stewart’s) been great when he’s with us. We’ve had a very good relationship with Tony. We’ve been proud to have him in our field.

“He’s raced hard. He’s raced clean. He respects what we have to offer. Even what he is, when he comes to our races, he’s there to race. He’s not under contract to some of these tracks; he just shows up.”

Canandaigua Motorsports Park is a half-mile dirt track southeast of Rochester, N.Y., and about 50 miles northwest of Watkins Glen International. In recent weeks, Stewart has returned to dirt track racing after a breaking two bones in his right leg in a wreck at a dirt track in Iowa last summer.

It was not the first fatality at Canandaigua. In 1997, a 59-year-old flagman named Fred Taney was working as a flagman on the speedway’s backstretch when a car struck and killed him.