In the week that has passed since the accident that claimed the life of one and irrevocably altered the life of the other, Kevin Ward Jr. and Tony Stewart have been the subjects of much scrutiny from the media, fans of NASCAR, and the general public.
Some facts about the incident are beyond dispute: on August 9th, during a dirt track race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, Tony Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during a caution lap. During the race, Stewart put Ward into the wall at a turn in the dirt track. Ward, apparently enraged at what he perceived to be a deliberate wreck, climbed out of his car and gestured wildly at Stewart as cars passed by. On a caution lap, cars are not allowed to go faster than the pace car, which guides the cars around the track at 45 miles per hour. The odds of a pedestrian dying when struck at 40 miles per hour is 85%.
The rest of the story is not as clear cut. Friends and family of Ward, including his father Kevin Ward Sr., insist that Stewart’s driving prior to the accident was needlessly aggressive. Some have gone so far as to accuse Stewart of deliberately gunned his engine. Video footage of the incident does seem to show Stewart accelerating as he approached Ward. According to Motorsport.com, it’s likely Stewart did accelerate, though the website notes that the type of car Stewart was driving at the time of the accident is primarily steered through the throttle, rather than through the steering wheel. The article goes on to say that the idea that Stewart, a fifteen year veteran of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, would deliberately kill another driver for an incident that is very common in racing “unthinkable”.
Unfortunately for Stewart, one of the most hotly contested aspects of the incident has been his reputation. According to fellow driver Jeff Gordon, Stewart is a talented race car driver, but has a temper. The temper has flared on Gordon and others in the past, often culminating in Stewart spinning out cars. Racers who know Stewart from his races on smaller dirt tracks similar to Canandaigua Motorsports Park called him “one of the guys”. Despite reports that have made Stewart out to be the hot-headed NASCAR race car driver throwing his weight around in what amounts to the independent circuit, other sprint car drivers say they have driven against Stewart for years and he has been a regular at sprint car races.
The investigation into the death of Kevin Ward Jr. is ongoing and expected to continue for at least another week, but no criminal charges have been filed against Tony Stewart. In response to the incident, NASCAR has instituted new rules that restrict a driver from exiting their vehicle after a crash or under caution except in “extenuating circumstances”.
Tony Stewart has not driven in a race since the August 9th accident. Funeral services for Kevin Ward Jr. were held August 14th in Turin, NY.