Sorrow and disbelief were the overriding emotions Friday at Michigan International Speedway as drivers tried to grasp the events that involved Tony Stewart and resulted in the death of a fellow racer.
Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr. were competing in a dirt sprint car race Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park when Ward's car became disabled, necessitating a caution flag. Apparently displeased with Stewart, an on-foot Ward approached Stewart's still-moving car under caution and Stewart's right rear tire struck Ward. The 20-year-old died of massive blunt trauma, according to autopsy.
The incident is being investigated and Stewart could face criminal charges, though Ontario (N.Y.) County Sheriff Philip C. Povero said they have yet to determine "criminal intent" on Stewart's part.
"As much as I'm concerned for Tony and his well-being, the pain and sorrow that the Ward family and friends are going through," Jimmie Johnson said. "It's such a sad, sad set of circumstances."
Stewart sat out last Sunday at Watkins Glen and again elected not to race this weekend at Michigan. Stewart-Haas Racing officials said Stewart was grief-stricken and his return to NASCAR competition is undecided.
Like Stewart, Kyle Larson has a background in sprint car racing and frequently barnstorms around the country running in various grassroots events. Larson spoke fondly of seeing Stewart pull up unexpectedly at a local track and the extra jolt it gave him.
"You would see his trailer pull in the track and you would get more amped up and try a little bit harder," Larson said. "He does a lot for the sport. When he goes to sprint car races it's his place to get away and relax a little bit. I always enjoyed when he would come to the race track and still enjoyed seeing him whenever he would venture out and go back."
But not knowing the facts and never having raced at Canandaigua, Larson wouldn't comment directly on the circumstances that led to Ward's death.
"First off just thoughts and prayers still with everybody involved especially the Ward family," Larson said. "I have never raced there so I don't really have an opinion on much of anything because you don't know how the lighting is there. It's just really tough to have an opinion on it when you weren't part of it.
"Really there is only one guy that knows what happened -- or two, and one is not here anymore."
The tragedy of last weekend is the latest of several high-profile incidents that have blighted sprint car racing recently.
Last year, separate accidents took the lives of three drivers including Jason Leffler, a former NASCAR competitor. And a year ago this month, Stewart broke his leg in two places in a sprint car crash at an Iowa dirt track that sidelined him for the final 15 races of the NASCAR season.
Johnson, the defending and six-time NASCAR champion, thinks various safety measures should be enacted, including the use of spotters. Larson disagrees, and offers a different suggestion.
"Sprint car racing is awesome," Larson said. "It's some of the best racing you will ever see in your life. Over the last couple of years, with all the stuff that has gone on, sprint car racing has gotten a bad rap. I just wish ESPN and stuff could go play highlights of the Knoxville Nationals that just happened this weekend and see how good the racing was there and how it is every weekend.
"I just wish rather than it being where everybody talks about how dangerous it is and you are stupid if you run them and stuff I just wish you could see the good parts of it. ... It just sucks that it is getting the recognition that it has been getting. It's just the bad stuff and not the good stuff."
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