By Jim • 

Sports Fan: Look for civil suit in racing death

When three-time NASCAR champ Tony Stewart ran over fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., at a dirt track race Saturday, August 9 in Canandaigua, New York, killing him, many fans thought it was just a racing accident that didn’t have to happen.

After all, Ward, after being spun by Stewart in an effort to pass him, unbuckled himself from the cockpit of his sprint car and proceeded to walk on the track, preparing to gesture at the NASCAR veteran in a demonstration of fury for Stewart’s action.
Unfortunately, that venture onto the track, without the protection of his car and cage, ended his life as Stewart’s rear tire apparently clipped Ward, sending him under the car and catapulting him into the air — and to his ultimate death.

Ward, of course, isn’t the only driver who has exited his car to gesture at an “offending” driver or toss his helmet at the car that sent him spinning, but as reports regarding the incident noted, the track was dimly lit and Ward was wearing a dark racing suit (although his father said it had orange stripes, which other drivers should have seen).

Stewart, in fact, has done the same several times during his long career in racing. In 2012, after a crash with Matt Kenseth, he exited his car and threw his helmet at Kenseth’s windshield. He has also had run-ins with Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers, among others.

In fact, he has, since his early days in Indy Cars, been referred to by many fellow racers as a “hothead.”

Now, although no criminal charges have been filed against him by the Ontario County Sheriff’s office — and may never be — the family of Kevin Ward Jr. is blaming Stewart for Ward’s death, saying he could have avoided the angry 20-year-old driver by staying lower on the track and not speeding by, allowing the back end of his sprint car to drift out.

That theory could lead to at least a civil suit, which doesn’t have the same burden of proof that a criminal charge requires. For his part, of course, Stewart has apologized to the family and racing community for what he calls a tragic accident.

While I’ve never raced a light, high-powered, squirrely-handling sprint car, I have driven at high speeds on dirt roads as a youngster – before a brain cell or two kicked in – and know how putting the pedal to the metal around a turn can influence a spin or at least a momentary loss of control.

Yes, I watched the replay, which, thank goodness, isn’t totally clear, and from my point of view, Stewart didn’t try to hit Ward in a moment of lapsed judgment, angry that the youngster was gesturing at him. No, I’ll give Stewart the benefit of the doubt, meaning I’m not positive it was an accident but almost 90 percent sure.

And, no, I don’t think the courts, if criminal charges are brought, or any judge or jury will find Stewart guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Racing, after all, is dangerous by nature. But, yes, I do think the family of Kevin Ward Jr. will file charges, looking for compensation for their dead son, who tragically died in a racing accident, a racing accident that didn’t have to happen.

Drivers, as a veteran racer myself who stuck with his car at The Ridge on August 9 after pulling just off the surface of the track with gear problems, my advice to you is to stay in your cars until the safety crews get to you and give you the nod to release your belts and exit the car.

If you have an idea for a column or feature story or a comment, please contact me by email at or by phone at 503-687-1274.

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS