By JENNA FRYER
When Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car crash last summer, Tony Stewart passionately defended the grassroots racing of America.
When he triggered a 15-car accident a month later at an upstate New York race track that left a young girl with a fractured back, he took the blame and moved on to the next event. And when Stewart flipped his sprint car five times at a race in Canada, he bristled at the suggestion he was taking unnecessary risks in his lucrative career.
Stewart didn’t once waver in his stance, even after breaking his right leg racing his sprint car last August. The injury sidelined him for six months, put his Stewart-Haas Racing organization under considerable strain and again drew criticism over his extracurricular activities.
He remained undeterred, almost defiant. Racing sprint cars is Stewart’s passion. It’s his hunting and his fishing and his video games all rolled into one.
But now his hobby, racing on tiny little tracks in nondescript towns outside of a busy NASCAR schedule, is again being called into question. The three-time NASCAR champion struck and killed a 20-year-old racer who had climbed from his car Saturday night to confront Stewart on a New York dirt track following a crash caused by contact between the two cars.
Kevin Ward Jr. and Stewart were racing side-by-side for position early at Canandaigua Motorsports Park 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.
Ward, wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, climbed from the car and walked onto the track pointing in Stewart’s direction. One car had to swerve to avoid hitting him before Stewart got to Ward. Although the front of Stewart’s car passed Ward, it appeared the young driver was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air.
Hours later, Stewart pulled out of the race at Watkins Glen. A second year the race would go on without him.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Stewart said in a statement.
Stewart spent most of last August bedridden, needed two surgeries to stabilize his leg, was forced to use an ambulance to get to his doctor appointments and, when he could finally get out of bed for a little bit each day, he was confined to a wheelchair. But the whole time he plotted how his accident — he was injured when the torque tube broke and pierced his leg — could improve the safety of sprint car racing.
He made good on his vow, too. When he finally returned to sprint car racing last month, the car he drove had a clamp holding down the torque tube and four different tethers stabilizing it inside the car.