HIS WAS A common backstory in pro racing: go-karts at age four, a move to 270-horsepower sprint cars at 12, another climb to 360-hp sprints at 16. And of course Kevin Ward Jr. won at every level. It's hard to say how far the 20-year-old might have gone, but there was something in Ward's demeanor that announced him as a racer not inclined to back down.
In a blink, Ward's competitive fire led him to a tragic end last Saturday at the Empire Super Sprint, a 25-lap oval dirt-track race in Canandaigua, N.Y. Joining Ward in the 22-car field was three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart, who frequently enters small-time events at dimly lit tracks, an elite driver banging in the grass-root trenches of his sport.
When Ward tried to pass Stewart early in the 14th lap, Stewart squeezed him into the wall, puncturing Ward's right rear tire and ending his evening. As soon as the caution flag waved, Ward jumped from his car and stomped down the track to confront Stewart. One car, right in front of Stewart's, swerved to avoid hitting Ward. Stewart, though, made contact as he went by: Ward was briefly dragged beneath Stewart's car and then thrown 50 feet toward the top of the track. He was shuttled to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead 45 minutes later. Ontario County sheriff Philip Povero is investigating but says the inquest is not criminal and that Stewart, who appeared very upset, cooperated fully.
No top series NASCAR drivers have been killed since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s accident at Daytona in 2001, but an average of 15 racers a year have died in dirt-track races since '01. The disparity can be explained by inferior driving equipment and track safety procedures, and also by a culture that glorifies driver confrontations. Ward would likely have been spared had he stayed in his car. There is a sense among drivers and fans that success requires the sort of edginess that propelled Ward onto the track. If the racing community, from NASCAR on down, fails to use this incident to address that misconception, the tragedy will be multiplied.
Get the latest on Tony Stewart's future at SI.com/racing
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EMPIRE SUPER SPRINTS, INC./AP (WARD)
ESOLLA/GETTY IMAGES (SCALE)
CHARLES KRUPA/AP (DAVIS)
JEFF GOLDEN/GETTY IMAGES (DONOVAN)
JOE SCARNICI/GETTY IMAGES (SHOEMAKER)