Tony Stewart has pulled out of the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen on Sunday, 12 hours after the three-time champion struck and killed a sprint car driver who had climbed from his car and was on the darkened dirt track trying to confront Stewart during a race in upstate New York.
Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, said at a news conference that Stewart “feels strongly” about not racing on Sunday following Kevin Ward Jr.’s fatal accident.
The decision was an about-face for the organisation, which had said when the track opened that Stewart would be behind the wheel of his No.14 Chevrolet.
“We gave Tony some time to sleep on it. He feels strongly this is the right thing to do,” Zipadelli said.
“All you can do is what you feel is right, and we feel this is right. We get through today and do it the best we can as a group.
“He’s going through a tough time. It’s emotional for him.”
Regan Smith will drive Stewart’s car instead.
Ward had crashed following contact with Stewart one lap earlier and got out of his car as it was stopped along the fence. Video of the incident showed Ward walking from his crashed car onto the racing surface as cars circled by, and, as he gestured at Stewart’s passing car, he was struck.
Authorities questioned Stewart but said no criminal charges were imminent. Stewart travelled to Watkins Glen International following police questioning.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said Stewart was “visibly shaken” and had been cooperative in the investigation. Authorities were asking spectators and others to turn over any video they recorded of the crash.
“This is right now being investigated as an on-track crash and I don’t want to infer that there are criminal charges pending,” Povero said.
“When the investigation is completed, we will sit down with the district attorney and review it. But I want to make it very clear: there are no criminal charges pending at this time.”
Povero said Ward, who was wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, had walked into the racing area and one car swerved to avoid him before he was struck by Stewart.
“The next thing I could see, I didn’t see (the other driver) anymore,” witness Michael Messerly said.
“It just seemed like he was suddenly gone.”
A spokesman for Stewart’s racing team called Ward’s death a “tragic accident.”
The dirt track, about 30 miles southeast of Rochester, cancelled the remainder of the race and later posted a message on its Facebook page encouraging fans to “pray for the entire racing community of fans, drivers, and families.”
Stewart had been scheduled to start 13th on Sunday at Watkins Glen, one of just five remaining races for Stewart to either score a win or move inside the top 16 in points to grab a valuable spot in NASCAR’s Chase.
The site of Saturday night’s crash is the same track where Stewart was involved in a July 2013 accident that seriously injured a 19-year-old driver.
He later took responsibility for his car making contact with another and triggering the 15-car accident that left Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back.