August 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Questions surround fiery Tony Stewart and death of Kevin Ward Jr.

After last weekend's events, Tony Stewart's status for the Pure Michigan 400 at MIS is uncertain. (Stephen M. Dowell / MCT)

It might have happened first sometime in the early 1950s, perhaps somewhere like the beach at Daytona or the Michigan State Fairgrounds Speedway.

Or maybe it was in the 1930s, when the Indianapolis 500 began gripping the fancy of international motor sports. More likely, it was as long ago as the start of the 20th century, when men first raced automobiles and Henry Ford put Barney Oldfield at the controls of a Ford 999 at the old oval at Grosse Pointe.

Some racer became the first to jump out of his wrecked car to angrily dispute the driving behavior of a rival by approaching his still-moving car on the track.

No one ever said it was safe. Now, it has resulted in death.

When three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart’s car “fishtailed” into a quarrelsome driver Saturday during a dirt-track race in upstate New York, he struck 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. with his right rear wheel, dragging him underneath and then tossing him into the air. Ward died from his injuries.

As NASCAR arrives this week in Brooklyn for the Pure Michigan 400, and Stewart waits to decide whether he will participate, too many years of covering courts and police made me enumerate the substantive questions, which are unanswered at least publicly.

Why did Stewart’s car skid abruptly? Did he accelerate? If so, why?

Was it to avoid Ward, like the driver just before Stewart had? Or did Stewart intend to signal his displeasure to Ward by sliding toward him?

Was he merely careless? Or did Ward bear all of the responsibility for what occurred?

Investigation continues

The questions occur in the context of a singular, prominent characteristic of dirt-track cars; their back tends to “slide out” easily. In fact, controlling slides is essential to winning.

Stewart is among the best drivers in the world, whose skills, developed on dirt tracks in his native Indiana and elsewhere, have carried him to Victory Lanes on the IndyCar and NASCAR series, repeatedly, for two decades.

As an investigation continues in Ontario County, New York, Sheriff Philip Povero reiterated Monday it is not currently a criminal probe. He added the investigation is progressing and there is no timetable for concluding it.

“There are no facts that exist that support any criminal behavior or conduct or any probable cause of a criminal act,” he said.

“We continue to work as expeditiously and efficiently as we can in an effort to locate and evaluate any relevant information that may exist.”

Povero has said the inquiry includes a reconstruction of the on-track incident and consultations with nationally respected experts on auto accidents.

He requested that members of the public provide him with whatever video they may have, and said investigators are seeking more information from both other drivers in the race and motor-sports experts.

Povero said there is no current interest in talking to Stewart again. He has been interviewed twice, including as late as Monday.

A media release from Povero’s office sets out some findings of what occurred on Lap 14 of a 25-lap race at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

Ward, the sheriff’s office said, “exited the race car and walked down the track onto the racing surface.”

“Two race cars traveling in tandem approached as the driver continued down the track, gesturing to the two approaching cars. The first car swerved to avoid the driver out on the track. The second car, operated by Tony Stewart, struck the driver.

“At this point, Mr. Stewart has cooperated with the investigation, which is ongoing.”

Stewart did not race last weekend in the Sprint Cup event at Watkins Glen.

“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” he said in a statement release by his team. “It’s a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I’ve decided not to participate in today’s race at Watkins Glen.

“My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Temper well-established

Of all stock car racers in his generation, Stewart is most known as fiery.

Indeed, his fierceness and stubbly bearded willingness to boast about not being in the prime physical condition of many Sprint Cup drivers of the current era have long drawn a huge fan base. He is a corporate pitchman for Mobil and Coca-Cola in prominent television commercials.

He angrily has approached rivals, jumping out of his car to make his review of their driving skills and tactics known on the track or instigating fisticuffs with them in the pits.

In 2002, he punched a photographer.

And, at the end of a Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, on March 24, 2013, Stewart marched down Pit Road and starting throwing punches at driver Joey Logano. Stewart asserted Logano blocked him on the track.

Seven months earlier, at the Bristol (Tennessee) Motor Speedway, Stewart got out of his wrecked car, removed his helmet and fired it at Matt Kenseth’s windshield on Pit Road.

After incidents earlier in the 2012 season, at Sonoma and Indianapolis, in which Stewart appeared to wreck Kenseth, the two dueled for four laps out of a restart at Bristol. Finally, they ran down the front stretch door-to-door, banging, before wrecking on the infield.

Stewart said he twice tried to avoid the contact, but when he vowed to brandish tougher tactics in the future, folks around NASCAR took notice.

“I checked up (pulled foot off accelerator) twice to not run over him and I learned my lesson there,” he said. “I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now until the end of the year, every chance I’ve got.

“We ran on the restart faster than him each lap, so we just learned our lesson that next time just drive through him, not even be patient by him. We’re not going to give him that chance again.”

Asked how he felt about the uttered threat, Kenseth professed calm.

“That’s fine,” Kenseth said. “Tony is probably the greatest race-car driver in the garage. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Tony. On the racetrack, basically, for years and years and years and years, we’ve had tons of respect for each other.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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