NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, looking visibly shaken, returned to a race track on Friday for the first time since he was involved in an incident on Aug. 9 at an upstate New York dirt track that left sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. dead.
While Stewart said he was happy to be back competing in his sport, the racer known as “Smoke” spoke of grief and suffering – his and others.
“This will affect my life forever,” he said of Ward’s death. “This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.
“I know the pain and mourning Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something I can’t possibly imagine,” Stewart said. “I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and to cope with the accident in my own way.”
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Stewart’s voice quivered as he read the prepared statement at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he will race in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series Oral-B 500.
He sat out the past three Sprint Cup series races – at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Michigan and Bristol, Tenn. He had not raced since an incident during a dirt track race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park in which a car he was driving struck and killed Ward, a 20-year-old driver from Port Leyden, N.Y.
The drivers’ cars had made contact on the previous lap on the half-mile track, and Ward’s car spun and hit the wall. Ward left his car, stepped quickly toward the infield as cars passed and dodged him. Ward then pointed toward Stewart’s car as it came toward him.
Stewart’s car appeared to speed up, and 25 seconds after the initial crash, Ward was knocked several yards down the track. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital.
Stewart did not take questions, which he said was due to the ongoing investigation by the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office. A news release from the department Friday said the investigation into Ward’s death would last at least two more weeks.
“Emotionally I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway,” Stewart said.
Stewart spoke to authorities the night of the incident and released a brief statement the next morning, but had made no public comments until Friday.
In his statement, Stewart referenced Ward’s family members by name.
“I want Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr., and his mother Pam, and his sisters Christi (Cavanaugh), Kayla (Herring), Katelyn (Ward), to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them,” he said.
Stewart said being back at the track is part of his healing.
“I miss being back in the race car,” Stewart said. “I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.”
Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood agreed.
“This is what is going to help him,” he said. “That’s why he’s in the car. Tony is ready to be in the race car. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.”
Frood said Stewart had sent a card and flowers to the Ward family around the time of the funeral.
“Besides that, he’s been very respectful of them and their time to grieve,” Frood said, adding that he believed Stewart would speak to the family in person “at the appropriate time.”
Later Friday, Stewart qualified 12th for Sunday night’s race.
Driver Jeff Gordon said it was good to see Stewart back on the track.
“I know based on watching the press conference how emotional this has been for him,” Gordon said. “I do think that the best thing for him is to be in that race car.”