Johnny Stokes said it made him sick to his stomach when he heard about it.
“This is something we all love,” he explained. “You never want to see someone lose their life doing something we love, especially a young guy like that.”
He was talking about Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old racecar driver who died Saturday during an event at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York state. NASCAR champion Tony Stewart was part of the field — racing with young guys while in the area for a Sprint Cup race — and he and Ward tangled. Ward’s car hit a wall. Ward got out of his car, walked onto the dirt track apparently to confront Stewart, and was struck when Stewart’s vehicle seemed to fishtail. Ward was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Stokes, part-owner of Magnolia Motor Speedway in Columbus, said no one can say for sure what exactly happened leading up to the tragedy.
He described it as a “freak accident.” Stokes has been racing since 1970 and said he has “never gotten a scratch” while competing.
“I wish he wouldn’t have gotten out of his car because this would not have happened,” Stokes said. “Now, that’s a hard thing to tell his parents because he’s dead.”
Tempers often flare on a race track and Stewart, Stokes said, had a reputation for being an emotional driver. But Stokes said “no one would ever do something like that on purpose.”
“It’s just a bad, sad situation,” Stokes said.
Joe Ables, track manager at Columbus Speedway on Hutcherson Road, agreed.
“It was an accident,” he said. “When people stop thinking, that’s what happens.”
Ables said the Ward tragedy has driven home the importance of safety. Every time there is a race at Columbus Speedway, Ables said he stresses to drivers that they are not to get out of their vehicles during an event unless the vehicle is on fire or they suspect there is a gas leak.
“For this exact reason,” he said. “I stress it every week.”
Ables said that at Columbus Speedway this season he has disqualified racers for breaking the rule.
“It’s about safety, something you cannot preach enough,” he said.
No drivers have ever died at Magnolia Motor Speedway or Columbus Speedway, Ables and Stokes said.
The Ontario County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the crash and death of Ward. Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, elected not to race at Watkins Glen International on Sunday.
Memorial services for Ward will be held Wednesday in Boonville, New York. The funeral is Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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