NASCAR champion Tony Stewart dropped out of a race on Sunday hours after fatally running over a driver at a dirt track in New York state, an incident that dealt a blow to one of the sport’s accomplished and highest paid drivers.
The move followed a social media backlash when it looked like Stewart was going to compete in the Sprint Cup series at Watkins Glen International, with a team official telling USA Today he was proceeding with “business as usual.”
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, is one of the few drivers who co-owns his team, Stewart-Hass Racing, a four-car outfit whose drivers include Danica Patrick.
In the Saturday incident, Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr., who stepped out of his car and onto the track as he seemed to gesture toward Stewart after the NASCAR veteran appeared to have clipped his car and caused it to spin out of the race, according to videos of the incident posted online.
Local authorities said Stewart has been cooperating with their investigation, and no charges have been pressed.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.,” Stewart said in a statement on Sunday. “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.”
Stewart was not injured in the accident.
Stewart, 43, is NASCAR’s fourth-highest paid driver, with an estimated $17.3 million in earnings this year, according to Forbes. The race car driver lives in his native Columbus, Indiana.
His sponsors include Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Coca-Cola and Chevrolet.
He was looking for a strong performance in Sunday’s race, after injuries that forced him to miss the second half of the 2013 NASCAR season.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Inc. is the sanctioning body for one of North America’s most popular sports, broadcast in more than 150 countries and in 20 languages, according to the NASCAR website.
More Fortune 500 companies participate in NASCAR than any other sport, it notes.
NASCAR, which was not involved in the Saturday racing event, issued a statement after Stewart canceled plans to compete.
“We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race, and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward,” NASCAR officials said.
NASCAR, along with Stewart, had been receiving wide criticism on Twitter, with the incident highlighting the controversy over dangerous yet popular motor racing events.
“The bad side of social media is showing after a terrible accident,” said Dale Brown, a North Carolina race car enthusiast said on Twitter. “We should all not be judge and jury, just pray for all involved.”
The fatal crash occurred late Saturday night at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park, about 25 miles southeast of Rochester, according to the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department.
Ward was pronounced dead after being taken to a local hospital, according to sheriff’s officials.
Sheriff officials said on Sunday there was no evidence at this time that would cause it to file criminal charges against Stewart.
“At this very moment, there are no facts in hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge, or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual,” Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told a news conference.
Here’s what a video of the Saturday night crash appears to show:
The right of Stewart’s car slid into the left front of Ward’s while the two raced on a turn, pushing Ward’s car into the wall. Ward’s car spun and bounced off the wall, placing the race under caution.
It appears that just before the wreck Stewart had room to be driving lower on the track and to avoid a collision. But his car also appeared to be sliding toward the right.
After the crash, Ward exited his wrecked car, walked around the back of it and began pointing as other cars circled the track under caution.
Ward walked rapidly toward the oncoming cars, then took several quick steps to the right, which put him directly in the path of the oncoming cars.
Ward pointed in what appeared to be an accusatory way toward Stewart. One car narrowly missed him.
As Stewart approached, his car appeared to speed up. It sounded as though Stewart hit the throttle.
Then the right of Stewart’s car hit Ward and dragged him down the track. Ward was left lying on the track as emergency workers arrived.