By Christy Strawser
DETROIT (CBS Detroit) He’s been known for riding dirty, with a reputation as a hothead that goes back for at least a decade — but did Tony Stewart, 43, intentionally cause the crash that cost Kevin Ward Jr., 20, his life?
WWJ legal analyst Charlie Langton says law enforcement officials are looking at footage of the crash and what he expects them to focus on are answers to a few key questions.
“Did he speed up, did he turn into him … Did he target him in some way?” Langton asked, saying those questions would be the crux of any legal action against Stewart. Prosecutors also have to discern if Ward tried to jump out of the way and what role the poorly lit, slick track played in the deadly incident, Langton said.
Will Stewart be charged with a crime? “I think there are certainly possibilities here,” Langton said, adding prosecutors will have to show criminal intent on Stewart’s part. If they find a “reckless disregard for human life,” Langton said Stewart could face a charge of vehicular homicide, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison in New York.
Longtime NASCAR watcher and sports reporter Ryan Wooley of WWJ and 97.1 The Ticket thinks intent was definitely there — probably not intent to kill, but definitely to cause a ruckus.
“My gut reaction was he didn’t mean to kill him, but he meant to hit him,” Wooley said, adding the unedited footage shows the sound of Stewart’s car revving up as it nears Wade.
“You can actually hear him hit the gas,” Wooley said, adding, “I think he meant to scare him.”
Others believe Wade broke the cardinal rule of racing, and ended up in a terrible situation.
“Why would you get out of the car to confront Tony Stewart — or anybody? It’s a track at night, it’s dimly lit, and you’re wearing black,” said WWJ and 97.1 The Ticket sports reporter Tony Ortiz.
“I’m not convinced … I think he meant to hit him, I think he meant to scare him, but he overcompensated,” Ortiz said.
Stewart has a longtime reputation as a hothead, with a nickname to match. Insiders called him “Smoke.”
The deadly collision happened when Ward, all in black, unbuckled himself following a brush with the wall, climbed out of the car and angrily strode onto the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
WARNING: Video of the incident may contain images some viewers find upsetting.
In 2012, Stewart jumped out of his crashed car to throw his helmet at the windshield of Matt Kenseth’s car after a racetrack altercation. According to CBS News, at the time, Stewart said this, which some believe could come back to haunt him: “I checked up twice not to run over him. And I learned my lesson there, and I’m going to run over him every chance I got until the end of the year. Every chance I got.”
In this incident, Ward was obviously agitated with his race opponent, many say. “He gestured, making his disgust evident with the driver who triggered the wreck with a bump: three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart,” the Associated Press reported.
Ward was on the track, apparently trying to confront Stewart, when Stewart’s car fishtailed from the rear and hit him. Video shows horrified fans screaming as Wade flies through the air.
Stewart dropped out of Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen after Saturday’s crash.
“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.
Authorities who questioned Stewart in the wake of the crash, described him as “visibly shaken” after the crash and said he was cooperative, according to the AP.
Some in Ward’s family weren’t convinced it was enough.
His aunt Wendy Ward, reportedly wrote on Facebook, “Thanks for thinking of our family when you decided to be a d***.”
Another driver, Stewart’s pal Tyler Graves, gave this account to the website Just Jared: “I know Tony could see him. I know how you can see out of these cars,” he said. “When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways. It set sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two and then it threw him about 50 yards.”