CANANDAIGUA, New York — Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart will not be charged with the death of a fellow driver at a sprint car race, prosecutors said in disclosing for the first time that the victim had enough marijuana in his system the night he died to impair his judgment.
A Grand Jury that heard testimony from more than two dozen witnesses, including accident reconstruction experts and drivers, and looked at photographs and video, decided against bringing criminal charges against Stewart for the death of 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. during an Aug. 9 race in upstate New York.
That doesn’t mean it’s over.
A few hours after Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo announced the grand jury’s decision, the Ward family indicated in a statement read over the telephone by sister Kayla Herring that they will seek civil damages in the young driver’s death.
“Our son got out of his car during caution when the race was suspended. All the other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating except for Stewart, who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car toward him, causing the tragedy,” the family said.
“The focus should be on the actions of Mr. Stewart. This matter is not at rest and we will pursue all remedies in fairness to Kevin.”
The family might have a difficult task: Tantillo disclosed the influence of marijuana and used two different enhanced videos which showed Stewart had done nothing wrong.
“The videos did not demonstrate any aberrational driving by Tony Stewart until the point of impact with Kevin Ward, at which point his vehicle veered to the right up the track as a result of the collision. Prior to that, his course was pretty straight,” said Tantillo.
Stewart’s reaction was not one of celebration, and his statement had the same twinge of sadness that he’s carried since he returned to NASCAR three weeks ago following three weeks of seclusion after Ward’s death.
The 43-year-old NASCAR superstar acknowledged the investigation was “long and emotionally difficult” but noted it allowed time for all the facts to be presented.
“This has been the toughest and most emotional experience of my life, and it will stay with me forever. I’m very grateful for all the support I’ve received and continue to receive,” he said.
“While much of the attention has been on me, it’s important to remember a young man lost his life. Kevin Ward Jr.’s family and friends will always be in my thoughts and prayers.”
Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart’s car appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air. He died of blunt force trauma.
The investigating sheriff asked in the days after Ward’s death for spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash. Among the things being looked at were the dim lighting, how muddy it was and whether Ward’s dark race suit played a role in his death, given the conditions.
“I am sure from their deliberations and discussions that the fact that Kevin Ward was observed running basically down two thirds of the track, into a hot track, into the middle of other cars that were racing, played a big, big factor in their decision,” he said. “Judgment is probably the most important factor in this case.”
By Jenna Fryer and Carolyn Thompson. Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report