A GRAND jury is to decide whether NASCAR superstar and three-time champion Tony Stewart will face charges in the tragic sprint car incident in which fellow competitor Kevin Ward Jr was killed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park dirt track in New York State on August 9.
Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo said he made the decision to present the case to a grand jury after reviewing evidence collected by local sheriff’s investigators.
Tantillo could have decided there was insufficient evidence to support charges and then dropped the case, which has been a headline story in the United States.
Instead, the DA has announced a grand jury should determine if Stewart should face criminal charges.
Experts have said Stewart could be charged with second-degree manslaughter under New York law if prosecutors believe he “recklessly caused the death of another person”.
Negligent homicide is another possibility.
Stewart's car struck and killed Ward during a caution period during a dirt track race. The two had clashed during the event, sending Ward’s car into the wall.
Twenty-year-old Ward then walked on to the track to remonstrate with Stewart, whose car was circulating slowly.
Witnesses said later that Stewart’s engine appeared to rev up, and the right-rear tyre hit Ward.
In a statement, Stewart said he respects the time and effort authorities have spent “investigating this tragic accident”.
“I look forward to this process being completed, and I will continue to provide my full co-operation,” he said.
In the days after Ward’s death, County Sheriff Philip Povero asked for spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash as investigators worked to reconstruct the incident.
Explored during the investigation were the dim track lighting, how muddy it was and whether Ward’s dark race suit played a role in his death.
Other drivers have spoken of poor visibility from the cockpit with poor lighting and muddy visors, and that sprint cars are often “steered” on the throttle.
JJ Yeley, a NASCAR driver who has driven sprint cars for Stewart, told the Sporting News that the fact you can hear Stewart hit the gas in his car prior to hitting Ward should be taken into the context of how sprint cars operate.
“They have a solid rear axle, they don’t turn on a dime,” Yeley said. “You usually turn those cars with the gas. They don’t just turn as soon as you turn the wheel. It does take the throttle to do that.”
Yeley said that if Stewart had turned the wheel sharply without getting on the throttle, the car would have continued in the path it was going or would have spun.
He compared it to riding a jet ski, where throttle is needed when making a turn.
“The right-side wing panel comes down sometimes below your eye level, so you will have a blind spot. There’s a part there where you wouldn’t see someone if they jumped out and got that close to the car,” Yeley said.
Sheriff Povero spent weeks probing the incident and more than once stated that investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart.
Povero said his findings to the DA included a “forensic video enhancement” from state police.
Immediately following Ward's death, NASCAR introduced a rule that prohibits drivers from climbing out of a crashed or disabled vehicle – unless it is on fire – until safety personnel arrive.