Three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart will not be charged with the death of a fellow driver at a sprint car race, prosecutors said Wednesday 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 a race in upstate New York on 9 August.
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."