CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. - A grand jury will decide whether NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will be charged in the August death of a fellow driver at a sprint car race in upstate New York, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo said he made the decision to present the case to a grand jury after reviewing evidence collected by county sheriff's investigators.
Tantillo could have determined there was not enough evidence to support charges and dropped the case, but instead announced his decision more than a month after Stewart's car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt-track race on Aug. 9.
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 cooperation," he said.
Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion before returning for the final two races of the Sprint Cup season. He did not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, and finished 18th in the first Chase race Sunday at Chicagoland.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero spent weeks investigating the accident at the small track in Canandaigua, several times saying investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart.
"Upon my review of all of the information contained in the entire investigation," Tantillo said, "I have made the determination that it would be appropriate to submit the evidence to the grand jury for their determination as to what action should be taken in this matter."
He said the law prevented him from saying when the case would be scheduled or who would be called as witnesses.
The sheriff asked in the days after Ward's death for spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash as investigators worked to reconstruct the accident. Among the things being looked at were the dim lighting, how muddy it was and whether Ward's dark firesuit played a role in his death, given the conditions
After Ward's death, NASCAR announced a rule that prohibits drivers from climbing out of a crashed or disabled vehicle - unless it is on fire - until safety personnel arrive.
Stewart, who has 48 career Cup wins in 542 starts, is one of the biggest stars in the garage. From the small town of Columbus, Indiana, he has long been one of the most proficient drivers in racing, winning in every kind of series, from sprint cars to the elite Sprint Cup Series. He has for years taken part in little races in nondescript towns because he loves the thrill of the high horsepower, lightweight cars skidding around the dirt.
He rarely made his schedule public, popping up when he pleased, and he was welcome at the clay track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park the night before the NASCAR race in nearby Watkins Glen. Instead, tragedy struck.
NASCAR spokesman Brett Jewkes said the series was closely following the case.
"We are aware of the completed investigation and the announced next steps," he said. "We will monitor this process and stay in close contact with Stewart-Haas Racing. It would be inappropriate for NASCAR to comment on this case so we will continue to respect the process and authorities involved."
The incident began with a collision during a dirt track sprint car race.
The collision was as common as any in racing. Kevin Ward Jr.'s car spun twice like a top, wheels hugging the wall, before it plopped backward on the dimly lit dirt track.
In a sport steeped with bravado, what happened next was another familiar, but treacherous, move: Wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, the 20-year-old Ward unbuckled himself, climbed out of the winged car into the night and defiantly walked onto the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
He gestured, making his disgust evident with the driver who triggered the wreck with a bump: three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.
Ward, a relative unknown compared to NASCAR's noted swashbuckler, was nearly hit by another passing car as he pointed with his right arm in Stewart's direction. As he confronted Stewart in his passing car, disaster struck.
Ward was standing to the right of Stewart's familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit him. According to video and witness accounts, Ward's body was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror.
Stewart has said he never intended to hurt Ward, and that he didn't see him. Law enforcement questioned Stewart at least twice after the incident, but never pressed charges.
Ward's father, however, was not generous in his assessment of what happened, telling a local newspaper: ""Apparently, Tony Stewart was the only one driving out there who didn't see him."