Sheriff: Stewart currently faces no criminal charges in CMP death; case remains open

Aaron Curtis and Dan Goldman
Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero gives an update on the investigation to a large gathering of media on Monday evening about Saturday night's death, at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. of Port Leyden.

Investigators have gathered no evidence thus far that would suggest the fatal incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Saturday night was the result of criminal behavior.

Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero made that statement during a Monday evening press conference about the status of the investigation, which he emphasized is still ongoing.

"As we speak, at this time, there are no facts that exist that support any criminal behavior or conduct, or any probable cause of a criminal act in this investigation," Povero said. "Again, I repeat, this is … not indicative that the investigation is over or conclusions have been made, but it is open and we continue to gather information."

The investigation involves the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., of Port Leyden in Lewis County, who died after three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart struck and killed him as he walked toward Stewart's car following contact between the two during the race.

During Monday's conference, Povero noted that an autopsy on Mr. Ward determined that the cause of death was a result of massive blunt force trauma.

"(The Ontario County coroner) also issued a statement at this time that there will be no further information released regarding the autopsy," Povero said.

The sheriff qualified the investigation as progressing well, pointing out that members of the department are working on an accident reconstruction. Investigators are also evaluating data that was retrieved at the track Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

"Investigators have talked to persons that have some relevant and factual information that is of value to the case," Povero said. "The people that have been contacted have been cooperative, had first-hand knowledge and hopefully this will help us come to a final conclusion on the circumstances behind this terrible tragedy."

Povero emphasized that the sheriff's department continues to seek information from the public — whether it be eyewitness accounts or video footage taken of the incident. No recording equipment was inside Stewart's vehicle.

A video posted online showed Mr. Ward walking toward the center of the track and gesturing toward Stewart’s vehicle. Another vehicle almost struck Mr. Ward and swerved out of the way before Stewart’s vehicle stuck him. Mr. Ward was wearing a black fire suit.

A possible timeline for the investigation was not provided.

"We are working as expeditiously and efficiently as we can in an effort to locate and evaluate any relevant information that may exist regarding this particular investigation," Povero said.

Earlier in the day, Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo also commented on the case, noting that his office is awaiting the results of the investigation.

"When they have finished it, I will have time to sit down with them and review it and we will determine what the next course of action is," Tantillo said.

Canandaigua Motorsports promoter Jeremie Corcoran said he’s “extremely devastated” by the incident in a statement on the track website Monday.

“First and foremost I offer my sincerest and deepest condolences to the Ward family,” Corcoran stated. “Kevin Ward Jr. was a spirited competitor and loved by so many. This is a tremendous loss to this family and the racing family as well. I have spoken to the family and they spent prayer time at the track Sunday in the early morning hours. Godspeed No. 13!”

Corcoran asked fans to think about the lives that have been affected by the incident before speaking out. He said no one deserves more pain or blame.

The promoter also thanked his track, medical and safety staff for their professionalism and dedication in responding to the incident.

Corcoran said he decided to cancel the “Whacko Wednesday” racing event scheduled for this week to give his “family, staff, fans and racing teams time to grieve and process all that has occurred.” At press time, a race was still scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, and Corcoran said he’ll let everyone know about that event’s status soon.

Stewart is no stranger to the Canandaigua Motorsports Park. In July 2013 he was on the track during the 360 Smoke Shootout sprint car race at the park. During that race, there was a pile-up that caused injuries to drivers Paul Kinney and then 19-year-old Alysha Ruggles.

Both were taken to hospitals for treatment from the track, with Ruggles suffering a broken back in the incident.

She later stated that the accident happened when she attempted to escape the wreck and hit a wall. Ruggles did not require surgery as a result of the incident but was placed in a back brace for 12 weeks.

Following the 2013 crash, Stewart took responsibility for causing the incident in an interview over the public address system. However, Ruggles would later insist that the decorated NASCAR star should not be blamed.

"Our main concern is getting out that it wasn't Tony's fault," Alysha said shortly after the July 2013 crash.

Saturday's crash came almost exactly a year after Stewart suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa. The injury cost him the second half of the NASCAR season and sidelined him during the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Stewart only returned to sprint track racing last month.

The driver decided not to race in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. A dirt track in Warsaw, Ind., announced that Stewart will no longer be racing in its event this Saturday. There was no immediate decision if Stewart would drive in this weekend's NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway.

Stewart "will have as much time as he needs to make that decision," spokesman Mike Arning said Monday. "It is still an emotional time for all involved, Tony included. He is grieving, and grief doesn't have a timetable."

Arning said Stewart's extra-curricular racing plans are on hold until further notice.

Dave Roberts has been around dirt car racing about 30 years and used to work in publicity for Canandaigua Motorsports Park. He saw video of Saturday’s incident and said he’d never seen anything like it.

“It’s tough to blame Tony for that,” Roberts said. “If he’s going to question you or challenge you, it’s kind of tough. It’s unfortunate. While Tony is punishing himself a lot, I don’t think he could have done anything.”

Roberts said he hopes other drivers learn to stay in their car in future crashes. He suggested a rule where drivers who exit their car are suspended from the following week’s races.

Dirt tracks in Brewerton and Fultonville, both in New York, made changes to their rules in light of Mr. Ward’s death. The new rule states:

“It is the goal of speedway management to maintain the safest possible racing conditions for all drivers. Only safety crews and wrecker crews are permitted on the track in the event of an accident. Pit crew members are not permitted on the track. Drivers are required to stay in their car in the event of an on-track incident. If a driver, for whatever reason, exits a car on the track during a caution period, the race will automatically be placed under a red flag and all cars will come to a complete stop. A driver may exit a car if requested by a safety crew member or if safety warrants in cases such as a fire. Drivers that exit a car without permission, for whatever reason, are subject to fine and/or suspension at the discretion of track management.”

Previously, the rule stated that only safety and wrecker crews are permitted on the track in the event of an accident and that pit crew members aren’t permitted on the track.

— Includes reporting by The Associated Press