<
>

No solace for Stewart or Ward family

Criminal proceedings ceased on Wednesday at the steps of the Ontario County (N.Y.) courthouse.

Business will again be as usual, eventually. Lives are likely to take much longer.

Because all the other misery trudged on as Ontario County District Attorney Michael Tantillo announced that a grand jury would not indict three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart in connection with the Aug. 9 death of Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.

A family will continue to mourn. And its quest for answers only unearthed more painful questions with the revelation the 20-year-old Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the moment he left his wrecked sprint car to confront Stewart on the track under caution.

The 43-year-old Stewart will not face charges of manslaughter in the second degree or criminally negligent homicide after his car struck and killed Ward. He will remain a free man, free to be wherever he chooses while he contemplates those moments in which his race car took a human life.

Investigations and cases can be closed, but guilt doesn't file away so tidily. Race car drivers talk themselves into the notion that accidents happen -- to them, to others -- and machines often wrest away a human's capability to do much about it.

In a sport in which millions of moving parts and the decisions of the brazen factor into complicated outcomes, they know that fault doesn't necessarily fall neatly on one individual.

That doesn't mitigate the emotional aftermath, as much as drivers often try to suppress it.

Said Alex Tagliani weeks after his 2001 collision in a Champ Car race severed the legs of Alex Zanardi: "When I take a shower, when I brush my teeth, every five minutes I have this image of him and I'm thinking about him."

Ask Sterling Marlin, who for 13 years has ruminated over the mundane late-race contact made with Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, that sent the seven-time champion into a crash sequence that ended his life.

"I didn't do anything intentional," Marlin told the Florida Times-Union in 2011.

The unfortunate fact remains that Tony Stewart is no longer simply Tony Stewart, transcendent driver of his generation, businessman, Sprint Cup star and sprint car driver, racetrack proprietor and philanthropist. Generous guy, smart-ass, firebrand. He's this, too, forever, even though a even though a grand jury elected not to indict him.

Stewart struck and killed Ward under caution during an Empire Super Sprints race. The drivers had appeared to tangle before Ward's car crashed. Ward exited his car and walked down the track, apparently to confront Stewart. He was pronounced dead 45 minutes later, with blunt-force trauma listed as the cause of death.

The jury considered charges of manslaughter in the second degree and criminally negligent homicide. Approximately two dozen witnesses testified, including "a number of race car drivers, racetrack employees and volunteers, two accident reconstruction experts, medical personnel, and a number of police officers. In addition, the grand jury reviewed a number of photographs and video recordings, as well as other documentary evidence," according to the DA's office press release. In order to proceed with charges, 12 jurors had to agree to do so. The jurors returned their judgment in less than an hour.

Stewart seemed cognizant of the amount of healing left in a statement released after the announcement, saying, "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."

Stewart's organization consistently used the term "accident" to describe the incident throughout an extended investigation that began with Sheriff Philip Povero asserting there was no evidence of wrongdoing. His sponsor base remained in rank and Mobil 1 officials released a statement on Wednesday saying, "There has been no change in our sponsorship with Tony Stewart or Stewart-Haas Racing. The accident has been a terrible tragedy for all involved and our thoughts remain with the Ward family and Tony Stewart."

As much as the accident was a personal tragedy for him and anyone who cared for Ward, Stewart must have known the impact it would have had on the lives of 250 Stewart-Haas Racing employees had he been indicted, and more vulnerable to a massive civil suit.

Given a 50 percent equity share in the struggling Haas CNC Racing in 2008 by founder Gene Haas, Stewart leveraged his credibility within the sport to build a team that now boasts four Sprint Cup teams -- with two in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- an expanding infrastructure and the 2011 championship banner he won.

Tantillo said he had spoken about the grand jury's decision with the Ward family, which remained defiant in a statement released to ESPN on Wednesday.

"Our son got out of his car during caution, while the race was suspended," Ward's family said in the statement. "All other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating except for Tony Stewart, who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car towards him, causing this tragedy.

"The focus should be on the actions of Tony Stewart and not Kevin. The matter is not at rest and we will pursue all remedies, in fairness to Kevin."

Though Ward's toxicology report would, according to legal experts, make a civil suit less tenable, the family has until Aug. 9, 2016, to file such action.

Terry Swiernik, whose son, Dylan, was a lifelong friend and racing counterpart of Ward, had not heard of the grand jury's decision when reached at his office in Lyonsdale, New York. Swiernik, who said he considered Ward a "second son," fell silent when informed of the toxicology report and then said he was surprised by Ward's use of marijuana.

Stewart withdrew from public view after the accident, skipping three Sprint Cup races before returning to compete at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 31. He returned to the racetrack, in part, to convalesce with the racing community, an ersatz family for a bachelor with seemingly few outside interests.

Preceding that race weekend, still appearing shaken and emotional, the driver read a prepared statement saying the incident "is something that will definitely affect my life forever."

No grand jury vote, no news conference, will end that.