Don’t be too quick to judge Tony Stewart, let the experts do their jobs

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Editor’s note: NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk writer Jerry Bonkowski has spent over 30 years as a sports writer, columnist and editor covering NASCAR and motorsports for USA Today, ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and now MST. He also wrote this column from the unique perspective of having served more than 20 years as a fully-sworn, state-certified part-time police officer.

In the time span of just a few hours after a horrendous accident, Tony Stewart was charged, convicted and sentenced by many in the court of public opinion following Saturday’s fatal incident involving 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

So-called “experts” inundated Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media, carelessly, recklessly and without any type of evidence throwing around words such as “intentional” and “murder.”

Those are very damning words for an incident that on the surface is an accident until proven otherwise – if it can be proven otherwise, that is.

How can they be so sure that Stewart intentionally struck and ran over Ward, leading to his death, which was confirmed about an hour or so after the incident by Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff Phillip Povero, according to multiple media reports?

Were those people at the small dirt track just about an hour northwest of Watkins Glen International, site of Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 NASCAR Sprint Cup race?

Even Povero told USA Today that Stewart was “fully cooperative” and that “the incident is not being investigated as a criminal matter.” If the investigating sheriff says it’s not a criminal matter or an intentional attack on the racetrack, how can so many people think otherwise? They base that opinion upon what they’ve heard or read or seen – and sometimes even that isn’t clear-cut enough to make such a serious value judgment as Stewart is being accused by so many.

To me, there are only a few undeniable facts that have emerged from the incident. Everything else is supposition, hyperbole and plain guessing:

* First, there was an on-track incident between Stewart and Ward. Based upon video that captured the incident, it appeared to be nothing more than a typical racing incident that happens hundreds of times each year on everything from Sprint Cup tracks to the smallest grassroots racing dirt tracks.

* Second, again, judging by the video, it appears the area where Stewart allegedly struck Ward was rather dimly lit, not unusual for short tracks such as that.

* Third, if investigating sheriff’s deputies believed Stewart did intentionally strike Ward, would he have been released from custody after fully cooperating with investigators?

* Fourth, do sane, normal and logically thinking individuals really believe a driver of Stewart’s caliber, who has done so much in his career, would throw it all away by intentionally hitting a mere kid on a tiny dirt track in the upstate New York hinterlands? Granted, Stewart has a temper – which has been seen countless times over his career – but would he completely lose control of his sense of right and wrong and go out and murder a kid that he had just spun in a racing incident? Just the thought of that is nothing short of ludicrous.

* Fifth, and this is perhaps the most important part of all: Ward got out of his spun race car. He walked down from the top of the racetrack and into the middle of, again, a dimly-lit area. This is where the true sense of speculation stems. Maybe Stewart didn’t see Ward. Maybe Stewart tried to avoid Ward and it was too late, again, partly due to the lighting in that area of the track and Ward walking down into the middle of the track dressed in a dark firesuit. As much as it pains me to say this, and I’m not attempting to be an “expert” about this event as it unfolded in any way, but what was Ward doing walking around in the middle of a racetrack with cars coming around still under power? That’d be like someone walking in the middle of a freeway to confront someone who he or she just had a fender-bender with. What did Ward try to accomplish by walking directly in front of Stewart, with the likely intent of shaking his fist or pointing a finger at the three-time Sprint Cup champ for spinning him only seconds earlier?

We can’t ever know.

This isn’t the first time a driver has killed someone – and I use the word “killed” in the sense that, yes, a fatality occurred as an end result, but not due to anything intentional on the driver’s part.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty struck and killed – again, I’m using that word in context that a death resulted, but it was not from an overt or intentional act upon Petty’s part – an 8-year-old boy during a drag race on Feb. 28, 1965 in Dallas, Ga.

Petty had temporarily left NASCAR racing that season in a dispute over the use of a new and potent 426 Hemi motor that the sanctioning body banned.

With NASCAR still a regional sport based in the Southeast, Petty moved to drag racing, which had caught fire in its Southern California birthplace a decade earlier and progressively moved east and grew into something that was arguably even bigger than NASCAR at the time.

Petty was in a race on that fateful day when something happened to his Plymouth Barracuda. Either something broke or he lost control – or both. Sadly, the end result was Petty’s car left the dragstrip racing surface and plowed into a crowd of fans, killing little Wayne Dye and injuring several other spectators.

After a long and thorough investigation, the accident was ruled just that, and Petty was not charged with any type of offense that stemmed from the crash.

But Petty has carried that memory with him for nearly 50 years. To this day, he still gets upset talking about it, and more often than not simply refuses to discuss it. Stewart is also going to carry the memory of what happened Saturday night with himself as well for the rest of his life.

For now, regardless of what all the “experts” say or media types looking to grab attention with a flashy headline insist, we know only two things for certain:

One, Tony Stewart was involved in an accident, and two, a young man died. Everything else is an unknown until a thorough and proper investigation is performed, no matter how long it takes to complete.

And when that investigation is completed, it will be by trained and REAL experts who will come to a rational and logical conclusion based upon facts and evidence – and not opinion.

As someone once told me many years ago when I first got into journalism, “Opinions without facts are like noses. They both can smell.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Berlin Formula E race gets new layout at Tempelhof Airport

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Formula E has confirmed that June’s Berlin ePrix at Tempelhof Airport will use a revised layout to the one run in its first season.

Made famous for its role during the Berlin Airlift in the early Cold War years, Tempelhof Airport closed in 2008 and was turned into a public park, becoming the location for Formula E’s first visit to Germany in 2015.

The recent refugee crisis saw Tempelhof be turned into a temporary camp, forcing Formula E to move to the city center for season two.

Government officials in Berlin announced earlier this year that Formula E would not be able to return to the Alexanderplatz region for 2017, with the all-electric series opting to return to Tempelhof.

The series has now confirmed that it will race with a revised layout at the airport for the upcoming double-header in order to reflect the faster nature of the cars used in season three compared to the season one runners.

For us as a German team with German partners, and me as a German driver, it is great news that we will have two home races this season,” ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport’s Daniel Abt said.

“It’s no secret that I loved the track around Karl-Marx-Allee a lot. But now that I have seen the new Tempelhof layout, I can’t wait to get there. The fans will love the unique setting that brings everyone so close to the action and us drivers.

“The track is perfect for great racing and a lot of overtaking. I’m looking forward to meeting my home crowd. We will put on a great 48-hour Formula E party for the fans in Berlin.”

The Berlin ePrix takes place on June 10-11.

Lewis Hamilton: F1 needs Fernando Alonso competing in a quick car

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton says the sport needs Fernando Alonso to be racing in a competitive car so that the Spaniard can show his quality and fight for race wins again.

Alonso won world titles in 2005 and 2006, but is yet to add a third to his collection despite being in contention for the drivers’ crown at the final race in 2007, 2010 and 2012.

Since joining McLaren in 2015, Alonso has been mired in F1’s midfield amid ongoing issues with the team’s Honda power unit, preventing him from even finishing on the podium in that period.

2017 looks poised to offer one of the closest title fights in recent years between Mercedes driver Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the latter winning the opening race of the year in Australia.

Speaking about the prospect of a close title fight with Vettel, Hamilton said he relished the idea, but wants to see Alonso battling at the front once again as well.

“I think the fans want to see that but even between all of us. We need [Fernando] to have a good car so he can get up there and fight with us as well, before his time’s up,” Hamilton said.

“We got a hint that it’s another couple of years at least, so that’s good. I feel we’re yet to see the best of Fernando. The sport needs that and he deserves to be able to show that.

“You want to be racing against the best. I think that’s what the fans want to see. That close racing and sheer competitiveness and see the ups and downs of the best doing their best.

“I’m definitely looking forward to racing with all these guys and I hope there’s lots of close racing.”

Alonso and Hamilton were last in contention for a championship together in 2012, when they raced for Ferrari and McLaren respectively, only for Vettel to clinch a third crown with Red Bull.

Honda teams to test at Sonoma Raceway on April 4

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Honda’s Verizon IndyCar Series teams are set visit Sonoma Raceway on April 4 for an all-day test session for the manufacturer.

Andretti Autosport (Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, and Takuma Sato), Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Max Chilton), Dale Coyne Racing (Sebastian Bourdais and Ed Jones), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin), and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Graham Rahal) are all scheduled to run. Of that group, Kanaan, Andretti, and Dixon are former winners at Sonoma Raceway.

The Sonoma test follows Honda’s March 24 test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, Team Penske also scheduled a team test at the 2.5-mile oval on the same day, forcing Honda to share the track with their rival manufacturer.

However, no such conflict appears to be in play on Saturday. The test will be open to the public as well with free admission into the facility. Testing will run from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. local time.

Justin Timberlake to play this year’s U.S. Grand Prix at COTA

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Taylor Swift playing last year’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin was always going to be a hard act to match, or perhaps top.

Yet COTA has pulled it off with confirmation Wednesday that Justin Timberlake will be playing on the Saturday before this year’s race, on October 21.

Timberlake will play at the conclusion of track activity on Saturday for a full show. Tickets go on sale this Friday at 10 a.m. CT, with more info via COTA’s website. Here’s the pertinent details:

  • The concert will take place at COTA’s Super Stage Festival Lawn, not Austin360 Amphitheater
  • Seating is general admission, first come first served
  • All holders of a Saturday ticket for USGP weekend, including the 3-day GA wristband, will have access to the show

Circuit of The Americas announced a crowd of more than 80,000 last year for T-Swift, for her first and only planned concert of the year.

Timberlake is on par from a stratospheric level as Swift is. And half the draw of the COTA weekend, it seems, is ensuring you can get concertgoers to the track as well.

This should make for a fun end-of-day on Saturday.