Tony Stewart fatal crash 8-9-2014

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

Grace Autosport continuing to build program towards May

L to R: Grace Autosports Team Principal Beth Paretta and race driver Katherine Legge launch an all-female Indy 500 team to contest the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 (PRNewsFoto/Grace Autosport)
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One of the newest teams planning to field an entry at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Grace Autosport, continues its preparations in what could be a hectic month of February.

The primarily female initiative, led by Beth Paretta with Katherine Legge as nominated driver, has gained traction in the last month or so with further meetings, STEM events and Legge’s standout drive in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opening race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

While announced last May, time is of the essence for securing both an engine lease and a team partner, to go along with the crew already established.

The target to confirm both the engine and team partner is coming up next month.

“[We’d need to finalize] by the beginning of March to give it proper time,” Paretta told NBC Sports in an interview following the Rolex 24.

Paretta was on site at Daytona for the Rolex 24 for a number of meetings with manufacturers and other key industry stakeholders, to continue to promote the Grace Autosport message, brand and team.

“Yes, there were a few key meetings – some planned, some impromptu – which went very well,” she said.

“The awareness still surprises me. I was wearing a Grace Autosport hat in the paddock and a few people asked me about the team. Many people in the racing community have said they think the concept is cool and have offered help.

“I get offers for help from some guys that have worked on teams I’ve worked with in the past, which is lovely.”

Legge’s drive at Daytona in the DeltaWing DWC13 coupe didn’t hurt matters, either.

The Tim Keene-led team opted not to qualify in the treacherous, rain-soaked conditions. Legge started the car and went from 13th and last in the Prototype class field up to third within the first 20 minutes, and led by the end of the first hour.

In a career that’s had occasional standout drives, this was one of them, and came at a good time.

“Her drive in the DeltaWing was just fantastic. While she was leading overall I was talking with some other racing drivers in pit lane and one said, almost dismissively, ‘Well, that car was really fast,’” Paretta said of Legge.

“Yes, it was, but she has been an integral part of the development of that car and part of the reason why it’s become faster. Any IMSA fan knows that the DeltaWing project has had a lot of challenges so I think to see it running up front was a nice surprise for many fans. People like an underdog so I think it was really exciting to watch her climb through the field and run up front.”

Legge was due to share the car with Andy Meyrick, Sean Rayhall and Andreas Wirth before Meyrick got caught up in a strange accident, where a radio issue meant Meyrick didn’t fully hear there was another PC car stopped on course in the middle of Turn 1.

Although Meyrick braked earlier than normal to avoid it, proved by the data, he still wound up hitting Chris Cumming’s stranded car which took the DeltaWing out of the race. Cumming’s PC car was also severely wounded.

The DeltaWing aside, where Legge and Grace really seek to make strides is in STEM events. Legge and Paretta recently did an event in Indianapolis with the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc., last week.

The STEM portion is a major component of the Grace Autosport effort.

“STEM and education for girls is the foundation of Grace Autosport. It isn’t a throwaway comment connecting racing with a ’cause.’ It is why we are racing,” Paretta said.

“Even though we have yet to turn a wheel, we are working with different groups supporting educational initiatives for girls and young women. We participated in the Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference, which was held in Nashville in October, and this week Katherine and I will be delivering the keynote address to a conference for science teachers in the State of Indiana.

“So STEM education isn’t a pet cause for us, it is the cause for what we are doing. We will be making a few more announcements in the coming months that we will explain how we will connect our message to the community and the classroom.”

Jake Eidson steps up to Pro Mazda with Cape in 2016

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Jake Eidson came up short of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship last year, losing out to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Nico Jamin.

Now, at the next step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, they’ll be teammates.

Jamin was confirmed last week with Cape for his step up from USF2000 into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and this morning Eidson, the 20-year-old out of Littleton, Colorado, was confirmed as Cape’s second driver.

“I’m extremely grateful and excited to enter my first season of Pro Mazda and to rejoin Cape Motorsport with Wayne Taylor Racing,” Eidson offered.

“After finishing second in last year’s USF2000 championship, we weren’t sure if moving up to Pro Mazda was possible. When the season was over, we tested with the Capes and quickly knew that they have a winning team. Fortunately, we were able to make the 2016 season achievable.

“I know that my goal, as well as the team’s goal, is to aim for the top spot in the Pro Mazda championship and I have a lot of confidence in their ability to make it happen. This is a dream come true and I can’t wait to get started!”

It’s a natural progression for Eidson, who ran two full seasons in USF2000. His first came with Cape in 2014 where he finished third in points, before he moved to Pabst Racing and was one of only two drivers (Aaron Telitz) to pose a threat to Jamin as the year progressed.

Eidson is supported in his efforts by Rising Star Racing, DA Lubricants Company, Bell Helmets, OMP, Team USA Scholarship, and SafeisFast.

The top three USF2000 drivers all moving up to Pro Mazda is important for the second rung on the ladder; they’ll race arguably the championship favorite in Garett Grist plus his three young, hungry teammates at Juncos Racing, with other driver announcements to come in the coming days.

Red Bull GRC confirms Wild Horse Pass for season opener

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Phoenix was listed as the season opener for the 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross season, but a location was not confirmed.

Today though, the series has confirmed where the Phoenix round will be held: at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway.

It’s in Chandler, Arizona, technically, but it should still be a good spot for the season-opening doubleheader round.

The full release is below:

For the first time in series history, Red Bull Global Rallycross will visit the state of Arizona during the 2016 season. Red Bull GRC Phoenix, the season opener and first of four doubleheaders on the schedule, will take place at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, one of the most diverse motorsports playgrounds in the United States.

“The southwest is a crucial market for Red Bull GRC, with many of our most passionate fans located in the region,” said Red Bull GRC CEO Colin Dyne. “The opportunity to bring our unique brand of racing to the Phoenix market for the first time was something we couldn’t pass up. Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is the perfect setting for us as we look to open our finest season yet.”

Located just off of I-10, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is located only 15 minutes from downtown Phoenix, with ample parking and amenities on-site. Fans will be treated to a challenging and fast mile-long track, featuring the series’ signature 70-foot jump, and will be able to see all the action from great spectator areas overlooking the entire facility.

This will be the first time that a Red Bull GRC season begins with a doubleheader. Performing well in the opener has been a constant step towards winning a title, as no Red Bull GRC champion has ever finished worse than fourth in the first race of the year. Defending Supercar champion Scott Speed and defending GRC Lites champion Oliver Eriksson finished second and third in class, respectively, in last year’s opener; both drivers are expected to begin their title defense in Phoenix.

In no great surprise, McLaren also passes crash tests

xxxx during day four of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.
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The new McLaren chassis, the MP4-31, has passed its crash tests ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 season, the team has confirmed today.

This means all 11 teams have had their new chassis complete the crash test and thus be ready for action starting with the first test of the winter February 22-25 at Barcelona, in Spain. Sauber has already indicated it will debut its new chassis at the second test.

McLaren, of course, will be looking for a better start to its season with race drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button and reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne. Alonso’s mysterious accident last spring at Barcelona ruled him out of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.