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

Esteban Ocon secures Mercedes DTM seat for 2016

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Sunday 29 November 2015.
Esteban Ocon (FRA, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _G7C8733
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2015 GP3 Series champion Esteban Ocon will race in the DTM championship this year with Mercedes in tandem with a reserve role in Formula 1 at Renault.

Ocon joined Mercedes’ junior program in the spring of 2015 before becoming a fully-fledged member at the end of the year just days before his GP3 title success.

The Frenchman was known to be considering a move into either DTM or GP2 for 2016, but will now replace F1-bound Pascal Wehrlein at Mercedes’ factory team for the new DTM campaign.

“It’s an incredible feeling to be part of such a professional and strong racing series,” Ocon said.

“I’m very pleased to be driving for Mercedes-Benz. It’s the best team in the DTM and I’m very grateful for this fantastic opportunity.

“Mercedes is the most successful manufacturer in DTM history. You can only achieve that with real passion and hard work, and those are characteristics that we share. After driving in free practice during the final race weekend of the 2015 season at Hockenheim, I can’t wait to start a DTM race.

“I obviously have a lot to learn, but my goal – and that of everyone in the team – is to fight for wins as soon as possible.”

Trident completes 2016 GP2 line-up with Armand

2015 GP2 Series Test 3.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Friday 4 December 2015.
Philo Armand (INA, Status Grand Prix).
Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _L0U4261
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Trident has completed its line-up for the 2016 GP2 Series season by signing Indonesian driver Philo Paz Armand.

Armand has previously raced in a number of European Formula Renault 2.0 championships, and most recently took part in half of last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 rounds, scoring one point.

Armand will now step up to GP2 for the 2016 season, racing alongside 2015 GP3 runner-up Luca Ghiotto at Trident.

“We are very excited to start this collaboration with Philo and we are confident he will express all his talent thanks to the team’s help,” Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci said.

The grid for GP2’s support series, GP3, is also beginning to come together for the new season following the announcements of Tatiana Calderon and Honda junior Nirei Fukuzumi.

Calderon moves into GP3 from FIA F3 and will race for Carlin, while Fukuzumi joins ART Grand Prix, continuing the French squad’s association with Honda.

Marchionne calls for Alfa Romeo to consider F1 entry

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  The Alfa Romeo 4C on display at the Vanity Fair Campaign Hollywood Alfa Romeo Ride and Drive luncheon at The Polsky Residence on February 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
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Fiat-Chrysler CEO and Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne believes that Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo must consider entering Formula 1 with a team in the near future.

Alfa Romeo last raced as a constructor in F1 between 1979 and 1985, but has enjoyed no involvement within the series since 1988 when it supplied engines to the Osella team.

Marchionne believes that a return to F1 would be an effective way for Alfa Romeo to grow as a brand and gain more public awareness.

“In order to restore their name, they must consider returning to Formula 1,” Marchionne told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Alfa Romeo are capable of making their own chassis, just like they are capable of making their own engine,” he added, before conceding that it could enjoy an engine supply from Ferrari should it wish to enter F1.

Marchionne believes that adding more manufacturers to the F1 grid is key to safeguarding the long-term future of the series.

“In the end this sport must be saved,” Marchionne said.

“The important thing is to make other car manufacturers enter grand prix racing.”

Grosjean unveils new helmet design for first F1 season with Haas

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Romain Grosjean has revealed his new-look helmet design ahead of his first Formula 1 season with Haas in 2016.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas won the race to get an F1 team on the grid back in 2014, and has spent the past 18 months meticulously planning its arrival in the sport.

Haas F1 Team’s full debut is now just five weeks away, with the first on-track test of its new car coming on February 22 in Barcelona.

Grosjean walked away from Lotus at the end of last year to join Haas for the new season, where he will race alongside former Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez.

In a post on his Twitter account on Saturday, Grosjean unveiled his new helmet design for the 2016 season, featuring plenty of Haas signage.

Grosjean also revealed earlier this week that he would be racing with a tribute to Jules Bianchi on his helmet, who died at the age of 25 last July.