Tony Stewart fatal crash 8-9-2014

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


Editor’s note:’s MotorSportsTalk writer Jerry Bonkowski has spent over 30 years as a sports writer, columnist and editor covering NASCAR and motorsports for USA Today,, 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

Sean Rayhall’s season of variety rolls on with Thunderhill drive in Radical SR3

Photo: Darkhorse Autosport
Photo: Darkhorse Autosport
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I guess at a certain point, it’s good to lose count of how many types of machinery a driver has driven in a calendar year?

Anyway, Sean Rayhall can add a Radical SR3 sports prototype to his diverse year of driving. Just off the top of my head, he’s driven a partial season in Indy Lights, where he won twice, he drove a few races in IMSA in the Prototype Challenge class, he tested an IndyCar with Chip Ganassi Racing at Sonoma, he tested the radical DeltaWing prototype last month at Daytona, and he’s had other GT and stock car machinery he’s been in.

In other words, give the 20-year-old Georgian four wheels and he’ll find a way to wheel it… quickly.

Rayhall joins John Falb, Todd Slusher and Jeff Shafer in the No. 67 ONE Motorsports Radical for this weekend’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill at the 2.86-mile, 15-turn road course. Rayhall finished on the podium in this race last year.

“I am delighted to take on the challenge of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill again this year with ONE Motorsports!” he said. “I think they will provide one of the best cars on the grid as usual, and I’m sure my teammates and I will keep it flat the entire time! Hopefully, we follow up last year’s podium with a win! That is always the target.

“This close to Thanksgiving, you have to count your blessings. Silver Arrow Technologies and Bass Egg are right towards the top of my list. They have, literally, kept the wheels on our programs this year. I’m looking forward to going out to Thunderhill and closing out the year on the best note we can for both of them.”

Rayhall is one of a number of ace sports car and open-wheel drivers set to tackle Thunderhill this weekend.

As for Rayhall’s 2016 plans, they remain a work in progress, with nothing confirmed as yet. Rayhall is targeting to do as many Indy Lights and sports car races as possible, with several team options in play.

Wehrlein, Ghiotto, Rosenqvist, Carlin trio headline new entries for GP2 testing

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Testing rolls on this week at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. However, following today’s one-day Pirelli tire test for the Formula 1 teams and drivers, action will shift to the GP2 Series for the next three days.

Mercedes reserve driver and past DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein (PREMA Racing), FIA Formula 3 European champion Felix Rosenqvist (Status Grand Prix, then PREMA), GP3 runner-up Luca Ghiotto (Trident) and Carlin’s trio of Dean Stoneman, Richie Stanaway and Antonio Giovinazzi are among the notable drivers added to the testing list this week.

Carlin team boss Trevor Carlin noted the desire for his team to improve following a mostly tough 2015:

“We’re keen to get strong preparations for 2016 underway after a somewhat disappointing season,” he said. “We know we have three very talented drivers with us this week and the aim is to work on the progress we’ve made in the last few races with Dean and continue that with the experienced feedback of Richie.

“We’re delighted to give Antonio this opportunity; he has been a great asset to the team over the last two seasons and we’re excited to see him in a GP2 car for the first time this week.”

The full list of drivers and teams testing for the first day can be found here, via the GP2 official website.

On #GivingTuesday, James Hinchcliffe asks to check out Trauma Pit Crew story

James Hinchcliffe
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The unsung heroes of this and any Verizon IndyCar Series season are, without question, the safety crews.

It’s rare to find anything within the INDYCAR paddock that enjoys near universal approval and a positive rating, but in the Holmatro Safety Team, the appreciation cannot be ignore.

The Holmatro Safety Team’s efforts on-site at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help save James Hinchcliffe’s life after his accident in practice for this year’s Indianapolis 500 were miraculous.

Hinchcliffe posted a video message on Instagram today (linked below) that asks viewers/readers to check out the story of the Trauma Pit Crew – the staff who took care of him after the Holmatro Safety Team’s efforts.

Hinchcliffe arrived at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, where IU Health Trauma Surgeon Tim Pohlman, MD and his team set to work – the Trauma Pit Crew site.

He didn’t remember the details of the accident (recorded at a staggering 126 G’s), which they consider a blessing.

The blog from the IU Methodist website quotes Hinchcliffe as saying, “I received world class care. But more important than that, every single person from nurses to surgeons to all other staff could not have been nicer. After my care, I considered faking an illness so I could go back to see them!”

The Trauma Pit Crew website itself, however, reveals even more details about the team.

We’d share elements of the Trauma Pit Crew page, but it’s probably going to be more powerful – and more meaningful – to read the story in full directly on that website. It’s well worth your time.

Report: Harvey seeking to get IndyCar program sorted by Christmas

Photo: Indy Lights
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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As noted on Monday, there hasn’t been much movement in the Verizon IndyCar Series driver market for 2016, and the available seats left out there are exactly the same ones (in theory, anyway) as they were this time 12 months ago.

And if Jack Harvey can get his program sorted, arguably the most intriguing of those remaining seats – the second seat alongside James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – could go away itself.

Harvey, who has been working to gather the necessary budget since the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September to graduate into IndyCar, has said he’s close for the better part of a month.

In early November, Harvey told The Linc in the U.K. there was an 80 percent chance he’d be in IndyCar next season.

He’s now expanded on those hopes in an interview with Autosport’s Marcus Simmons, renowned in U.K. circles as one of the leading journalists in discovering young open-wheel talent.

“The sooner the better,” Harvey told Simmons. “If we could be in before Christmas it would be better for me and the team, so we’re trying to work towards that.

“But we want to make the best deal, not just rush one – our foot’s in the door and it’s time to push the whole body through.”

He “graduates” from the Racing Steps Foundation this year; the RSF has been an instrumental part of Harvey’s upbringing.

Realistically, SPM makes the most sense for Harvey to graduate with. He’s been with SPM’s Indy Lights program the last two years, where he bagged seven wins, finished on the podium in 60 percent of his starts and finished second each of the last two years.

And frankly, he’s due for the opportunity. You can say “oh, he didn’t win a title” – but consider the list of Indy Lights non-champions in the current IndyCar field, a list that includes race winners Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball and Carlos Munoz among others – and he’d be more than fine to fit in.

Plus, with Spencer Pigot already confirmed for at least a three-race program with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with hopes of more, it would be nice to see the two protagonists from this year’s Indy Lights battle continue their rivalry at the next level.