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

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.