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

Made it: Haas F1 at ‘home’ at US Grand Prix

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Gene Haas heard the snickers, shook off the doubters and ignored the suggestion that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Looking up at his name in bold letters above the Haas F1 team tent in the paddock this week at the U.S. Grand Prix, it’s easy to allow him a few moments of self-congratulation heading into his team’s “home” race this weekend.

“Everybody made it sound like we were clueless getting into Formula One, that we’d be bumbling idiots. The Europeans were going to teach us a lesson,” Haas said. “I think when we showed up and were prepared with a competitive car that scored points, it set a very high bar … People didn’t think we could do it.”

The Formula One season has been dominated by Mercedes and the duel between teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. But the American rookie outfit has been one of the surprise stories from the rest of the grid.

An industrialist with roots in NASCAR and North Carolina, Haas jumped into Formula One with a flourish. His team has 28 points in its maiden season, all of them scored by veteran French driver Romain Grosjean. While far from the top, it’s also well above the bottom with a chance to climb over the final four races of the season.

Sunday’s race will be a chance for Haas F1 to wave the flag in front of American fans, too, during F1’s only U.S. stop.

“There is some pride for having and American flag on this car,” Grosjean said.

Haas F1 is the first American-led team on the grid in 30 years and the road getting here wasn’t easy. It actually crosses two continents, as the team is split between a design base in North Carolina and racing operations in England.

Haas was first granted his F1 team license in April 2014. The initial goal was to be racing in 2015. That proved to be too ambitious, so Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner took aim at 2016. Powered by a Ferrari engine, Haas debuted with an impressive first testing session, then took a step back with engine problems that kept them off the track.

“A lot of people lost sleep over that. That was not easy having to sit off the track and watching the other teams go round and round,” said Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez.

“We broke a lot of stuff,” Haas said.

The problems were fixed by the first race when Grosjean finished sixth in Australia and took two more top-10 finishes over the next three races. The success proved hard to maintain and Haas has only one other top 10 finish all season, none since the British Grand Prix in July.

Haas F1 got a boost two weeks ago when both cars qualified in the top 10 for the first time in Japan. But that came with a rookie mistake: teams that make stage three of qualifying have to start the race on their qualifying tires, forcing a change in pit strategy from one stop to two, and they finished out of the points.

Still, the qualifying performance raised hopes for more points over the final four races.

“We finished seven times in 11th,” Steiner said. “It’s about time we finish four times 10th.”

Grosjean left the former Lotus team to join the Americans, and Haas credits him with being a steady hand in the car all season.

“He didn’t know what we had and we could have been a complete and utter disaster,” Haas said. “He took a big risk.”

Haas won’t commit to a driver lineup for 2017. Gutierrez was a test driver for Ferrari when he signed with Haas, but he hasn’t scored a point this season, finishing 11th five times. Haas understands American fans want an American driver but suggested that’s not an option anytime soon.

Some fans had hoped Haas would sign Alexander Rossi, who finished 2015 driving for Manor. Rossi instead landed in IndyCar and stunned nearly everyone by winning the Indianapolis 500 in May as a rookie. Haas does have an American development driver, 18-year-old Santino Ferrucci.

“That sounds like simple equation: American team, American driver, American race track. It’s all American. The reality is there’s not that many American (Formula One) drivers,” Haas said. “Not exactly a good idea at this time. We really wanted experienced drivers.

“We don’t need to have everything perfect this year or the year after,” Haas said. “American drivers or American sponsors, those events will happen. It will be up to us to put it together.”

Related Haas F1 Team posts:


Q&A: Haas’ Santino Ferrucci chats with Will Buxton

Santino Ferrucci at HQ-903
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He may have a European sounding name, but Santino Ferrucci is all-American.

And the Woodbury, Connecticut native hopes to one day bring his American heritage and talent to Formula 1.

He’s certainly in the right place: The 18-year-old development driver for the Haas F1 team based in Kannapolis, North Carolina, has had a whirlwind year thus far.

Not only has he had one podium in GP3 competition, he still has one last race (Abu Dhabi) to finish the season in the top 10 (he’s currently 12th).

Ferrucci visited with NBCSN’s Will Buxton during Friday afternoon’s second F1 practice at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Here are some excerpts of that interview:


“It was fantastic. That car, under breaking, is insane, just pulling 5 gs down there and going from 210 to 60 mph in less than 60 feet is pretty radical.”


“Right now, I’m just taking it slow. I’m still 18, enjoying GP3, looking to go back there for another year, learning, still have a lot to do working with Haas on a day-to-day basis with Haas as a development driver. I’m learning a lot about the car and learning a lot with Romain (Grosjean) and Esteban (Gutierrez). I’m very honored to have an opportunity to drive for an American team.”


“Yeah, I’m there in a lot of the sessions. I’m actually standing most of the time next to Esteban’s race engineer, and I’m there in the intercoms listening to the chief engineer make decisions on tire strategy and what they’re going to do throughout the session. As soon as we finish the session, I get to hear the driver’s feedback and what they’re thinking about the car and see the changes they want to do for the next session. Since I drove the car at Silverstone back in July, I can relate to that a little bit of what they’re feeling most of the time. Certain tracks are a different feeling.”


“After you’re on top of the hill on (turn) one – it’s actually a cool view from the cockpit – and go down the hill and go to enter (turn) three and make that left, it’s completely blind and flat. So, when you turn in, you don’t really have a great reference. You also have to hit the apex curve as well. When you get that just right, it’s the greatest feeling in the world because you know you can keep it flat that much more into turn five and that little lift. When you look at it from TV point of view, there’s a hill there, but you just can’t see it.”


“I think with water, it’s going under the asphalt a little bit so it’s creating some bumps. I like that. It adds a of character and with those bumps you have to tune the suspension a bit more. In talking to the drivers at Haas, with those grooves, since they’re lined up in the direction of the track, there’s a little bit more locking up going on than normal. So it’s making a difficult to pass and you’ll see a lot more locking up going into turn 11 and 12 area. Obviously, with the grooved pavement, it’s not super flat, either, so it’s going to make for some fun racing.”


“Yeah, this track is brilliant. Sector one with the esses and then my favorite sector, sector three (turns 16-18). Take it flat, when you’re in there flat, it’s just how long do you want to keep it flat until you laugh. That’s always a little bit of a ballsy turn. So the second you pump the gas a little bit, you wish you would have kept it in just a little bit more.”


“Obviously, we’ve had some ups and downs. We’re a brand new team and learning everything about GP3. We’ve been on the back foot but we have great teammates and collected a ton of data. I’m looking forward to Abu Dhabi. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, some very long straights, some passing zones. To be honest, I like it.”

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United States GP Paddock Notebook – Friday

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the Pitlane during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The first two practice sessions are in the books for this weekend’s United States Grand Prix from Austin. As could be expected, it was a Mercedes-dominated afternoon, with Lewis Hamilton (FP1) and Nico Rosberg (FP2) splitting the two sessions atop the timesheets.

Red Bull made a late charge in the afternoon, while in its first day at its home track, Haas F1 Team had a forgettable afternoon.

Here’s a roundup of today’s posts, features and analysis from Friday at Circuit of The Americas:



There are a couple additional posts which will go live later tonight that will be included in Saturday’s Paddock Notebook.


Split decision at the top

Practice being practice, there’s not a huge ton of info to take away from today. But it was interesting to note that with both Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates leading a session, there wasn’t the immediate vibe either Rosberg or Hamilton has the clear edge heading into qualifying.

On background, Rosberg has the last two COTA poles, but as he somewhat astutely noted on Thursday, the past means nothing, and thinking about his prior form here won’t help him now. Call it cold, call it robotic, but also call it “working” for Rosberg.

And Hamilton’s got the last two COTA wins – and three from four years at the track – without having ever scored a pole here. So would he get down even if he doesn’t get the pole? Judging on history, the answer is no. But again, to quote Mark McGwire, we’re not here to talk about the past…

Vettel gets a reprimand

There’s a first time for everything, including Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel getting a reprimand in 2016.

The German went into the pit lane in second practice on the wrong side of the bollard (did not stay to the left), which triggered his first reprimand this year from the FIA.

Not ideal certainly for him, but not the end of the world.

Ricciardo’s new lid

Daniel Ricciardo has a special helmet this weekend, and the Australian has done a tribute to Evel Knievel. See it below.

A less than ideal #Haastin track debut

Between both cars being brought in a few minutes before the checkered flag in FP1 and then Esteban Gutierrez causing debris in FP2 (see Jamey Price photos below), plus neither car being that high up on the timesheets, it was not an ideal first day on track for the Haas F1 Team.

It wasn’t an easy day for us,” Gutierrez admitted in the team’s post-practice release. “Unfortunately, I had an issue with some aerodynamic parts. It disrupted our program as you get a shift on the car balance, which is obviously not ideal to get a reference and work on the setup. We’re investigating this, but we believe it’s down to vibrations.”

But there were still highlights. Romain Grosjean’s wife was spotted within the cockpit of his Haas VF-16 chassis, with a good spot by the @F1 official account:

Additionally, there was a great team banner in the crowd, and Stewart Haas Racing’s competition director Greg Zipadelli was on site.

The usual IndyCar folk-at-COTA vibe 

While we gained an American team racing at Circuit of The Americas this year in Haas F1 Team, sadly we’ve lost an American driver in Alexander Rossi.

But things are still good in Rossi’s world and it’s a relief for him that he’s already confirmed and all set with Andretti-Herta Autosport for next season in IndyCar. Both he and his father Pieter Rossi are here this weekend.

This dovetails nicely to the fact Conor Daly and Luca Filippi, who were teammates part of this year at Dale Coyne Racing, are also here – Filippi with his F1 TV commitments for Sky Sports and Daly making the rounds with Rossi as well. Daly was here through today before leaving.

Daly and Filippi are among the marquee free agents left in the IndyCar pool and while it’s always good to see them, it’s better when they’re in firesuits rather than street clothes. Daly spoke to NBCSN’s Will Buxton about his IndyCar prospects while I had a catch-up with Filippi this morning. The Italian is keen to have a more concrete 2017 season in terms of his actual driving commitments, since his early-season IndyCar opportunity with Coyne was a race-to-race only program.

The sign-off sign

Piiiiiiistop? Yes.

Congratulations, you guys. You’ve won the unofficial MST Paddock Notebook “Sign of the Day Screen Capture Award” for Friday, October 21.

More tomorrow after qualifying.

Barcelona to host 2017 F1 pre-season tests, Bahrain gets in-season running

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 23:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during day two of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 23, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain will host two tests ahead of the 2017 Formula 1 season as originally planned despite a push to move part of the running to Bahrain.

Barcelona has traditionally hosted F1’s pre-season running, with two tests provisionally scheduled for the end of February and beginning of March before the start of the season in Australia.

However, with Pirelli set to introduce a radically different tire specification for next season, a number of F1 team bosses believed it would be better to hold the running in Bahrain where conditions would be stable and warmer.

Mercedes’ Paddy Lowe said in Japan that F1 risked a repeat of the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if caution was not taken with the new tires.

However, the counter-argument was that holding testing outside of Europe would significantly bump up costs for all teams, having a particular impact on the grid’s smaller operations.

F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone met with officials from all 11 teams on Friday in Austin ahead of this weekend’s race to make a decision on pre-season testing.

Despite over half the grid wishing to have at least one test in Bahrain, the lack of unanimity means that both pre-season tests will remain in Barcelona.

Bahrain will however now host one of the in-season tests, as confirmed by Red Bull’s Christian Horner on Friday.

“We have had numerous debates about this and we had a meeting earlier today with Bernie about this,” Horner said.

“There was even a vote with the FIA earlier this week and with the way the regulations are currently written, to test outside of Europe, we would require the unanimous consent of all the teams and that doesn’t exist.

“It has been agreed that we will test in Barcelona pre-season and in order to find a compromise for assisting Pirelli after the Bahrain race, the first of the in-season tests will be in Bahrain.”

Possible 2017 Formula 1 Test Calendar


1. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya – February 27 – March 2 2017
2. Circuit de Barcelona-Cataluny – March 7-10 2017


1. Bahrain International Circuit – April 18-19 2017
2. Silverstone – July 11-12 2017