Full transcript of Mike Helton press conference at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR president Mike Helton spoke with the media an hour after Tony Stewart read his self-prepared statement Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Helton was asked about the procedures and stipulations Stewart had to go through to be able to race again, as well as Stewart’s eligibility to still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Here is the full transcript of Helton’s comments and answers to questions from the media:

 

THE MODERATOR:  Welcome to NASCAR weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.  As you know, Tony Stewart will be returning to NASCAR competition today, will be participating in fact in practice starting within the half hour at 2:30 and then will participate in qualifying later this evening.

For this reason we’ve asked our president, Mike Helton, to address the media today.

MIKE HELTON:  Thank you.

I refer back to Steve O’Donnell’s release yesterday or statement on behalf of NASCAR that, as you know very clearly by now, we have cleared Tony to return as part of the normal process when a driver has been absent from participating.

It also mentioned in that release that we’ve been in close contact for the past several weeks with Stewart-Haas Racing monitoring and participating in conversations.  As you can imagine, once Tony was cleared to return and he decided to come back, the question goes to his possible eligibility in the Chase.

Before I get into that, I do want to join everybody else in the garage area in welcoming Tony back.  He’s been a great asset to NASCAR.  He’s been a great champion, a great participant in our sport, so it’s nice to have him back.

Back to the Chase part for just a second.  I’ll remind everybody back earlier this year when we announced the format for the ’14 Chase, that announcement included some responsibility about the routine participation in the season in order to be eligible in the Chase.

Along with that importance of routine participation also came the asterisk, so to speak, about accepting rare incidents.  This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport.  As the league, it’s our responsibility to try to make decisions that are correct and right.  Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can.

After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it.

So with that we can open up the floor for a few questions.

 

Mike, yesterday in the release Steve O’Donnell said specifically there were multiple clearances that Tony had to receive.  What was the nature of those?

MIKE HELTON:  As typical, our process calls for us to rely on third party experts to assure us that a NASCAR driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return.  All those forms of processes were met and we cleared him based on those third party inputs from experts.

 

Mike, as you know, when this incident first took place, there was a lot of confusion in the mainstream media over the incident, whether it involved NASCAR, you as the sanctioning body.  There’s a misconception that NASCAR sanctions a lot of things that it actually doesn’t.  A lot of people spent a lot of time trying to clear up that misconception.  By granting a waiver to Tony Stewart for something that originated by competing in another series, are you worried at all that that line may blur again between competition of what you’re in control of and what someone elects to do on their own time?

MIKE HELTON:  I don’t think so.  I think our scope of responsibility is to our membership, our events.  Sometimes incidents occur outside of the sanctioned event, a NASCAR sanctioned event, that we have to consider in the participation of members.  So I don’t think so.

 

Tony Stewart was just in here and read a statement.  Is obviously still stricken with grief.  How has NASCAR determined he’s ready to get back in the car?  Has anybody from the organization talked with him to make sure he is mentally ready or capable to be behind the wheel?

MIKE HELTON:  Throughout this period of time, as Steve mentioned in his statement yesterday, NASCAR has been in constant contact with Stewart-Haas Racing.  But when it comes to the assurances that a driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return, we’re going to rely on outside experts.

 

Mike, when you talk about outside experts, to clarify, in your process of evaluation, did you get psychological or psychiatric reports as part of your evaluation of Tony’s eligibility to return?

MIKE HELTON:  We received the ones that we felt were relevant under the circumstances.

 

These were from psychological professionals?  How can we categorize those?

MIKE HELTON:  The ones that were relevant to these circumstances.

 

The fact that the investigation into the tragedy is still ongoing, did you weigh that at all in your decision?  If for some reason Tony does actually face charges in this, would he be subject to any discipline?

MIKE HELTON:  We made our decisions based on the circumstances we’ve got currently.  And I think most everyone in this room understands at NASCAR, our effort, our scope of responsibility and authority is limited to the NASCAR community.

We take the current circumstances that we are dealt with and make what we hope to be the best absolute conclusion.  That’s what we’re talking about today, is the current set of circumstances and our reaction to them.

 

Mike, can you describe as much as possible how the actual process worked to get to this point where you’re able to make this announcement today.

MIKE HELTON:  Well, I think we have experience.  You’re well aware of our policies and procedures on reinstatement when someone is absent, for whatever reason it may be.  So these would apply to similar situations, except for the fact that this was very unique.

The reinstatement process doesn’t begin until the competitor is ready to come back.  That’s what we’ve been through this week.

 

Given these unique circumstances, has there been thought to adding a 17th position to the Chase?  Have you had any car owners suggest that?

MIKE HELTON:  We haven’t had anyone suggest it, and that’s not on the table right now.  It’s simply if Tony were able to earn a spot in the Chase, and our decision is currently yes.

 

Mike, you said you went through the whole process, the third party individuals with whom you spoke made it clear Tony could be reinstated.  How hard was the decision?  Was the evidence or information overwhelmingly easy or not?

MIKE HELTON:  I don’t know if we could categorize the ease of it.  This was a very challenging, a very unique situation.  I think the earlier press conference with Tony’s statement that he read was evidence of how overwhelming these set of circumstances have been.

I think particularly those of us that follow this sport every weekend know that driver’s healing processes are unique, but they are racecar drivers, and a lot of times getting back in a racecar is something they shoot to do as quickly as they can.

So once Tony decided to come back, we then had to go through the policies and the procedures and the steps that we’ve historically built over time to make the absolute most correct decision we could make under the circumstances we were handed.

THE MODERATOR:  Thank you, everybody.  Appreciate your time.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”