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.