Lessons learned from Dale Earnhardt death readily seen in way NASCAR has dealt with Tony Stewart tragedy


HAMPTON, Ga. — While it did not occur on its watch or under its jurisdiction, NASCAR has still been forced to deal with the fallout of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

Because one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, Tony Stewart, was involved, the sanctioning body was brought into the fray by default.

Unless they were in a cave the last three weeks, many casual observers to even non-motorsports fans have been made aware of the incident by almost non-stop news coverage.

And many of those same observers or non-fans have the mistaken misconception that because Ward was killed on a race track in an incident with a NASCAR driver, that somehow NASCAR was involved.

That’s simply not the case. The race on August 9 in upstate New York was on a dirt track and in a race series that has no association with NASCAR whatsoever.

Complicating the issue for the casual observers and non-motorsports fans is the fact that Ward was killed in a sprint car race, which sounds too close to a race in NASCAR’s premier series, the Sprint Cup Series.

You can see the confusion quite readily.

With Stewart having sat out the last three races – Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – to grieve himself as well as not race out of respect to the young Ward, NASCAR had to both deal with the fallout of what happened to Stewart as well as prepare for his eventual return.

That return has come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And before Stewart climbed back into his No. 14 Chevrolet, NASCAR enlisted several outside professionals to assure that Stewart was mentally, emotionally and physically ready to get behind the wheel.

In a sense, NASCAR has had to deal with the Stewart situation in a similar fashion as when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The sanctioning body had to close ranks inward to not only deal with the mourning and grief related to Earnhardt’s death, but also had to devise a plan to keep the series moving forward.

It’s been kind of the same way with Stewart. Although he was not killed, he was involved in an incident where another driver lost his life.

In both Stewart’s and Earnhardt’s case, there were resulting investigations, questions about safety and enhanced enforcement of existing rules.

Most notably, just days after the Stewart-Ward incident, NASCAR made it very clear to all competitors across not only its three professional series but all of its sportsman series as well, that it would ratchet up enforcement over drivers getting out of their wrecked race cars before a safety crew arrived on-scene.

NASCAR said it would significantly increase the potential for monetary and points penalties to keep drivers in their cars until assisted out.

The only exception is if a race car was on fire or a driver was in imminent danger of being further involved in yet another wreck not of his or her making (like being on the other side of a blind hill or turn on a road course).

Now that he is back racing, don’t think that NASCAR has ended its oversight of Stewart or actions of other drivers. If NASCAR subsequently believes that Stewart still isn’t fully recovered or healed from especially the mental and emotional parts of the Ward incident, it can park him just as easily as it reinstated him.

Through Friday and Saturday’s practice sessions, as well as Friday’s qualifying round, there was no reason to think such would occur. Stewart qualified 12th for Sunday night’s race at AMS and appears to be as close to being back to normal – at least from a racing perspective – as he was prior to the Ward tragedy.

NASCAR learned a lot of lessons after Earnhardt’s death and, while the circumstances of Stewart’s incident are significantly different, even more lessons have been learned over the last three weeks.

And the end result is the same:

NASCAR takes the responsibility to make its racing as safe as humanly possible very, very seriously.

The sport hurt for a long time after Earnhardt passed away, needing more than a year to mourn and grieve, but it ultimately survived and carried on.

It, too, will eventually get through the Stewart situation. It’s all part of the healing process for everyone.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Optimism abounds with new INDYCAR media partnership

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Wednesday morning’s announcement that NBC Sports Group will become the exclusive home to the Verizon IndyCar Series via TV, digital, streaming, and direct-to-consumer rights was the conclusion of a long and thorough process to finalize a media partnership that can build on the recent growth of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And CEO of Hulman & Company Mark Miles believes the final outcome is one everyone can be happy about.

“We’re delighted by every aspect of this announcement today and these arrangements,” Miles asserted in a media teleconference on Wednesday, also making note of a number of highlights about the new media package. “The increase in broadcast, the number of races on broadcast, is really important to the continued growth of the series. The continuity with one media partner who is committed to the sport and to INDYCAR, who can help promote from race to race to race to race throughout the season is important. Having our first product, if you will, our first offering to fans in the direct-to-consumer channel is important to us.”

Miles added, “It met our objectives of increasing the exposure of the sport, increasing the promotion of the sport, and getting us into the over-the-top (streaming) market. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

MORE: NBC Sports Group, INDYCAR partner on new TV and digital rights agreement starting in 2019

John Miller, president of programing for NBC Sports and NBCSN, echoed Miles’ enthusiasm and noted that INDYCAR viewership on NBCSN has grown substantially in recent years, and this new and enhanced partnership, which will feature the 103rd Indianapolis 500 broadcast on NBC in 2019, will build upon that.

“From the NBC perspective, we’ve seen the growth of IndyCar on our cable network NBCSN. We’ve had sustained growth each of the past several years. So the opportunity to have the entire series was very important to us. Of course, to be able to do the crown jewel, the Indy 500 on NBC, really puts the icing on the cake for us and makes our championship season portfolio even stronger,” Miller said.

James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, added that this will also help the individual drivers grow their brands and attract more sponsorship opportunities.

“As drivers, we’re out there risking our lives to put on a good show,” Hinchcliffe said. “The more people that get to see it, get entertained by it, the better it is for us. As athletes, we’re all individual brands in and of ourselves. Getting ourselves in front of more people, it raises our value to our current partners and potential partners. From every element, this is a huge win across the board.”

The sponsorship angle is a critical side-piece to the new media contract, especially in light of several new sponorship announcements for a number of IndyCar teams as well as IndyCar’s ongoing effort to find a new title sponsor for the series in 2019.

Miles further emphasized that new media partnership will do a lot to serve the business of the teams, drivers, and the series in regards to sponsorship.

“I think it’s important to the entirety of the IndyCar ecosystem,” Miles noted. “For the series itself, at some point we should talk about our sponsorship effort, how we think they’re going to be benefited with this relationship. James earlier talked about our drivers or athletes, and they are individual brands. They’ll get more exposure. That will be good for them.

“We earlier this morning spoke to our team owners. They’re enthusiastic about it as it gives them more to say in the marketplace, more value. Certainly that will be true for our promoters of the races as well.”

A few highlights of the partnership are below.

  • Eight races will be broadcast on NBC, including the Indianapolis 500. The remaining races will be broadcast on NBCSN.
  • Qualifying and practice for all events will also be available live, either through NBC, NBCSN,NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports App, or NBC Sports Gold an over-the-top streaming service offered by NBC.
  • NBC Sports Gold will also feature extra content to further supplement IndyCar coverage such as archived races and full event replays. Further information about that content will be revealed in the coming months.
  • Details about international coverage are pending.
  • NBC Sports Gold will also do a handful of exclusive live broadcasts for practice and qualifying sessions that are not televised.
  • NBC Sports Gold will do live broadcasts for all Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races. More details about coverage for the Indy Lights and Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires series will come at a later date.