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

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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

MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: 2016 Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock with his dogs, Roscoe and Coco during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Belgium with a 19-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship and on a four-race win streak that has seen him overhaul Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the title race.

Hamilton and Rosberg look set to renew their rivalry once again this weekend at Spa – the site of their infamous clash in 2014 – setting the stage for a thrilling race.

MotorSportsTalk F1 writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno have made their predictions for the coming weekend – let us know in the comments section below what you think.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. Rosberg’s title bid may have taken a knock in the run-up to the summer break, but with Hamilton set to take a grid drop this weekend, I can’t look past the German for victory.

Surprise Finish: Max Verstappen. With an army of Dutch fans set to descend on Spa, I’m going to back Verstappen to give them a reason to celebrate by finishing second behind Rosberg.

Most to Prove: Ferrari. After a winless opening to the season that has seen the team slip behind Red Bull in the constructors’ standings, Ferrari needs to recover quickly. Spa-master Kimi Raikkonen will want a podium this weekend. Let’s see if he can deliver.

Additional Storyline: Esteban Ocon’s F1 debut. In the pay driver era, it’s refreshing to see a driver secure a seat on talent and talent alone. Ocon has won pretty much everything he’s raced in, so deserves a shot. Quite how he stacks up against Pascal Wehrlein in the second Manor will be of particular interest.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. With Lewis Hamilton staring down the barrel of starting from the rear of the grid, the golden opportunity exists for Rosberg to take a seismic win at a track where success has eluded him. He has to seize his opportunity.

Surprise Finish: Valtteri Bottas. I could see the Williams-Mercedes as a strong package here in Spa. Top-five could be achievable for a team and driver that needs it.

Most to Prove: Daniil Kvyat. The Russian’s F1 career hangs in the balance and a good kickoff race to the second half of the season, say an eighth to 10th place finish, or at least qualifying/finishing ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr. would be a good way to start.

Additional Storyline: Manor teammates. Welcome Esteban Ocon, as the Frenchman makes his GP debut. How will he fare against Pascal Wehrlein?

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
3. Max Verstappen Red Bull

Roborace self-driving ‘DevBot’ makes public debut

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Roborace’s autonomous development car, the ‘DevBot’, made its public debut at Donington Park on Wednesday following collective Formula E testing.

Roborace was unveiled last November as a driverless support series for Formula E, advocating autonomous driving technology and aiming to further its development.

A video was released earlier this week showing the ‘DevBot’ – a modified, electric Ginetta LMP3 car – on-track at Silverstone before being brought to Donington Park on Wednesday for its public debut.

The ‘DevBot’ completed three laps under human control before being parked up on the main straight and left to pull away autonomously.

After a short wait, the ‘DevBot’ peeled away and completed the majority of a lap on its own before coming to a stop at the final corner. A circuit announcement said that the marshals stopped the car as a safety precaution.

The debate about autonomous racing has been fierce since Roborace was announced, with many believing it to go against the principle of motorsport and the human involvement.

When asked about Roborace earlier this year by NBC Sports, FIA president Jean Todt said that autonomous racing could not be anything more than a showcase and presentation of what the technology is capable of.

“Our members are human beings. It’s drivers, it’s competitors,” Todt said.

“Our members on the sport side have a racing licence, so we don’t give a racing licence to a robot.

“[Roborace] is a demonstration. It’s a kind of cloud in a global organization. We do a lot of demonstrations.”

Abt quickest on final day of first Donington Formula E test

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Daniel Abt of Germany and Audi Sport ABT Formula E Team prepares during the Formula E Championship race on November 22, 2014 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.  (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
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Daniel Abt made the most of drab conditions at Donington Park on Thursday to close out the first collective Formula E pre-season test at the top of the timesheets.

Overnight rain left the track damp at the start of the morning session, and although the skies remained overcast throughout the day, times were just a few tenths off the benchmark set on Wednesday by Jean-Eric Vergne.

Abt’s fastest lap of 1:30.073 from the morning session held out as the fastest time overall on Thursday despite a late flurry of full-power laps in the afternoon.

Nick Heidfeld finished the day second for Mahindra ahead of Nico Prost, while afternoon leader Vergne was fourth-fastest in the overall timesheets.

Jaguar Racing continued its driver evaluation by drafting in Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell to partner Adam Carroll. Tincknell finished with a fastest lap of 1:33.927, good enough for P16 in the morning session.

Thursday also saw Indy Lights title contender Dean Stoneman make his first Formula E appearance, driving for NextEV in place of Oliver Turvey – en route to Japan for Super GT – and Nelson Piquet Jr. – who had to leave early to go to the Red Bull GRC event.

Collective Formula E testing resumes at Donington Park next month, with another three days of running scheduled from September 5-7.

Gateway confirmed to return to IndyCar schedule

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 10:  A general view of the race during the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson Indy 250 on August 10, 2003 at the Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park is back on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, adding another oval and another Midwest track to the 2017 slate.

Next year’s race, which will run August 26, will be the first North American open-wheel race at the facility located in Madison, Ill. outside St. Louis since 2003.

Track owner and CEO Curtis Francois joined Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. (INDYCAR parent company) for the announcement.

“Today is a monumental day for the people of the St. Louis region,” Francois said in an INDYCAR release. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made at my hometown track. I knew someday we’d be making an announcement like this because I have such confidence in the people of this region and their commitment to great sporting events.

“More than a dozen track operators around the country sought this INDYCAR race for their communities,” he added. “I firmly believe we came out on top because of the energy, loyalty and commitment to great sports that sports fans of all kinds demonstrate each day in this community.”

Added Helio Castroneves, who won the most recent race there in 2003, “I think it’s great that we’re going back to Gateway. Personally, I like it because I’ve had success there but also that I used to race for Hogan (a St. Louis-based Indy car team in 1999) which makes it a special place to me. I won there with Team Penske in 2003 and there was an all-Brazilian podium with Tony (Kanaan) and Gil (de Ferran).”

The Gateway return has been several years in the works. Ed Carpenter tested a couple years ago to re-establish the track as a possible testing venue for IndyCar. Track officials, meanwhile, made several visits to IndyCar races in the interim, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve always felt Gateway was a great place to host IndyCar. This has been on my mind since 2012,” Francois told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the formal announcement. “I reached out and we had some substantive conversations. But it took time, effort and a lot of discussions to make sure we had the right date, right fan participation and just the overall atmosphere to host the race.”

There were seven prior open-wheel races at Gateway from 1997 through 2003. CART ran on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend from 1997 to 1999 before the race moved to mid-September in 2000. Once the Indy Racing League took over in 2001, the race ran in late August.

There were seven different winners, and all are fairly big names: Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Castroneves.