In strange twist, grand jury decision shows intent of a different kind in Tony Stewart – Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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Intent is one of the most difficult things to prove in court, particularly if there is no premeditation or it’s clear beyond a reasonable doubt that an assumed blatant and overt act has not been committed.

That’s why the Ontario County (N.Y.) grand jury on Wednesday really had no other choice but to absolve Tony Stewart of any blame in the tragic accident that took the life of young sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

As District Attorney Michael Tantillo said in a press conference, the grand jury that was convened to review all of the evidence, witness statements and sheriff’s office investigatory reports could not reasonably conclude that Stewart – who could have been charged with manslaughter in the second degree or criminally negligent homicide – was at fault in Ward’s death.

MORE: Grand jury: Tony Stewart will not face charges, Kevin Ward Jr. under influence of marijuana at time of accident

Granted, the startling revelation that Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident may have had some swaying effect upon the jury.

“There is toxicology evidence in the case relating to Kevin Ward that actually indicated at the time of operation, he was under the influence of marijuana,” Tantillo said. “…The levels that were determined were enough to impair judgment, yes.”

But it was Ward’s own actions that directly led to enough reasonable doubt to effectively clear Stewart of any culpability.

“However, I am sure from (the grand jury’s) deliberations and discussions, that the fact that Kevin Ward was observed running basically down two-thirds of the track into a hot track, and into the middle of other cars that were racing, played a big, big factor in their decision,” Tantillo said.

Which brings us back to intent.

Almost immediately after the August 9th incident, social media erupted into countless reactionary tweets, Facebook posts and the like ranging from Stewart was completely innocent to he was destined to have a long prison sentence.

MORE: Tony Stewart, NASCAR react after he’s cleared by grand jury in Kevin Ward Jr. death

Interspersed with many of those comments was the belief by some that Stewart may have intentionally intended to scare Ward, or perhaps to kick up dirt to shower Ward for getting out of his racecar and intentionally coming down the racetrack in some inane attempt to confront Stewart for forcing Ward into a retaining wall and wrecking his car on the previous lap.

If that were the case, it wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in dirt track racing – and likely won’t be the last. Racers oftentimes like to intimidate and teach other racers a lesson for any perceived injustice or for challenging them.

Yet through all of the days that followed the tragic incident of August 9, until Stewart was cleared by the grand jury on Sept. 24, there was never any concrete indication that Stewart indeed attempted to show up or scare Ward for his attempt to potentially challenge the NASCAR star.

Think about it, what would Stewart, a multi-millionaire and with one of the most public personas in NASCAR and motorsports as a whole, have to gain by intentionally striking – or at the very least – put a scare into Ward or to try and hit him with flying dirt?

This was not a Cup race. Rather, it was on the most basic of racetracks, on the grassroots level where drivers do all kinds of things to each other, from running opponents into the wall to slinging dirt and mud in their face.

MORE: D.A.: Varying witness accounts likely convinced grand jury of Tony Stewart’s innocence

Stewart wasn’t being a bully that night and trying to kick proverbial sand – in this case, dirt – in Ward’s face.

Rather from all indications, Stewart – who competes in sprint car races for the sheer enjoyment of it (some call it a hobby) – was merely trying to get out of the way of Ward, who was coming down the racing surface on a still-hot track, just like Tantillo said, in a dimly lit portion of the racetrack and while wearing an all-black firesuit that likely blended into the background.

Stewart was likely startled when, as he came out of Turn 1 and into Turn 2, suddenly Ward appeared in front of him. Stewart likely had no other choice but to react in what is perhaps one of the most unnatural reactions in the world: to gain enhanced steering and have added maneuverability for a sprint car, a driver has to hit the gas.

It may not seem logical in any other form of racing, but in sprint car racing, that’s how you gain better turning viability to avoid something that’s in front of you such as another car – or a driver seemingly hell-bent on giving you a piece of his mind for an incident that occurred one lap earlier.

The resulting acceleration allows the steering to react and potentially let a driver steer clear of whatever he’s trying to avoid. In this case, Stewart trying to avoid Ward.

But as the 20-year-old Ward continued his march down the racetrack, he made the fateful mistake of not getting out of Stewart’s path. It was that same mistake that ultimately led to his death.

There’s an old saying that two wrongs don’t make a right, but two wrongs by Ward did indeed make a right for Stewart in this case, as the grand jury ultimately decided.

And as it turned out, yes, there was plenty of intent in this case that was ultimately proved: That Ward was found to be intentionally high while racing, plus he intentionally left his racecar with the misguided intention to confront Stewart.

Really, what other choice did the grand jury have but to clear Stewart?

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Foyt, Coyne optimistic about Mid-Ohio after testing

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Along with Felix Rosenqvist and Chip Ganassi Racing, two other teams visited the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for testing ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (Sunday July 30, 3:00 p.m., CNBC). A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dale Coyne Racing sent their drivers and teams to Mid-Ohio in hopes of getting a leg up on things and building optimism ahead of this weekend.

For Foyt’s team in particular, the optimism is needed. Combined, drivers Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have only three top tens (two for Munoz, one for Daly) across a total of 24 starts, making them desperate for strong results to come their way.

Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz are hopeful that they can turn their seasons around at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity for Foyt’s duo to right the ship. Munoz has finishes of fourth, ninth, and third in three starts at the Lexington, Ohio road course, while Daly led late in last year’s race and finished an impressive sixth.

And a productive test last week has both feeling hopeful. “We needed this test to try big steps and different options and I think we gained a lot from where we started to where we finished,” said Munoz, whose best 2017 finish of seventh came at Barber Motorsports Park in April.

Munoz added that, while they are still playing catch up a little, the team gained valuable information that should help them this weekend. “The car was much more competitive from where we started so we closed the gap but we need a little bit more to compete with the top guys. But the information that we gathered will help us to show up stronger than we did at the test so I’m looking forward to going back,” he asserted.

Daly echoed Munoz’s sentiments and added that his near-win last year makes him upbeat ahead of the weekend. “It was a really productive (test) for us. Every day with this car and aero package we are learning more. I feel like I came quite close to winning the race last year so I’m hoping to have another strong result this year,” Daly expressed.

Technical Director Will Phillips added that the knowledge they gained should help them at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway at the end of the season, particularly in terms of maximizing the grip from the tires.

“We certainly believe that the area we made an improvement in will help us at all the road courses to come – we have been slow to extract performance from the tires at times and it was in this area that some changes we made had a very positive response,” Phillips described. “We will keep our feet on the ground but are optimistic that we can carry the gains through for the remainder of the year, not just for Mid-Ohio.”

On the other side, Dale Coyne Racing has been a giant-killer in 2017, winning at St. Petersburg with Sebastien Bourdais and finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 with Ed Jones. James Davison, Tristan Vautier, and Esteban Gutierrez have also impressed in fill-in roles for the injured Bourdais.

Dale Coyne Racing has shown a lot of speed in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

And while the team has also incurred more than it’s fair share of crash damage, they have consistently showcased speed at nearly every event, and the team’s drivers are confident Mid-Ohio will yield more of the same.

“We had a really good test last week at Mid-Ohio. It was very positive and we worked on a lot of things,” said Ed Jones, who has four starts at Mid-Ohio from his days in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with a best finish of sixth. “The car seemed pretty fast compared to others that were there. As we saw at Road America, it’s beneficial to be able to test somewhere before we race there. It can give you an advantage early on and hopefully we can produce another good result because of it.”

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez, making his sixth start for the team this weekend, is more modest of his expectations, but did reveal that a top ten finish could be realistic.

“In terms of objectives for the weekend, I want to keep on learning and it would be nice to reach the top ten. We know that it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for me in IndyCar but we’ve made some progress and hopefully we can make our way into the top ten pretty soon,” Gutierrez detailed.

Of the drivers mentioned here, Jones ranks the highest in the championship standings, currently sitting 12th. Munoz sits 15th, Daly 19th, and Gutierrez 25th in his fill-in role.

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Lando Norris also gets confirmed for Hungary test with McLaren

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McLaren Honda young driver Lando Norris has joined the list of those confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test as well.

He’ll run on the second day, Wednesday, of the two-day test with Stoffel Vandoorne running on day one, Tuesday.

The teenaged Brit races for Carlin in the FIA F3 European Championship this season and is one of the most talented prospects in the pipeline, following his karting career and early years in formula cars. This will mark his test debut in an F1 car.

He was announced as part of McLaren’s development program in February.

Norris was confirmed a little more than a week ago for next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 LMP2 car but this gives him his first go in a proper F1 rocketship.

 

Pirelli review says Raikkonen tire not faulty at Silverstone

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Formula One tiremaker Pirelli has concluded that Kimi Raikkonen’s tire damage late in the British Grand Prix was likely caused by external contact.

Raikkonen was set for second place in the July 16 race but his tire problem allowed Valtteri Bottas to complete a Mercedes one-two with Lewis Hamilton. The Finnish driver even looked set to lose his podium spot to his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, but in a bizarre twist he ended up third after Vettel’s own tire shredded.

The sight of two Ferraris capitulating within moments of each other led Pirelli to conduct extensive post-race tests on both cars. Raikkonen’s problem, Pirelli said in a statement Wednesday, did not come from the tire itself.

“The possible initial cause of this damage is consistent with contact against an external body, leading to a partial separation of the belt from the carcass in the two affected areas,” Pirelli said. “On no occasion was there any sign of fatigue, detachment or laceration -or even the beginning of such problems – that affected the structure of the tire. In conclusion, Pirelli can confirm that no issues have emerged connected with the tire itself.”

Last week, Pirelli said that Vettel’s shredded tire at Silverstone was caused by a slow puncture.

Vettel appeared to be heading for third place at Silverstone until his front left tire suddenly blew apart two laps from the finish. The four-time F1 champion managed to steer his Ferrari back to the pits for a tire change, and secured seventh place to cling onto his championship lead. Raikkonen’s pit stop to change his tire came just before Vettel’s.

Hamilton won to cut Vettel’s championship lead to one point. Raikkonen, who has three podium finishes this season, is fifth overall.

The championship continues at the Hungarian GP this weekend before a month-long summer break.

Report: GP Association of Long Beach ‘most qualified’ firm to run race

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Not for the first time, the future of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was in the news earlier this year, and the question of whether Formula 1 could re-enter running the race it did from 1976 to 1983, or whether North American open-wheel racing, in INDYCAR, would keep it up.

The city of Long Beach decided to conduct a study using accounting firm KPMG, and paid the firm $150,000 to evaluate whether existing race operators the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, led by Jim Michaelian, or Chris Pook’s World Automobile Championship, would be best to run the race. Pook founded the event in the 1970s but has in recent years, harbored the return of F1 and suggested it would be a more viable economic prospect.

Per the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the study has now concluded following proposals and interviews from both camps. In a memo obtained by the Press-Telegram, the report indicated the existing GPALB “as the most qualified firm to promote and operate the Long Beach Grand Prix race.”

Michaelian told the Press-Telegram this was an “first but important step” in the process for the race to build a new contract with a city; the existing contract runs through 2018.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, in a statement released to the Sports Business Journal, appreciated the recommendation: that statement is below.

This appears to be a key step towards INDYCAR, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the city of Long Beach all working towards an agreement that will keep INDYCAR racing at its most successful, longest running, and marquee street course event on the calendar.