Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 1 – Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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MotorSportsTalk has counted down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s a full recap of the stories we’ve done in the series:

Today, we conclude the series with our pick of the top story of 2014, the unfortunate tragedy that involved NASCAR star Tony Stewart and aspiring sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

 

Even with the huge accomplishment of Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup championship or the new elimination format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s hard not to point to the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy as the top story in NASCAR in 2014.

Granted, the incident happened on a small upstate New York dirt track, and was not a sanctioned NASCAR track or NASCAR event.

But the significance of the news of Ward being killed when he was accidentally struck by Stewart’s sprint car while a race was underway, and the subsequent events that transpired afterward, was something that dominated the NASCAR news not just for days, but for several weeks.

On the evening of August 9, Ward and Stewart were racing side-by-side when Ward lost control of his sprint car and slammed into the outside retaining wall.

Apparently believing Stewart forced him into the wreck, Ward committed perhaps the biggest mistake any race car driver can do – and one that drivers are constantly warned about.

Ward exited his car and came down the racetrack in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The only problem with that is the race was still under way, albeit under caution, and Ward inadvertently stepped into the path of Stewart’s car, was struck and killed.

source: Getty Images
(Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

The incident made worldwide news and was perhaps one of the most divisive topics the sport has seen in many years. On one side were the loyal Stewart fans, who believed it was simply a racing accident, an unfortunate event that resulted in the sad and tragic loss of a fellow driver’s life.

Then there was the other side, those who criticized Stewart and held him responsible for Ward’s death. They called for criminal charges, prison and the immediate end of his racing career.

Many left comments on MotorSportsTalk, vehemently espousing their own opinions pro or con against Stewart.

An Ontario County (N.Y.) Grand Jury was convened and for several weeks deliberated the evidence from the incident, as well as testimony from witnesses.

In the end, the Grand Jury absolved Stewart of any potential criminal charges or liability in Ward’s death. Ward’s family still has the option to bring a civil suit against Stewart, but to date that has not happened.

Stewart missed the three NASCAR Sprint Cup races immediately following the Ward tragedy and remained in seclusion for that period.

He finally returned to racing at Atlanta but finished a disappointing 41st due to a wreck he was involved in.

source: Getty Images
Tony Stewart returned to racing at Atlanta, nearly three weeks after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

From that point on, Stewart competed in 11 more races to wrap up the 2014 season, earning just one top-five finish.

Overall, Stewart had arguably the worst single season performance of his career (not including 2013, when he missed the final 15 races due to injuries suffered in a sprint car wreck) in 2014.

He failed to win even one race in a season for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. He also finished with a career low three top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Stewart began 2014 still not completely recovered from his 2013 accident injuries. And even though he drove with pain, he never let the pain drive him out and away from behind the steering wheel.

Stewart has had two surgeries during the current off-season, with hopes that he’ll be in much better shape to start the 2015 season – certainly in better shape than the way he began 2014.

Will Stewart be able to bounce back to his old championship- and race-winning form in 2015? It would be a great storyline for him to come right out of the gate and win the season-opening Daytona 500, one of the few things in his long career that Stewart has failed to achieve.

In a sense, he’s his generation’s Dale Earnhardt when it comes to winning the Great American Race. It took Earnhardt 20 tries before finally winning his first (and ultimately only) Daytona 500.

Stewart will make his 17th Daytona 500 start this coming season. What better way to put all the sadness and darkness of the past two seasons behind him and to show any doubters that he still has it as a driver than to win at Daytona.

And then bookend that season start by finishing it with his fourth Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

Stewart has endured considerable pain, tragedy and sadness over the past two seasons. Will he be able to recover and return to the Smoke of old, the same one who has three championships and 48 race wins in the Cup series?

Only time will tell. But if there’s anyone who can come back from what he’s gone through, Stewart can.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500