NASCAR added a rule Friday barring its drivers from approaching the track or moving cars after accidents, less than a week after driver Kevin Ward Jr. was struck and killed during a dirt-track race in New York.
If a car is involved in an accident and can no longer keep going – and no extenuating circumstances exist such as smoke in the cockpit or fire – the driver should not loosen any personal safety equipment until directed to do so by safety personnel or a NASCAR or track official. After being told to exit the car, the driver should proceed to an emergency vehicle or as otherwise directed.
The rule takes effect immediately and applies to all of NASCAR’s series.
“Really, we’re formalizing rules that have been there,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. “It’s reminders that take place during drivers meetings with drivers about on-track accidents.”
Last Saturday, Stewart’s car struck and killed Ward at a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York. After Stewart appeared to clip Ward’s car, sending it spinning, Ward left the car during the caution period, walked down the track and was hit by Stewart. His funeral was Thursday.
Stewart could face criminal charges. He is skipping this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.
“Through time you have to recognize when you get a reminder or tap on the shoulder, something that may need to be addressed,” Pemberton said. “This is one of those times where we look outside our sport and we look at other things, and we feel like it was time to address this.”
It remains to be seen how NASCAR will enforce the provision, and how much the threat of penalties will deter drivers in the heat of the moment. Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion and one of NASCAR’s most respected drivers, said he thought it was the right move.
“Will that stop a driver that’s really upset?” Johnson said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”
“There’s still going to be confrontations out there and that’s never going to change. People will still get mad at each other,” added Joey Logano. “You’ve got to keep the big picture of staying safe out there and somehow controlling your emotions.”
The sport has thrived thanks to the personalities of some of its biggest stars and that includes an occasional feud or angry encounter at the track. Stewart once threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s windshield. In 2003, Kevin Harvick climbed on the roof of his car to shout at Ricky Rudd, who had nudged him from behind late in a race.
The 1979 Daytona 500 is remembered for a last-lap crash between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough as they raced for the lead. The crash led to a three-man fight after Allison’s brother, Bobby, pulled up to the accident scene.
An occasional shouting match or obscene gesture may seem like a harmless frivolity, but Ward’s death underscored the dangers of being on foot near moving race cars.
Johnson said the risk may be higher on dirt tracks.
“A lot of those dirt drivers don’t have spotters. They don’t have radios in the car. And in a NASCAR event, especially if you’re part of the crash and that guy is mad at you, your spotter is telling you where he is,” Johnson said. “I would just say that hopefully short tracks pick up this philosophy and enforce it. But I don’t know if it will change a driver’s mind as they get out of the race car. But it would be nice for the rest of the field to know what has happened and if there is a hot-tempered driver on foot.”
Johnson recalled a Sprint Cup race his rookie year at Bristol when Robby Gordon wrecked him on a restart.
“I got out and shot him the bird,” Johnson said.
He has a slightly different perspective now.
“I’m sure I picked up a few fans and lost a few fans,” he said. “Now, as a parent, if my child’s hero was out there shooting the bird to another ballplayer, baseball player or football player or whatever it was, I’d probably try to steer my kids away from that. So, it depends.
“I don’t think that entertainment value should come with any safety implications. Safety is the number one priority for drivers, crew members, and the officials that are out there on the race track. And if it turns a few fans off, then in my opinion, they’re a fan for the wrong reason.”