Auto racing has a problem. It’s a problem that affects both the short tracks across America and the super speedways.
It involves drivers getting out of their cars following a crash before it’s safe to do so. Normally they exit to check the amount of damage done to their racecar. But often it’s also to shake a fist at a driver they blame for their accident the next time he drives by.
As a 38-year auto racing official (track announcer) and someone who handled publicity for NASCAR’s Midwest-based All-Stars Series from 1990 to 2001 and the Midwest-based World Dirt Racing League from 2002 to 2008, I’ve seen this happen time and time again.
Racing is a dangerous sport even when a driver is buckled in his car and using all of the available safety equipment.
But when a driver climbs out following a crash before other competitors have sufficiently slowed, he is particularly vulnerable.
That recently resulted in the death of a 20-year-old sprint car driver, Kevin Ward Jr. He was killed when he climbed from his car following an on-track incident at a short track in upstate New York.
Ward walked down the racing surface under a caution period and was hit by a sprint car driven by Tony Stewart.
It was a nighttime race on a black dirt track. The driver was in a black fire suit and wearing a black helmet. It’s very likely that Stewart did not see him until it was too late.
The death was a tragedy, but it didn’t have to happen.
Most short tracks around the country and national sanctioning bodies encourage drivers to stay in their car — unless it’s on fire — following a collision until the safety crew arrives and tells them it’s safe to exit.
But penalties for violating this often are not spelled out or are not severe enough to keep it from happening.
NASCAR recently added a rule, effective immediately, that addresses on-track incidents as part of its race procedures in what it calls “continued efforts to evolve the safety” of the sport. Here it is:
During an event, if a racecar is involved in an on-track incident and/or is stopped on or near the racing surface and unable to continue to make forward progress, unless extenuating emergency conditions exist with the racecar (i.e. fire, smoke in cockpit, etc.), the driver should take the following steps:
• Shut off electrical power and, if driver is uninjured, lower (the) window net.
• Do not loosen, disconnect or remove any driver personal safety equipment until directed to do so by safety personnel or a NASCAR/track official.
• After being directed to exit the racecar, the driver should proceed to either the ambulance, other vehicle, or as otherwise directed by safety personnel or a NASCAR/track official.
• At no time should a driver or crew member(s) approach any portion of the racing surface or apron.
• At no time should a driver or crew member(s) approach another moving vehicle.
All vehicles not involved in the incident or that are able to continue afterwards should slow down to a cautious speed as outlined in Section 10-4 (Yellow Flag), use extreme care as they approach an incident scene, and follow any directions given by safety personnel or (a) NASCAR/track official. Cars in line behind the safety car should not weave or otherwise stray from the line in the vicinity of the incident.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development, calls safety the No. 1 priority at NASCAR and says the new rule is “part of the evolution of NASCAR’s rules and regulations.
“When we believe we can do something to make our sport safer and better for the competitors and others involved in the competition environment, we react quickly,” he says.
A NASCAR news release adds, “as with other behavioral infractions, NASCAR will handle each instance separately when assessing potential penalties.”
It often takes a tragedy to get people’s attention. Yes, racing has a problem, but most people involved in the sport are now well aware of it and may take steps to resolve it.
Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in the North Scott Press, Eldridge Iowa.