After a mishap on a race track, staying in the car -- unless it's on fire or about to catch fire -- until safety crewmen arrive always has been considered the smart thing for a driver to do.
"This is something NASCAR always reminds us of in the drivers' meeting," Nationwide Series driver Sam Hornish Jr. said yesterday.
Now, it's a rule.
After an incident at a dirt track in Canandaigua, N.Y., a week ago when NASCAR star Tony Stewart's sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., who had climbed from his wrecked race and was walking on the track pointing at Stewart, NASCAR yesterday announced a regulation that requires drivers to stay belted in their car until help arrives.
The race in Canandaigua wasn't under NASCAR jurisdiction. Stewart was driving there for fun before the Sprint Cup race the next day at Watkins Glen, but it brought attention to a glaring loophole in the rulebook that needed closing.
"As we've demonstrated in our history, we are willing to react quickly to different incidents," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and racing development, said. "It's not just about NASCAR, but it's all of sports and motorsports that we take note."
The rule goes for all levels of the sanctioning body, including the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 today at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Hornish, third fastest in practice yesterday, and the rest of the drivers understand the red mist that sometimes can rule their emotions when things go wrong.
"Things do get heated," said Hornish, a Defiance, Ohio, native and the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner. "Drivers get upset about either the way they've been treated on the racetrack or how they were raced. Everybody has a little bit different way of handling it. I'll be the first one to say I may not have always handled things the best way in my life.
"And I feel like NASCAR and every form of motorsports is going to be looking at ways to correctly make rules to keep drivers safe, as well as in safe quarters and things like that."
Pemberton added that, more than anything else, the new rule forbids a driver on foot from going onto the track as other cars are going past.
"After being directed to exit the race car, the driver should proceed either to the ambulance or other vehicle or as otherwise directed by safety personnel or NASCAR official," Pemberton said. "At no time should a driver, crew member or members approach any portion of the racing surface or apron.
"At no time should a driver, crew member or members approach another moving vehicle. All vehicles not involved in the incident or that are able to continue afterward should slow down to a cautious speed," and drivers should refrain from weaving or moving out of line while following a pace car through an accident site.
Because whatever Stewart might have been thinking when he saw Ward coming toward him, had Ward stayed in his car, or at least off the racing part of the track, the tragedy would not have occurred. Now the guidelines -- which NASCAR always has espoused, veteran driver Brendan Gaughan said -- have been amalgamated into a rule.
"It's just common sense," said Gaughan, winner of the Nationwide race at Road America this year and fifth fastest in practice yesterday. "People have seen me many times get out of a race car and go argue with another driver, who was also parked. At the end of races, I've gotten out of race cars and gotten in fights."
Now, NASCAR "basically said is (it is going to) protect us from ourselves," Gaughan said. "Some people don't have that level head after an accident. Some, you want to get that immediate taste of vindication."
Last year's race at Mid-Ohio had some contentious moments, but as Hornish recalled, "There was more stuff that went on after the race was over (on the cool-down lap) than during the race."
Regan Smith was called in to take the place of Stewart in the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen last Sunday. Smith will race at Mid-Ohio today, and after being fourth fastest in practice, he said the new rule could serve as a cool-down period.
"I definitely think that's it good across the board that's out there now," Smith said. "If it gives us that one split second longer to sit in our car and maybe calm down and think things through a little bit, then that's great."
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