Every late Saturday afternoon, before the Late Models, Pure Stocks, Hornets, FreshPrintz UMP Modifieds and Superstocks or any other type of racecar takes the dirt track at Twin Cities Raceway Park, drivers sit through a meeting.
Among the various rules and regulations the drivers hear is one that has been with the North Vernon facility for several years: “Don’t get out of your car onto the track.”
That rule may catch on at other small tracks across the country in the wake of Saturday’s fatal accident involving NASCAR veteran and Columbus native Tony Stewart. Stewart’s sprint car hit and killed Kevin Ward Jr. after Ward exited his car and approached Stewart at a race in Canandaigua, New York.
“We don’t allow them to get out of their car because it’s a small track and there’s not room,” Twin Cities owner Tom Wetherald said. “They know not to get out because they’ll get barred from the track. That’s in the drivers meeting. The only time they’re allowed to get out of their car is when there’s a wrecker coming.”
In Columbus, races at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds are usually put on by outside organizations. Fair Board racing director Troy Foist said drivers are bound by those organizations’ rules.
“They come in and put on a show, so we pretty much just get the track ready,” Foist said.
“But I think we’re going to see some rules coming down the pike here pretty quick.”
Stewart grew up racing at the fairgrounds and has raced three-quarter midgets there as an adult, most recently in July 2013. Chad Cunningham, president of Midwest Three-Quarter Racing League, said the organization does not have a set rule about drivers exiting their vehicles.
“We do, however, advise the drivers to please stay in their vehicle until a safety crew official gets there unless they feel there is a danger to themselves, which would include fluid leaking on them or a fire,” Cunningham said. “That is very rare.
“Obviously with the situation that’s going on, we’re going to reiterate that again,” he said.
“With the situations I mentioned, it would be hard for an organization to put a rule in place. If a guy is on fire, is he supposed to stay in the car? If there’s fluid leaking, do you expect them to stay there?”
Not all tracks have such rules in place.
At Salem Speedway, a half-mile paved track, general manager Richard Deaton said expecting drivers to stay in their cars is an unwritten rule.
“A lot of times, guys climb out of the car, even if they’re not upset, and they’re assessing the damage while they’re waiting for the wrecker,” Deaton said.
Keith Ford, owner of Paragon Speedway, said this week he would likely implement a rule before this weekend’s races, although he admits it would be tough to enforce.
“I’m not one to penalize drivers, per se,” Ford said. “I don’t want to run people off. It gets in your pocket. I’m going to instruct my drivers to throw up the red flag if they see somebody get out of their car.
“I saw where some people are talking about fining people $1,000,” he said. “You can fine them all you want to, but the trouble is collecting it. They’ll just tell you where to go and not come back.”
In New York, not far from where Ward was killed on Saturday, management for two tracks issued a statement Tuesday requiring drivers to stay in their cars and prohibiting pit crew members from entering the track in case of an accident. Drivers that exit their cars will be subject to fines and/or suspensions.
“Us and every other track in the country is going to do this,” said Cory Reed, manager of Fulton and Brewerton speedways. “It’s reactionary, but we had to tighten up our program.”
Mike Kitchel, director of communications for IndyCar, said that organization already has a rule in place regarding drivers exiting cars.
“IndyCar’s safety guidelines, which includes post-incident protocol, are reviewed with the drivers annually during our winter meetings,” Kitchel said. “Drivers are instructed to stay in the car unless there is a fire, etc., until the Holmatro Safety Team arrives.”
Although just about all small tracks carry insurance, few have cameras, except for big races such as World of Outlaws events.
“One of my big concerns almost every race in the drivers meeting, I talk to them about the safety,” Deaton said. “Anytime, even if you’re running under caution, it’s a dangerous time out on the track. It’s always a concern. It’s something we do talk about a lot.
“I think this incident definitely has gotten everybody’s attention,” he said.
“It was just a tragic situation. There will be a lot of people for a number of years asking what we could have done different. You always look at the situation and wonder what you can do to make sure the situation doesn’t happen again.”