NASCAR has written into the rule book something that has always been stressed in an informal way: Drivers are now prohibited from leaving their cars and walking onto the track to confront other drivers after accidents.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton announced the new rule Friday at Michigan International Speedway. An accident last week on a New York dirt track in which the car of NASCAR’s Tony Stewart hit and killed Kevin Ward Jr., played a key part in the new rule, Pemberton said.
“I think it’s probably good to spell it out,” driver Matt Kenseth said. “It’s something we probably also know. We haven’t thought about it for a long time. You don’t even think about those other cars going by, and the slowest they are at a place like Pocono is 70 (mph). Anybody who has changed a tire along an interstate knows that’s still pretty fast and things can happen.”
The new rule applies to all of NASCAR’s racing series effective immediately. That would not include non-NASCAR sanctioned tracks like Canandaigua Motorsports Park, where Ward and Stewart tangled in Turn 2 last Saturday. After Ward’s car spun into the wall and placed the race under caution, Ward left his car and walked down the track, gesturing toward Stewart as his car came toward Ward. The right side of Stewart’s car hit Ward, knocking him several yards down the track. Ward was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Pemberton said the new rule formalized an understanding drivers should have already had and are routinely reminded about it in a video during prerace drivers meetings. He said penalties for breaking the rule will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve demonstrated in our history we’re willing to react quickly to different incidents,” Pemberton said. “Things like this come up occasionally. This is one of those times where we look outside our sport and we look at other things. Through time, you have to recognize that you’ll get a reminder, a tap on the shoulder, that there’s something that may need to be addressed. We felt like it was time to address this.”
After an accident, the new rule reads, a driver should not leave the car until safety personnel or a NASCAR official arrives, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as fire or smoke in the cockpit. After leaving the car, the driver is not permitted to “approach any portion of the racing surface or apron” or “approach another moving vehicle.”
Also, the rule states “cars in line behind the (pace) car should not weave or otherwise stray from the line in the vicinity of the incident.”
“I think that NASCAR has made the right move in redefining or better explaining, even making consequences for, letting emotions getting the best of you as a race car driver,” six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “Will that stop a driver that’s really upset? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”
Stewart is not racing this weekend at MIS, the site of Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400. He is being replaced by Jeff Burton in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Chevrolet. Stewart also sat out last Sunday’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., the day after the incident.
“It’s a good decision on NASCAR’s behalf to be proactive,” driver David Ragan said of the new rule. “We are constantly reminded how our race cars can be dangerous. And if this is a step to make the driver safer after an accident or to prevent an accident from happening while getting out of the race car, this is a good move by NASCAR, and I support it. I think it’s a move you’ll see from a lot of other series as well.”
Driver Kyle Larson said the new rule will serve as a valuable reminder and deterrent.
“It’s basically still the same rules we have had. I think just kind of reminding us and maybe (being) stricter with it,” he said. “If you are on fire or something, you obviously have to get out. It’s good that they are reinforcing it and reminding us again. A lot of people are going to learn after seeing what happened and we are all going to think twice. If we are upset with somebody, we are going to think about it before we get out of the car.”
Said driver Carl Edwards: “Regardless of the rule changes, what happened last week was a turning point internally for all drivers. I think people will all be a little more careful now.”