BROOKLYN, Mich. — Even Jimmie Johnson has a temper — one that was on display long before he became a six-time champion and one of NASCAR’s most respected drivers.
“I guess the one experience that comes to mind for me in Cup was maybe my rookie year at Bristol,” he said. “Robby Gordon wrecked me on a restart, and I got out and shot him the bird.”
NASCAR has thrived for years thanks to the personalities of some of its biggest stars and that includes an occasional feud, gesture or angry encounter on the track. But less than a week after Kevin Ward Jr. was killed during a sprint car race in New York after being struck by a car driven by Tony Stewart, NASCAR today barred its drivers from approaching the track or moving cars after an incident during the race.
“Through time you have to recognize when you get a reminder or tap on the shoulder, something that may need to be addressed,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. “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.”
Johnson said he supports NASCAR’s rule addition. The father of two also has a slightly different perspective now on his “salute” to Gordon all those years ago.
“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 No. 1 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.”
The new rule takes effect immediately and applies to all NASCAR series.
“Really, we’re formalizing rules that have been there,” Pemberton said. “It’s reminders that take place during drivers meetings with drivers about on-track accidents.”
IndyCar reviewed its safety guidelines after Ward’s death and the protocol is similar to what NASCAR announced today, IndyCar spokesman Mike Kitchel said. Drivers are supposed to stay put until a safety team arrives unless there is a fire or other extenuating circumstances.
It remains to be seen how NASCAR will enforce its provision, and how much the threat of penalties will deter drivers in the heat of the moment.
“There’s still going to be confrontations out there and that’s never going to change. People will still get mad at each other,” Joey Logano said. “You’ve got to keep the big picture of staying safe out there and somehow controlling your emotions.”
Last Saturday, Stewart’s car struck Ward during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York. After Stewart’s car 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, who could face criminal charges, is skipping this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. He did not race last week at Watkins Glen, a few hours after Ward was killed.
Stewart once threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car. 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.”
NASCAR hopes that will be less of an issue now that post-accident procedures have been spelled out in the rule book.
“Will that stop a driver that’s really upset?” Johnson said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”