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CEDAR RAPIDS — Throughout the history of racing, there’s been one glaring and unfortunate truth.
Rules and advancements in safety have nearly always been reactionary to an event or accident that took place on or near the racetrack. Oftentimes those advancements or changes were the result of something racers or officials didn’t or couldn’t see coming.
In the wake of the accident at Canandaigua Speedway in which NASCAR driver Tony Stewart struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. after ward had exited his Sprint Car, racetracks and sanctioning bodies across the country have enacted rules disallowing drivers from exiting their cars in the event of an accident.
Hawkeye Downs Speedway joined that movement this week, starting with Friday night’s racing. It’s the sort of rule officials never thought they’d need because drivers leaving their cars had been a regular occurrence — and one marketed by NASCAR and others. Regardless, it became painfully clear change was needed.
“Immediately. It was decided immediately (after the accident with Stewart),” said Hawkeye Downs race promoter and racer Kevin Korsmo. “We’ve just got to get control of that because it is a safety concern. And in light of the tragedy … it was the right time.”
The new rule, in part, states:
“Drivers are required to stay in their car in the event of an on-track incident. If a driver, for whatever reason, exits a car on the track during a caution period, the race will automatically be placed under a red flag and all cars will come to a complete stop. A driver may exit a car if requested by a safety crew member or if safety warrants in cases such as a fire or if the car is upside down. Drivers that exit the car without permission, for whatever reason, are subject to fine and/or suspension and the discretion of the track management.”
The rule also disallows anybody besides safety and wrecker crews on the track in the event of an accident.
Korsmo was candid in discussing the new rule, and said he had universal support for its implementation. He acknowledged the rule likely wouldn’t have come about without the tragic accident in New York. It was a painful reminder of the dangers of the sport, he said.
“Honestly? I wouldn’t be visiting it right now, truthfully (without that accident),” Korsmo said. “Should we be? Yeah, absolutely. But would we have been? No.
“But there’s not a race season that’s gone by that we didn’t see something that could’ve gone wrong. Everyone has sorrow on their mind about what happened. It’s a terrible thing. I just can’t even stand thinking about it. I’d hate to be the promoter in that position, I’d hate to be the driver, and I’d hate to be the family of the deceased. It’s just a no-win situation all-around. I just pray Hawkeye Downs can run ahead of it.”
For their part, the drivers got a stark realization of how dangerous an old practice can be.
The video of drivers from years past jumping out of their cars to express displeasure at an opponent is plentiful on YouTube, and was rarely, if ever, seen as a negative thing. Late Model racer and Cedar Rapids native Griffin McGrath said there’s obviously no reason to oppose the rule.
He’s exited his car in anger in the past, and shed some light on the motivation behind why drivers get out of their cars in anger in the first place.
“Like anything else, you put so much time into these cars and get very little time racing it, and when you’re in that car all alone and something happens where you feel like you’ve been wronged or someone has taken advantage of you, it’s just you in there. There’s no one to cool you down,” McGrath said. “You just get kind of over-raged with how mad you can be about stuff. I’ve done it. I’ve walked across the track and thrown a steering wheel at a guy.
“Looking back, obviously it was a horrible idea. I got real close to his right front fender, too. Most of us are pretty big hotheads, and when that sort of stuff happens, you just never know (what could happen).”
It wasn’t just drivers who got a wake-up call, though.
Crew members, specifically parents, had things snap into focus pretty quickly. Alburnett native Brody Willett competes weekly in the Legends class at Hawkeye Downs and the Micro Mod class at Benton County Speedway in Vinton, and got his first career Legends win Friday night ahead of Tim Goettsch and Kevin Korsmo. On the Aug. 8 race night, Willett exited his car twice while cars drove by under caution.
His dad, Chad, had a talk with Brody that night — the night before Stewart and Ward’s accident — about not getting out of the car. It was a habit developed from racing go-karts, where there are not harnesses or roll cages, and exiting the vehicle is commonplace.
Chad said he’s relieved as much as anything the rule is in place, not wanting to ever go through what Ward’s family is going through now.
“Without question, it’s a safety issue and we’re all for it,” Chad Willett said. “We came from go-karts, and we’d acquired some bad habits with it. When something broke on the kart, you automatically got out and looked at it and went on. When he came back in (last Friday), that’s exactly what we talked about was not exiting the car.
“I texted Brody Saturday night after the Stewart deal, and his response was, ‘I’m thankful to have a second chance to not have to have that experience.’ It could’ve happened to anybody. Any time these guys get in these cars, you always run the risk of them getting hurt, so anything we can do, we have to do it safety-wise.”
In racing action Friday night, Nathan Ballard continued his dominance of the Hobby Stocks with his eighth win. Ryan Luedtke won in Modifieds, Kurt Bohnsack in Hornets, Bob Ahrendsen in Sportsmen and Griffin McGrath in Late Models.
HAWKEYE DOWNS SPEEDWAY 8/15/14
1. Kurt Bohnsack (Ely); 2. Dallas Chandler (Cedar Rapids); 3. Troy Scott (Cedar Rapids); 4. Todd Ness (Cedar Rapids); 5. Drew Nickell (Cedar Rapids); 6. CJ Van Horn (Marion); 7. Kaden Reynolds (Cedar Rapids); 8. Rob Aimers; 9. Brad Schmidt (Cedar Rapids).
1. Bob Ahrendsen (Cedar Rapids); 2. Craig Stepanek (Urbana); 3. Greg Hentrich (Hiawatha); 4. Dave Ballstaedt (Marion); 5. Cory Houdek (Marion); 6. Jim Hanson (Cedar Rapids); 7. John Johnston (Victor); 8. Tom Burke (Nevada); 9. Dave McCalla (Cedar Rapids).
1. Nathan Ballard (Norway); 2. Adam Petrzelka (Norway); 3. Kurt Bohnsack (Ely); 4. Jason Sherman (Marengo); 5. Matt Petrzelka (Norway); 6. Jim Hanson (Cedar Rapids); 7. Matt Lacoursiere (Cedar Rapids); 8. Sonny Parker (Cedar Rapids).
1. Ryan Luedtke (Norway); 2. Jake Griffin (Quincy, Ill.); 3. Mike Schulte (Norway); 4. Craig Bender (Cedar Rapids); 5. Ed O’Brien (Cedar Rapids); 6. Steve Lindell (Marion).
1. Brody Willett (Alburnett); 2. Tim Goettsch (Bettendorf); 3. Kevin Korsmo (Atkins); 4. Mark Ironside (Swisher); 5. Austin Kunert (Batavia, Ill.); 6. Matt Blake (Cedar Rapids); 7. Cole O’Brien (Cedar Rapids); 8. Bryce Bailey (Cedar Rapids); 9. Mark Greb (Coralville); 10. Al Diercks (Davenport); 11. Danny Lehmkuhl (Cedar Rapids); 12. Gary Dyer (Blue Grass); 13. Dennis Diercks (Eldridge).
1. Griffin McGrath (Cedar Rapids); 2. Dan Lensing (Roscoe, Ill.) 3. Brad Osborn (Janesville); 4. Brian Gibson (Walford); 5. Mike Ehde (Praries du Chien, Wis.) 6. Scott Siems (Cedar Rapids); 7. Chad Siems (Shellsburg); 8. Brian Allen (Hiawatha); 9. Logan Mitchell (Palmyra, Mo.); 10. Caleb Adrian (Davenport); 11. Tim Plummer (Norway).
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