Speedway: No New Safety Policy

Posted: August 15, 2014

HARRISONBURG – Russell Schmidt has been visiting speedways since he was 5 years old, spent two years as a driver on NASCAR’s modified stock car tour and even once owned a dirt-race track in Leasburg, North Carolina.

Through those experiences, Schmidt – a 1975 Stony Brook University graduate and Long Island, New York, native – has seen just about everything auto racing has to offer, to the point where he wasn’t shocked when NASCAR star Tony Stewart’s car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt-track race last Saturday at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.

“People have been getting out of their cars since the beginning of racing,” said Schmidt, the marketing director at Shenandoah Speedway, “and it’s just something that’s generally done.”

Sent into a wall after his car was bumped by Stewart’s, Ward exited his vehicle shortly thereafter, walked onto the track in apparent anger and was hit by Stewart’s car.

In the wake of Ward’s death, Canandaigua and two other New York state dirt tracks under the same management – Brewerton Speedway and Fullerton Speedway – have joined numerous raceways around the country in announcing new rules requiring drivers to stay in their cars after an accident until safety personnel arrive, according to the Associated Press.

As of now, Shenandoah Speedway is not one of them, though it is willing to reconsider its policy.

“We are just encouraging people to use common sense about getting out of the car,” Schmidt said. “I mean, if the car is on fire or it’s crushed or whatever, [the drivers] are supposed to wait for the rescue squads before they get out of the vehicle – that’s what’s recommended. But we don’t have any hard-and-fast rules that if you [get out of your car], you will be suspended or fined.”

Under the new regulations at Canandaigua and other raceways, drivers who exit their cars – for whatever reason — without permission will be fined or suspended at the discretion of track management.

Schmidt said no local drivers he’s spoken with have “raised eyebrows” regarding Shenandoah Speedway’s current on-track safety regulations since last weekend’s incident at Canandaigua.

Heading into Saturday’s slate of races at Shenandoah, though, Schmidt expects that to change given the amount of national attention Ward’s death has been receiving.

“If a number of people want to pursue [changes to Shenandoah’s current safety regulations], we’re not that hard to get along with,” said Schmidt, who was speaking in terms of possible complaints from drivers and their crew members. “We’d probably agree with that. But as of now, we do not have a strict policy that you have to stay in your vehicle.”

Schmidt – a Staunton resident for most of the past two decades — has worked at Shenandoah Speedway for six years and spent 11 years at Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro, doing everything from track announcing to public relations and marketing. He last raced competitively in the early 1990s.

Ward’s death was a tragedy, but Schmidt said the main reason it has gotten so much attention is because of Stewart’s fame.

“The only reason this has come to light is for two reasons: One, someone died. And two, it involves a very famous person in NASCAR – Tony Stewart,” Schmidt said. “Had this been anybody else, this would not have a quarter of the press that it’s getting right now.”

Eastside Speedway could not be reached for comment Thursday regarding the track’s policies.

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