When the bright lights come on and the engines rev up at East Bay Raceway for a whirlwind spin around the one-third mile dirt track, drivers strap themselves into their race cars before the green flag signals go.
Race organizers hope none of those drivers choose to exit their seats and put themselves in a potentially perilous position before the checkered flag drops.
That’s a point of emphasis that will be reiterated to each and every driver before the local racing schedule resumes tonight at East Bay, featuring competition in a variety of cars, from late-model stocks to winged sprints.
“We have a rule that is in place in our rule book, and I’m just going to remind them and reinforce it, and we are going to have to say it every week —remind them that we will not allow them to get out of their car,” said Al Varnadore, president and co-owner of East Bay Raceway Park near Gibsonton in eastern Hillsborough County.
“Then we will have to put more penalties on it, instead of saying that you (are done racing for the night), whether it’s an automatic suspension for a week or a fine or something like that. We haven’t discussed it because we have a rule that covers that. So it’s just reminding them that it is in the rule book and has been for 13 years.”
Tonight’s races at East Bay will be the first since the death last weekend of 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., who got out of his car during a caution flag and was struck and killed by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York state.
Ward hit the wall between the second and third turns after contact with Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion. After Ward spun , leaving him with a flat tire, he jumped out of his car onto the track and went in search of Stewart’s No. 14 car. As Ward walked along the track, with cars whizzing past him, some in excess of 45 mph, he took a step toward Stewart’s car as it came back around the track. Ward was hit by the right rear tire of Stewart’s car, pulled under the tire and thrown across the track.
Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital.
The incident is under investigation by law enforcement officials in New York, and criminal charges against Stewart have not been ruled out.
As a result of the incident, NASCAR will implement a rule this weekend, forbidding drivers from exiting their vehicles after a crash until safety workers arrive unless there is an immediate risk such as a smoke or fire.
But those who race on the clay oval at East Bay understand the challenge of keeping emotions under control if they feel the action of another driver results in an accident that takes them out of the race.
“You get a lot of adrenaline and a lot of emotions going, and that’s what happens, and nothing good ever comes of it,” said Billy Boyd Jr., the defending East Bay sprint series champion. “It’s pretty hard (to control the emotions), and it depends on how you are going to channel your adrenaline.
“To me, when you are in those kind of cars, you are already high-strung to begin with. You don’t have time to think when something happens. And I’ve been there. Most of us have. You try not to show that type of emotion, but it is hard to control.”
Jumping out of a winged sprint car such as those driven by Stewart and Ward last week and chasing down another moving car creates another issue, lack of visibility, particularly on the right side of the cars where the winged partition covers a majority of the window opening. With helmets limiting peripheral vision and caution speeds in excess of 35 mph, it is difficult to see when the unexpected happens.
“If you are watching a car in front of you, your peripheral vision with the helmets, it’s not like it is without them,” said Tim George, who has been racing at East Bay for more than four decades. “You don’t have a lot of vision in the cars. And if Tony was following the car in front of him, there’s probably no way in the world he expected him to be in the track like that, and then probably didn’t see him until it was way too late.”
Even with the safety measures in place at East Bay, Varnadore emphasizes to the emergency crews on-site to be alert and aware whenever they have to be on the track.
If an accident calls for a yellow flag, the crew waits for the cars to get bunched up at caution speed to reach a disabled car. For more serious incidents, when a red flag is warranted, racers are asked to stop on the track and allow the emergency officials to reach the damaged cars more rapidly.
Ward was wearing a primarily black suit on what appeared to be a dimly lit track.
East Bay has a Musco Lighting system, the same used at Yankee Stadium and Daytona International Speedway, that has been in place since Varnadore’s group, 2VHL Promotions Inc., purchased the track.
Comparing the lightning at East Bay to the lightning at other small tracks, Boyd said, is like comparing the lights at Raymond James Stadium to that of a Little League field.
The lighting, combined with walls Varnadore said are freshly painted white on a regular basis, makes for a safer situation than at most small tracks.
“It definitely makes a difference. It helps,” said Varnadore, who raced at East Bay before becoming part owner. “A lot of racetracks do not have the money to put in that (Musco) system, because it is very expensive. It’s the premium, and we do have good lighting, but there are a lot of tracks that are dim.”