The Frontstretch: Dedicated Safety Teams : The Debate Continues by Toni Montgomery -- Saturday October 14, 2006

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Dedicated Safety Teams : The Debate Continues

Toni Montgomery · Saturday October 14, 2006


For a good five years now, the debate has gone on about NASCAR safety and medical workers. With wrecks and mechanical failures forever ingrained in the culture of the sport, having a solid medical staff in place is necessary in order to ensure the safety of all competitiors. But, what type of medical crew would best serve the drivers: a crew specific to each particular track, or a group that travels with NASCAR to every race? While NASCAR currently adheres to the former, support seems to be gathering for the latter; whether that debate will ever reach a resolution seems to be a whole other matter altogether.

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument. Some have advocated using a dedicated safety team that travels with the circuit and handles accidents, both from the on-track rescue side as well as in the infield care center like other motorsports series employ. The idea is that the rescue workers would have specialized knowledge of the vehicles and the safety apparatus in the cars so that they would best know how to extricate drivers. Also, having a dedicated medical team means the people treating driver injuries are already familiar with a patient and his or her history. Yet throughout the history of the series, NASCAR has continued using local rescue workers and medical staff just like they always have, not desiring any change unless it is determined that there is definite benefit to it.

Those in favor of dedicated personnel that travel with the series point out the fact that NASCAR stock cars are not like vehicles rescue workers encounter out on the road. Because NASCAR stock cars are built differently and contain different safety apparatus, extricating a driver from a car may be quite different from the experience these rescue workers rely on for highway accidents. If NASCAR were to employ a dedicated track rescue team, the personnel would be extensively trained on the vehicles they will encounter and be capable of understanding the best way to handle on track rescue situations.

"I am not one of those people that believe you have to have a traveling safety team that has a staff of 20 or whatever. I do believe that we have to have a group that travels to each and every race that understands the challenges that are unique to our sport," says driver Jeff Burton, a frequent safety advocate among NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers. "I think there are certain components of what we do that having a group that has an intimate knowledge of would be very beneficial."

It’s that intimacy some drivers crave : after a wreck, drivers would see a familiar face at a stressful time with a traveling safety crew. This familiar face could have a calming effect on a driver, as well as having knowledge of drivers and their personalities so they are prepared for what they may encounter. That familiarity is comforting not only on the track, but in the infield care center as well where drivers would know that the medical personnel taking care of them are familiar with their history.

"It would be more effective to have the same person on the same team all the time. Other motorsports series have that," says Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who acknowledges the good job the staffs at the tracks provide now, but would favor the full-time safety team. "It's just more effective to have that consistency so the medical people understand and are familiar with a driver's history."

Based on those comments, it seems like it would be a simple choice to make the switch…but there is another side to the argument that is also quite compelling. While it's difficult to fault the idea of a rescue team with specific knowledge of a race car that they are not likely to gain in their daily work, the medical team is a different story. Sure, it's a good thing to know a patient's history, but at the same time, medicine is a constantly evolving science, and there are skills that are best honed in the daily practice of it.

Trauma care, for example, is a very specific part of medicine, and the only way to keep trauma skills sharp and up to date is to deal with it on a daily basis. If NASCAR were to employ a full-time trauma team, it would take these medical professionals out of their field on a regular basis, making them incapable of being up-to-date on the latest advancements in their field.

"If we have a guy that travels to the track with us, or a group of people that travel with us, that means they no longer have the opportunity to spend the bulk of their time working on trauma cases, I think we start to lose something there," explains Burton. "There is a tremendous amount to be gained from someone who has under-the-fire experience. (By having a safety worker who) was working a major trauma case just two days ago, I think we benefit from that as well."

So, a good case can actually be made for both scenarios; the best solution for the future might be a combination of the two ideas, with a mix of local rescue workers and medical staff along with dedicated personnel that travel with the series and augment the local staff.

"When we can couple the local knowledge of what we do with the knowledge of a guy that five or six days a week deals with trauma issues, I think that is the best of all scenarios," says Burton.

Whatever the future holds for NASCAR's rescue and medical practices, don't think the drivers are not getting excellent care right now. True, they do not have the dedicated personnel many of the drivers would like to see in some capacity, but both Earnhardt and Burton express that they are very comfortable with they system and the personnel currently in place at all the tracks. While NASCAR continues to consider the options and weigh the debate, the welfare of not just the drivers but everyone at the track on a race weekend is definitely a concern left in capable hands.

"I am comfortable with where we are today; I’m comfortable with the fact that NASCAR has taken up with great seriousness the fact that we could do it better," says Burton. "I also believe that NASCAR has no reason to do it any way other than right."

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10/16/2006 01:20 PM


I think the end idea – a mixed safety team with traveling rescuers on track and locals in the care center – is a great idea and I’d take the logic behind it one step further.

If there is a wreck on the track, the traveling safety team responds. As soon as the yellow waives, Race Control can be communicating the drivers involved to the Care Center where 1-2 traveling medical persons who are familiar with each driver’s current medical situation pull up their chart and discuss any of the driver’s conditions with the local care staff in the Care Center so that by the time the ambulance arrives at the Care Center, the attending doctor and nurses have current and up-to-date medical information on their patient to know what may be pre-existing and what may be caused by the crash.

I heard someone on TV or radio comment that the local care staff used at each track has the best knowledge of the hospitals in the area for treatment of injuries. Under this scenario mentioned in your article and my comments, you get the best of both worlds – the only losers are some of the first responders who now have to buy an infield ticket rather than getting comped seats for the green flag racing.

And if THAT is the biggest issue, give them lifetime infield passes…

10/16/2006 08:38 PM

Its hard for me to believe that NASCAR has the best system. I can’t help but think back to Bristol a while back watching a local worker drag Bobby Labonte out of a car like a sack of potatoes and then drop him on the track. Or Richard Petty’s car on fire at Atlanta in ‘92 and no one could find an extingusher to put it out, or in 2004 the crew at Daytona needing what seemed to be 10 minutes to address an upside down Michael Waltrip. Didn’t Dale Jarrett refuse to get in the ambulance after a wreck at Pocono because of the lack of response or the way he was treated? Seems like Jeff Gordon got similar treatment at Watkins Glen a few years ago?

I realize these may be individual mistakes or isolated incidents but how much of this can the sport tolerate.

On the other hand, CART driver Alex Zanardi is alive today only because CART had a specialized on-track response team that included Dr. Terry Trammell and Dr. Steve Olvey. Zanardi’s legs were sheared off and the CART rescue team was able to respond promptly, Trammell was able to apply tourniquets to Zanardi’s legs while Olvey called for an immediate airlift to the hospital, bypassing the track medical center. This team saved a life, not sure the current NASCAR setup would have been as successful.

NASCAR has been lucky for a while. Hopefully they will take this time to be better prepared in the future.


Contact Toni Montgomery

Recent articles from Toni Montgomery:

IndyCar Race Recap: MAVTV 500
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IF you want to know more about Toni Montgomery or to see all of her Frontstretch articles, check out her archive and bio page.