NASCAR has come a long way on safety in recent years. The HANS device, SAFER barriers, the Car of Tomorrow; all were implemented to improve safety and the chances of a driver avoiding serious injury in a crash. By all accounts, they are working. But there is one area in which NASCAR lags far behind other major racing series. Despite all the devices and inventions, the sanctioning body has never seen its way clear to have a traveling medical team.
Such a team with a medical doctor, preferably a trauma surgeon, as its head as medical director is a long overdue addition to NASCAR’s workforce. Under the director should be at least one other doctor and a handful of nurses, as well as enough EMTs and paramedics to staff at least three ambulances. Having a traveling team would allow NASCAR to do several things:
Clear (or not) injured drivers to race: By having one doctor with the authority to make this call, with the option of taking the opinions of colleagues into consideration, would in turn allow NASCAR to make a long overdue rules change. In the case where the medical director determined that a driver was unfit to race, NASCAR would finally have a consistent, unbiased source making the call. This would clear the way for a rule allowing the driver to choose a substitute for the race or races missed, without losing valuable points. This would also be a boon in the area of safety, because an injured driver could take a week or two off and not be in jeopardy of losing hard earned ground in a championship battle. An injured driver, rushing back into the seat just to earn points, may not have the reaction time or motor function of a healthy one, possibly leading to a mistake that caused further injury to himself or to another driver. By having one objective person to make the call not to clear that driver, it would allow NASCAR to adjust another rule in the interest of safety.
Implement random drug testing: A medical director would be in position to implement a weekly system to randomly test drivers for illegal substances that would be timely and consistent from week to week. A tight policy would be a deterrent to many young, wealthy drivers considering trying drugs. Again, it’s a safety issue. For every driver caught under the current system, are there more that aren’t? Possibly, possibly not, but a better system would put the pendulum squarely in the “not” category if drivers raced under the constant possibility of a blood or urine test at any time during the weekend.
Regulate and facilitate crew reactions when a crash occurs: A regular crew manning the ambulances could well mean a much safer race every week. Consider Greg Biffle‘s fiery exit at Texas. As he sat in his car, surrounded by safety workers, the cockpit of his car quickly filled with smoke and fumes. EMTs trained in racing procedures might have immediately removed the passenger side window, allowing the fumes to escape while they tended to Biffle and helped him out of the car. NASCAR did designate an official to go to the cars with the existing weekly crews so an injured or simply stunned driver might see a familiar face, but a traveling crew would negate that need as the entire crew would be familiar to every driver. In addition a medical director could communicate more effectively with permanent crews, giving instructions that could save a life.
For a sanctioning body that has been so innovative in the safety department and is intent on continuing that trend, it seems ridiculous that NASCAR has not had a permanent medical staff in place all along. There is no reason it could not easily be done, as evidenced by the fact that both the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series have had traveling teams in place for years, to the benefit of all involved. It’s time for NASCAR to step into the 21st century and do the same before someone pays too great a price.