JG Online


'Simple Common Sense'
Spring 2002

Following Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR began a season-long study on safety. New rules were implemented in the second half of 2001 requiring drivers to wear either the HANS device or Hutchens device to restrain their head and neck in the event of a frontal crash. Drivers have taken it upon themselves to install additional headrests to prevent head whip in a side impact. Less rigid seats have been introduced to aid drivers in wrecks as well. NASCAR began installing "black boxes" in cars for the 2002 season in order to measure G-forces in a crash. However, there is one key issue that needs to be amended. NASCAR needs to have a traveling safety team.

As was reported in the Orlando Sentinel last year, the Indy Racing League has a safety crew with 12 to 14 members for each race. Consisting mostly of firefighters who are emergency medical technicians, the crew also includes two paramedics and an emergency-room physician. CART has eight physicians on its team. They work in a $1.5 million mobile surgical and intensive-care unit that is "850 square feet, and like a regular emergency room or intensive-care unit," CART medical director Dr. Steve Olvey said.

NASCAR's version of traveling medical care consists of administrative personnel carrying drivers' medical records from track to track. In other words, a medical liaison. Other than that, medical and emergency responses are left to individual tracks.

In statements on the matter, NASCAR CEO Mike Helton said that the track medical personnel hired by the individuals tracks have greater knowledge of the local hospitals as they work in the local emergency rooms during the week. That's ludicrous. It indirectly implies that the traveling medical staff in CART and the IRL simply travel to the track and spend weekdays on the golf course. "Some of the crews that we have are absolutely outstanding," Mark Martin told the Sentinel, "and in some of the other races, we're not as fortunate to be blessed with quite a stellar assembly and equipment." And therein lies the problem.

The case of Bill Elliott at Talladega is particularly alarming. In 1996, Eliott's car became airborne sliding on the backstretch. When it came down on its left side, Elliott's leg broke. After arriving at the infield care center at the track, he was told by a doctor based in Birmingham that his hip was out of joint and that everything would be fine once his hip was popped back into place. The doctor failed to diagnose Elliott's broken thighbone which would require surgery and a metal rod implanted in his hip.

I have no doubt that Alex Zanardi would have died on the track in Germany if CART did not have a traveling safety crew. Dr. Steve Olvey has traveled the CART cirucit for the past 20 years as its chief medical technician. In the wreck, Zanardi's car was literally sliced in half after he was hit while spinning sideways. When Dr. Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell reached Zanardi's car he was already near death. Both of his legs were sliced off and he was still bleeding internally. He had lost nearly 70% of the blood in his body. Now let's be honest, would the track personnel at a track such as Martinsville be able to handle this situation? Who knows for sure.

"He had four of five pelvic fractures, which causes bleeding, and a blood buildup around his liver," Dr. Olvey said. "When you have massive hemorrhaging it affects the ability of your blood to clot and you don't know what's going on inside. We didn't know if he had a ruptured spleen or what else could be damaged with an impact like that. You can bleed to death internally, especially in Alex' situation."

The driver needed massive blood transfusions quickly. "There was a hospital in Dresden, but Berlin had a world renown trauma center and that was only 25-30 minutes away by helicopter," Olvey said. "We decided to bypass the infield medical center and go right for the helicopter." Dr. Olvey made the life saving decision, Zanardi was flown to Berlin, and his life was saved. Again, picture a similar scene at a track such as Martinsville. Then again, you might not want to.

In March 2002 at Darlington Raceway, Tony Stewart was involved in a grinding crash on the backstretch. He hit a lapped car that had spun, went into the wall, and slide down the track. Jimmy Spencer and Ken Schrader both made heavy impact with Stewart's Pontiac. Track crews moved into action to remove Stewart, who was briefly knocked out, from the car. He was unsure what happened as he tried to focus. Looking around him, Stewart saw the faces of medical personnel. He knew not a soul. But then he saw a familiar face-- one that is hard to miss-- Jimmy Spencer.

Spencer was admonished by NASCAR for helping Stewart out of the car. True, that job is best left to the medical personnel. But in the absence of a traveling medical staff who know the drivers, having Jimmy Spencer there was a comfort to the shaken Stewart. If NASCAR had a traveling medical staff, they would have provided those familiar faces that Stewart was longing for at the time.

So why doesn't NASCAR have a traveling medical staff? In a word, liability. If they're hired by the sanctioning body they could technically be held liable if anything should go wrong. As it stands, it's left up to the individual tracks... under the guise of the local staff knowing the local hospitals better. Strange that Dr. Olvey and Dr. Trammell knew about the local hospitals in Germany quite well when Zanardi had a life threatening situation.. and neither of them are doctors in Germany. The decision to bypass the infield care center and the local hospital in Dresden in favor of Berlin saved Zanardi's life.

That being said, NASCAR has made great strides in its safety efforts over the past 12 months. They've gone from a hokey, backwoods operation when it comes to driver safety to at least an acceptable level. However, in no way are they on par with the efforts of CART and the IRL. Stock car racing has surpassed open wheel racing over the past 15 years in popularity, fan base, and television ratings. But it still lags behind in safety. Until a traveling safety crew led by experienced doctors who are familiar with the drivers graces a NASCAR track, it will always lag behind CART and the IRL in both safety and simple common sense.

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