In The Hot Seat: NASCAR Fire-Rescue

Joseph Louderback describes the work of the rescuers who are prepared to handle unique emergencies at America's speedways.


Firefighter Mark Goss thought racer Johnny Benson was dead. The Charlotte Motor Speedway rescue worker wrestled with the window safety net as Benny Mabrey, Goss' partner on the Turn Number 2 crash truck, hollered at the barely conscious driver. "Johnny, are you all right? Talk to me, buddy...


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Firefighter Mark Goss thought racer Johnny Benson was dead. The Charlotte Motor Speedway rescue worker wrestled with the window safety net as Benny Mabrey, Goss' partner on the Turn Number 2 crash truck, hollered at the barely conscious driver. "Johnny, are you all right? Talk to me, buddy."

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Photo by Joseph Louderback
A Crash Team is positioned at Turn Number 5 at Watkins Glen.

Seconds earlier, on Lap 195 of the Coca-Cola 600, the world's longest stock car race, Benson's car smacked into the concrete wall and slid to the bottom of the track. Another car drilled him at 150 mph, splintering his Pontiac into pieces. "The car just disintegrated. I knew it was gonna be bad," says Mabrey. As they pulled Benson from the car, the victim groaned: "I'm hurt bad. Real bad."

The ugly crash was just one of the many incidents faced by emergency workers during the annual daylight-into-twilight duel held under the auspices of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). From superspeedways in Daytona, FL, to challenging tracks in Bristol, TN, America's fastest-growing spectator sport offers speed and legendary competitors. Fierce rivalries frequently result in high-speed tangles.

Highly trained rescuers stand poised for a unique type of emergency response. They fill slots ranging from tense, front-line extrication posts to assignments as pit road firefighters and members of roving EMS "outreach" teams. United by a love of racing, they've found that, even with this unpredictable sport, the action isn't always on the track.

Charlotte Motor Speedway

The stadium-like Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts over 200,000 fans during its two major races each May and October. When thousands of campers saturate the 2,000-acre complex in Concord, NC, it becomes that state's third-largest city. Race enthusiasts flock to the 11/2-mile speedway for fun. As director of emergency services, it is Norrie Baird's job to plan for the worst.

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Photo by Joseph Louderback
Norrie Baird, a native of Scotland and a former Pro Rally racer, is director of emergency services at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

His crew of 150 rescuers have seen it all. Infield fires. Losers of outfield fights. Mechanical mishaps and second degree sunburns. With 280 events ranging from smaller races to popular driving schools for novices held at the track each year, Baird just about lives in the infield command center. And there's not one problem that doesn't land on his doorstep.

Clad in a fire-retardant jumpsuit, Baird is about as "hands-on" as a commander gets. A native of Scotland and former Pro Rally racer, he rides shotgun on the track's primary rescue truck. Perched at the end of pit road, his four-member crew includes a driver, paramedic and another rescue specialist. Stocked with hydraulic tools and extinguishing agents, the pick-up truck can be anywhere "on track" in under a minute. Other teams cover the steeply banked asphalt turns, the infield gas station and its high-octane race fuel, and the sea of recreational vehicles parked around the facility. Local volunteer units cover the two high-rise condominiums and a seven-story office building that overlook the track.

Rescuers like Goss and Mabrey, who are career firefighters with the Concord Fire Department, are drawn to extra duty as speedway rescuers because they love racing. Every firefighting assignment at Charlotte requires "nerves of steel" and the ability to react quickly. Jobs include guarding busy pit road where cars thunder in for lightening-fast tire changes. EMS teams "patrol" the grandstands to cut response time when incidents occur.

"On track," only seasoned rescuers are tapped for the high-stress crash truck slots. "This isn't a place for rookies," says Baird. The toughest time? Starts and re-starts when hungry racers jockey for position at 160 mph.

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Photo by Joseph Louderback
One of the specially designed emergency units is stationed at Charlotte Motor Speedway's Turn Number 4.
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