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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Racing is a dangerous sport. Speeds dangle near 200 mph, turning the slightest fender-bender into a major disaster.

"It's a totally different environment from what we face on the street," says Dan Martelle, a Wellsville, NY, volunteer, who spends his vacation periods working as an assistant chief on the winding road course at Watkins Glen.

In racing, a wave of the yellow "caution" flag only slows the speeding convoy of race cars. Rookie rescuers learn quickly that these moving 700-hp dynamos are their worst enemy. "You never turn your back on the pack," says Martelle. Teams are told to think of their safety first because the safest place on a busy track is inside a race car. Advanced protection has packed cars with safety enhancements that allow drivers to experience serious impacts and still walk away. Fuel cells, which replaced the gas tanks of the 1960s, limit the amount of spilled fuel during a crash. Special seats and window nets keep drivers from sliding out of a vehicle.

At Charlotte, teams prepare for emergencies by attending the Accident Care Team course, a college-certified class which fine-tunes their extrication skills. Although they depend on many of the same tools used for rescues on a typical highway, handling a race car incident is a whole different ballgame.

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Photo by Joseph Louderback
The Infield Care Center at Charlotte Motor Speedway dispatches dozens of units to emergencies.

The strong safety enhancements that NASCAR demands makes it a challenge to remove trapped drivers. Thick rollbar piping forms a web-like cocoon inside the cockpit - the cage defends drivers against horrific crashes.

Since there are no doors on stock cars - sheet metal covers the roll cage - standard hydraulic spreaders are frequently shelved for air chisels that slice away the roof of the car. Then, the driver can be lifted easily up and out, and damage to the $75,000 cars is limited. Hydraulic cutters can be used to attack the web of rollbar piping but it's a time-consuming job.

An on-track crash is an event within a transpiring event - NASCAR doesn't stop cars from circling unless a situation demands it, so many rescue activities occur when the race is still officially going on. Major incidents produce a red flag. When that is waved, all competitors must stop in place immediately.

Working the high-banked asphalt, which is at a 24- to 31-degree slope throughout the NASCAR circuit, is like climbing a hill. Charlotte personnel have a special hook and belt to tie disabled cars off to the iron catch fence that surrounds the track. First-in rescuers position their vehicles away from the wreck to avoid runoff of fluids and hopefully avoid the resulting fire should an explosion occur. Minimal personnel are put into service at a scene for safety reasons. An on-scene commander must make quick decisions on the extent of entrapment and the victim's medical condition.

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Photo by Joseph Louderback
Charlotte Motor Speedway rescue equipment includes hydraulic extrication tools and air chisels.


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Photo by Joseph Louderback
Charlotte Motor Speedway rescuers use a special hook and belt to tie disabled cars off to the iron catch fence that surrounds the track.

Before each event, drivers and rescuers meet to discuss safety issues. Simple signs assist responders in assessing who's injured most in a multi-car wreck. When their tangled cars come to a rest, drivers who are able to drop their window safety net. That shows rescuers that they appear OK - a car with a window net still up may indicate that driver needs immediate attention. Each driver has an onboard fire- extinguishing unit that can be activated by pulling a handle.

Special People

For rescuers, it takes a special temperament to "block out" the crowds and thundering engines. Sometimes, the job is simple like dumping a bag of absorbent material on the track surface. Other times, it's a minor tangle that forces drivers to take a mandatory ride to a mini-hospital staffed by doctors and nurses called the Infield Care Center.