In The Hot Seat: NASCAR Fire-Rescue

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."

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

"It's not a job for everybody," Martelle says as he cruises through the massive campground inside the Watkins Glen 2.45-mile road course. "We've had people that were great firefighters but they just couldn't take the tension here. You screw up out on the street and maybe there's a small crowd there. Here, there are people in the stands and millions watching on television."

While rescuers are drawn to track fire protection because they love racing, Charlotte commander Baird doesn't want them to love it too much.

"I don't want a race fan on my crew. We have to move quickly and be alert all the time. I don't want someone watching the race," he says.

Each track has its heart-wrenching assignments. At Watkins Glen, it's Turn Number 5. In 1990, driver J.D. McDuffie crashed and died there. At Charlotte, Turn Number 4 seems to be the site of frequent accidents. In a 1992 night race, driver Gary Battson and another competitor collided as they avoided a spinning car. Battson's car jumped the concrete wall, its tires riding the catch fence for 200 feet. When both cars came to a stop, sparks ignited spilled race fuel and the cars ignited. Baird and his team were on scene in seconds but a 60-foot-high wall of flame overtook Battson's car. "It was a huge amount of fire," Baird recalls. Heroically, they attacked the blaze with two hoselines and put their lives in peril as they tried to extricate the victim from the overturned car. Sadly, Battson died of his injuries.

Watkins Glen: It's Not All Crashes

With its rural location in the rolling farmlands of New York's Finger Lakes region, Watkins Glen resembles Woodstock on race weekend. A quiet "state of emergency" is annually declared to mobilize police from departments throughout the state. Firefighters from many states, like Chuck Sheaffer from Pennsylvania, set up in a special rescue workers' campground on site.

Photo by Joseph Louderback
Charlotte Motor Speedway rescuers on duty at Turn Number 4. Auto racing requires highly trained rescuers who are prepared to handle unique emergencies.

Photo by Joseph Louderback
The Communications Center at Watkins Glen, where firefighters from many states set up in a special rescue workers' campground on site.

As action occurs throughout the weekend, Sheaffer arrives at one wreck site and tries to lead a driver away from his smoking car. But the driver is more concerned over his crumpled wreck than his own possible injuriesthe result of sliding into a tire wall at 130 mph. On duty at the small pit row first-aid station, volunteers Chris Justin and Sharon Eley spring into action when a car backfires - its exploding flames catch a pit team off guard. Justin sweeps an extinguisher over the wall of fire as Eley begins treating second-degree burns. Three crew members are transported for treatment.

After a day of crashes, pit road fuel fires and fluid spills, Watkins Glen EMS teams respond to dozens of off-track incidents. Montgomery, NY, resident Ray Thielke, a former New York City paramedic, rides a mountain bike to negotiate the cluttered roadways. He reaches a child hit by a car while other units are negotiating traffic. The Infield Care Center is a hub of activity 24 hours a day. A man walks in with indigestion. Another child is burned by a campfire. One partying man falls off the roof of his motor home. Another fan suffers a heart attack.

At Watkins Glen, Director of Race Operations Ernie Thurston has a different approach to command. He patrols the massive facility in a pick-up outfitted as a mobile command center. Wearing a set of headphones, the former U.S. Air Force firefighter is keyed into both rescue and administrative frequencies to those used by ticket workers at the front gate. Thurston must manage incidents, direct maintenance workers to re-stack tires near guardrails and serve as a front-line liaison reporting back to NASCAR race operations reps in the tower.

Photo by Joseph Louderback
A firefighter guards the gasoline pumps at Watkins Glen.

After a finish line crash results in a car flipping head over heels, Thurston barks orders to track safety workers to rush new water barriers into place. Members of the Watkins Glen Fire Department, the volunteer company that covers the town just four miles away, join in. "Our guys get experience and we get to see some fine racing," says Chief Bill Beardsley. To thank the nearby department, the race track frequently buys them new equipment like hydraulic extrication tools.

Like Baird in Charlotte, Thurston must command on the fly. He assesses a situation and gets racing back on time as quickly as possible. Major television coverage, thousands of fans and a tight schedule dictate speed. Thurston's credo? "Overcome, adapt and improvise."

When a car splinters into pieces on the Inner Loop, Thurston is there. After one crash, he jams on his brakes and hops from the cab to retrieve a piece of hot metal simmering on the roadway. Hearing the whining convoy of cars at his heels around the next turn, he throws it in the back seat and punches the accelerator. Crowds perched on the roofs of their campers holler and applaud as he exits the track at one of the side emergency roads. In the 11th hour of what will be a normal 18-hour day for the boss, Thurston shows the stress of the day. "Somebody give me a Tums," he yells.

When the final race ends on Sunday afternoon, thousands of fans (about 200,000) try to leave Watkins Glen at the same time. That's when the fires begin and Assistant Chief Dan Martelle takes up a position on the Communications Center roof. "They burn everything they don't want to take home," he says. Items range from the wood towers built to get a better view of the track to bedding and furniture.

Dark columns of smoke drift skyward as Martelle directs teams to remote sites. "I've got a large column beyond Turn Number 5," he tells "Delta" team. "We see it and we're on it," a voice says. Upon arrival, they report a pile of debris six feet high. At Turn Number 10, several stuffed chairs are burning. Unless, there's a major fire with an immediate exposure, teams let the fire burns. Every Glen area is littered with trash.

EMS units respond to a report of a woman in labor. The helicopter that has been standing by all weekend flies her to a Rochester hospital. Suddenly, Thurston reports a fan is "taking laps" on the track in a car. Law enforcers and Thurston grab him near Turn Number 1. Martelle deadpans: "He wanted a ride. Now he's getting a ride in a police car." Back at Turn Number 5, two fans are climbing the five-story ESPN camera tower.

Plan For Worst, Hope For Best

Back at Charlotte, when the four-hour Coca-Cola 600 ends near 11 P.M., personnel continue to run medical emergencies as cars filter out of the facility. For the next three hours, accidents and small fires will require their attention. As Baird shakes hands, thanking the volunteers for giving up their time (many organizations receive a donation from the speedway for their services), he steps out onto the speedway for the last time.

Watching an army of workers pick up trash from the floodlit grandstands, Baird assesses how things went. There were a dozen crashes, none resulting in serious injuries. EMS, which always sees tough duty at Charlotte, handled calls efficiently. There were no major fires.

"Within a couple days, I'll look at the reports and figures to see what happened," Baird says. "And we'll see if we should do something differently next time. We always try to plan for the worst but we hope for the best."

Joseph Louderback, a Firehouse® contributing editor, served as editor of the FDNY's Publications Unit and as a government affairs reporter. He is a 20-year member of the Milmont Fire Company in Milmont Park, PA, and conducts media relations programs for the fire service.