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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"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.

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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.


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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.

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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.