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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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.