Clean-up crews play a key role in keeping the action going.
Racing is a team sport. No one makes it to Victory Lane unless everyone involved works together to his or her best ability. But the concept of the team extends beyond the competitors. You won't see their names in the headlines or the box scores, but the track's safety crews form a team that is integral to a successful race.
No racetrack can run without the presence of the safety crews. In fact, a racetrack is judged in many ways by the performance of those crews. Drivers will steer away from racetracks where they feel safety is compromised. On the other hand, if the competitors have confidence in the safety teams, they'll support a track or a series.
Safety crews can be professional or volunteer, but they must be dedicated. They are stuck doing the thankless jobs, often facing people who are badly hurt or very angry, depending upon their role. They must always be on full alert, including times when no one is racing. Medical crews have found themselves treating more pit-related injuries than racing injuries at many racetracks.
There are several responsibilities that fall within the safety crew designation. Track crews handle cleanup and restore the racing surface before the green flag falls again. Wrecker crews take away the disabled cars and haul them back to a chagrined pit crew. Fire crews take care of existing blazes from spilled gasoline, oil, or other fluids, and stand watch on an accident scene in case a fire pops up. Ambulance crews respond to ensure the driver's physical care and provide treatment of minor injuries and stabilization of major ones.
Each aspect of the safety team has to work within its own responsibility while working in conjunction with one another. All crews may be on the track for an incident or only one may answer the call. Each circumstance determines the proper response.
Some tracks use simple rail buggies as accident response vehicles. These machines can carr
Safety crews are an important consideration for traveling sanctions. Scott Isaacs, safety director for the American Speed Association (ASA), was involved with safety on the local track level before moving to the sanction. He cites some key considerations given when a traveling series comes to town.
"Manpower is an important issue," Isaacs says. "We look at the track and see what it has in terms of people. The amount of equipment is important, but you need to have the people who can operate the equipment and know what to do.
"If the track is bigger, obviously, you're going to need more equipment in order to cut down the time needed to respond to an incident. We like to talk to the safety crews about their training and get a feel for the equipment they have there. It's better if they're working with equipment that they're familiar with."
Fire is always a big concern at a racetrack, and having adequate equipment on hand is something racers are watching. Although it is very uncomfortable, the top firefighting teams wear their protective clothing at all times. If the fire crew is dressed down, they're not prepared.
"We're still finding a lot of places that think they can get by with just extinguishers," says Isaacs. "They may get by for awhile, but it's something that can really come back and be a problem. You can have enough fuel in a cell or a couple of burning cells that will outlast an extinguisher's capability."
Trained firefighters on duty need to quickly assess a fire and use the appropriate method to extinguish the blaze. There should always be a minimum of two persons on a fire rig, especially in cases where a driver needs assistance. Some of the responding crews will not be dressed properly to be near a flaming car.
ASA Safety Director Scott Isaacs demonstrates the HatsOff safety system at a driver's meet
"The track should have some sort of pumping apparatus to put out the blaze," Isaacs continues. "These are really cheap to build. A nitrogen-over-water system is simple. We were racing at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) and they had a workable system. They used 30-gallon air compressor tanks filled with foam extinguishing material, and the tanks were charged with nitrogen."
Ambulance crews can benefit from working with drivers on a regular basis. Some tracks and sanctions require drivers to provide medical information (such as blood type and known allergies) for the safety teams. Some drivers have been known to become friendly with the safety crew for a little piece of mind. Getting to know each other can provide a stable place in the chaotic environment of an on-track incident.
"I think knowing the competitors is really important," Isaacs reiterates. "That's one benefit I have working with the same people every week, but a local track can have that, too. We had an incident where one of our drivers was injured. The track crew did a great job, but the driver didn't know them and didn't really want to go to the hospital. I was able to convince him he needed to go. It wasn't a case of not trusting the crew, but the driver sometimes doesn't see a situation right. He may be a little dazed or thinking about something else. By getting to know the drivers, you find their quirks and attitudes and get to know what they're like."
The downside would have to be getting to know someone and then making a run, only to find the driver you have gotten to know to be in bad shape. "I've had to make runs on personal friends before," Isaacs says. "To do this job, you have to draw a line between personal and professional relationships. Now, I can't speak for everybody. As professionals, though, there's a lot about this job that we don't like to do, but we have to do it."
Wrecker crews take over after the fire and medical personnel have cleared the scene. Clean
Wrecker crews may not have the urgency of the fire and medical crews, but they have a key role in the overall safety picture. It's their job to safely and quickly remove the cars that hold up the progress of the race. Urgency in their task rests with keeping car damage to a minimum while removing it. Quick work on their part allows the drivers remaining in the contest to get back to the business at hand as soon as possible.
The track clean-up crew becomes the last line of defense to get the situation cleared. Clean-up crews do hard, physical labor and do it quickly. Spreading absorbing material, using brooms to spread it through the spill area, and directing traffic around the accident site are some of the key jobs. They have to return the track to its previous condition to keep the action consistent from start to finish.
Many of these safety crews do it for one reason. Some get paid, many in perks like race tickets for their families, but that's not the main reason.
"We're doing it because we love it," Isaacs says. "When someone says thank you, it's great, but we don't do it for that. We're not doing it for the money. It's just because we love it and we can make it safer."