Race Weekend Central

Dedicated Safety Teams: The NASCAR Debate Continues

For a good five years now, the debate has gone on about NASCAR safety and medical workers. With wrecks and mechanical failures forever ingrained in the culture of the sport, having a solid medical staff in place is necessary to ensure the safety of all competitors. But, what type of medical crew would best serve the drivers: a crew specific to each particular track, or a group that travels with NASCAR to every race? While NASCAR currently adheres to the former, support seems to be gathering for the latter; whether that debate will ever reach a resolution seems to be a whole other matter altogether.

Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument. Some have advocated using a dedicated safety team that travels with the circuit and handles accidents, both from the on-track rescue side as well as in the infield care center like other motorsports series employ. The idea is that the rescue workers would have specialized knowledge of the vehicles and the safety apparatus in the cars so that they would best know how to extricate drivers. Also, having a dedicated medical team means the people treating driver injuries are already familiar with a patient and his or her history.

Yet throughout the history of the series, NASCAR has continued using local rescue workers and medical staff just like they always have, not desiring any change unless it is determined that there is definite benefit to it.

Those in favor of dedicated personnel that travel with the series point out the fact that NASCAR stock cars are not like vehicles rescue workers encounter out on the road. Because NASCAR stock cars are built differently and contain different safety apparatus, extricating a driver from a car may be quite different from the experience these rescue workers rely on for highway accidents. If NASCAR were to employ a dedicated track rescue team, the personnel would be extensively trained on the vehicles they will encounter and be capable of understanding the best way to handle on-track rescue situations.

“I am not one of those people that believe you have to have a traveling safety team that has a staff of 20 or whatever. I do believe that we have to have a group that travels to each and every race that understands the challenges that are unique to our sport,” says driver Jeff Burton, a frequent safety advocate among NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers. “I think there are certain components of what we do that having a group that has an intimate knowledge of would be very beneficial.”

It’s that intimacy some drivers crave: after a wreck, drivers would see a familiar face at a stressful time with a traveling safety crew. This familiar face could have a calming effect on a driver, as well as having knowledge of drivers and their personalities so they are prepared for what they may encounter. That familiarity is comforting not only on the track, but in the infield care center as well where drivers would know that the medical personnel taking care of them are familiar with their history.

“It would be more effective to have the same person on the same team all the time. Other motorsports series have that,” says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who acknowledges the good job the staffs at the tracks provide now, but would favor the full-time safety team. “It’s just more effective to have that consistency so the medical people understand and are familiar with a driver’s history.”

Based on those comments, it seems like it would be a simple choice to make the switch, but there is another side to the argument that is also quite compelling. While it’s difficult to fault the idea of a rescue team with specific knowledge of a racecar that they are not likely to gain in their daily work, the medical team is a different story. Sure, it’s a good thing to know a patient’s history, but at the same time, medicine is a constantly evolving science, and there are skills that are best honed in the daily practice of it.

Trauma care, for example, is a very specific part of medicine, and the only way to keep trauma skills sharp and up to date is to deal with it on a daily basis. If NASCAR were to employ a full-time trauma team, it would take these medical professionals out of their field on a regular basis, making them incapable of being up-to-date on the latest advancements in their field.

“If we have a guy that travels to the track with us, or a group of people that travel with us, that means they no longer have the opportunity to spend the bulk of their time working on trauma cases, I think we start to lose something there,” explains Burton. “There is a tremendous amount to be gained from someone who has under-the-fire experience. (By having a safety worker who) was working a major trauma case just two days ago, I think we benefit from that as well.”

So, a good case can actually be made for both scenarios; the best solution for the future might be a combination of the two ideas, with a mix of local rescue workers and medical staff along with dedicated personnel that travel with the series and augment the local staff.

“When we can couple the local knowledge of what we do with the knowledge of a guy that five or six days a week deals with trauma issues, I think that is the best of all scenarios,” says Burton.

Whatever the future holds for NASCAR’s rescue and medical practices, don’t think the drivers are not getting excellent care right now. True, they do not have the dedicated personnel many of the drivers would like to see in some capacity, but both Earnhardt and Burton express that they are very comfortable with they system and the personnel currently in place at all the tracks. While NASCAR continues to consider the options and weigh the debate, the welfare of not just the drivers, but everyone at the track on a race weekend, is definitely a concern left in capable hands.

“I am comfortable with where we are today; I’m comfortable with the fact that NASCAR has taken up with great seriousness the fact that we could do it better,” says Burton. “I also believe that NASCAR has no reason to do it any way other than right.”

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