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Track Rescue in the Media

                   TRIAL BY FIRE

By Ian Tocher

When Pro Mod driver Harold Martin left on his final qualifying pass at the IHRA's season opener last month in Rockingham, NC, things turned bad in a hurry. Almost immediately upon the launch, the engine in Martin's AC Delco-backed Grand Am suffered a major nitrous explosion and fire erupted from the car's wheelwells and underside.

I stood nearby with several other starting-line photographers and watched as Martin hit the on-board extinguishers, the flames died down, and I think we all expected he would just coast on down to the first available turnoff and we'd be on to the next pair with just a minor delay.

Instead, the next vehicle racing down the Rockingham strip was a big, yellow Ford F-350 carrying members of the IHRA's new Track Rescue Safety Team.

Within a second or so, Martin's fire had roared back stronger than ever, but the Wixom, MI-based driver managed to bring the car to a safe stop at what looked like a little past halfway down the quarter-mile. Every person in the house was horrified as we watched Martin swing open the driver's door -- not once, not twice, but three times, until he finally kicked the door right off its hinges and tumbled out on to the track in a heap. Meanwhile, the flames reached thirty, maybe forty feet high, obscuring our view of the scoreboards, and forcing spectators near the scene to back away from the heat.

By this time, Track Rescue workers had reached the scene and while some began dousing Martin's car with fire-retardant chemicals, others rushed to his aid. Later, Martin would say he thought one of the rescuers had pulled him from the car, though he also complained it "felt like forever" before they reached him. Martin wasn't alone in his concern and confusion over how long he spent in the nitrous-fed inferno, as some racers and other observers were critical of the safety team's response time.

As it happened, I certainly was anxious to see Martin safely escape his fiery prison. I definitely feared for his safety and knew he needed help -- fast! But I didn't think at the time that the truck was late in arriving and that's what I'm basing my opinion on now -- my immediate gut instinct at the time of the incident.

Could Track Rescue have rolled a little sooner in response to Martin's fire? Sure, but there were people standing in front of the truck (a situation that's no longer tolerated, and rightfully so), and it did take a second or two to distinguish the severity of Martin's blaze from a run-of-the-mill nitrous backfire. Would those guys on the truck that night do anything differently if they could do it over? Probably, but it's experience that's the best teacher and I'm quite positive that Track Rescue learned a lot that night at "The Rock" about how quickly everything happens in drag racing.

About the only criticism I can support regards the apparent failure of Track Rescue to check out the construction and safety systems on board the various cars that IHRA sanctions. There's no doubt these guys are pros and carry some great equipment, but their experience so far has predominantly been in the roundy-round ranks, where they've never had to worry about nitro- and nitrous-fed fires.

IHRA Top Fuel team owner Peter Lehman said he'd invited the new service to examine his car for driver extrication tips and to discuss Top Fuel's peculiarities with his crew chief Mike Kloeber and driver Clay Millican, but to Lehman's dismay, after two races (Rockingham and Richmond, VA), no one had taken him up on the offer. That's wrong, and I hope it's addressed when everyone arrives for the next show at Shreveport, LA, next month.

I do have one more safety-related bone to pick, and to be honest, I'm not sure if it's with IHRA, Track Rescue, or the track operators. At the Rockingham event, Billy Williams went through a devastating top-end crash in his Funny Car when it hit the end of the wall facing one of the turnoff openings. Track Rescue earned heaps of praise from all quarters for its quick work in stabilizing Williams, then extricating him quickly and efficiently for transport to a local hospital. (Unfortunately, Williams remains hospitalized and a fund has been set up to help with his expenses: The Billy Williams Fund, c/o Bank One, Attn: Noranne, 17426 Lorain Ave., Cleveland, OH 44111.)

There were no gates to close off that opening at Rockingham, which is something I'm sure will be looked into, but there are gates at Virginia Motorsport Park where the next race was held -- but they weren't in use! I visited the top end briefly during qualifying and noticed at the second turnoff (I think), the heavy metal gate was propped open to allow the cars to exit quickly and unimpeded. I understand the desire for that, but after what happened to Williams, I was surprised to see a single hay bale protecting the potentially deadly end of the open wall that faced the track.

Now, admittedly, most of the cars were well slowed down by the time they reached that point and easily made the turn at a safe speed. But in just the few minutes I was there, at least a couple of Funny Cars and Pro Mods with late chute deployments passed by at a fairly good clip, heading for the extreme end of the pavement before exiting. If something bizarre had happened (blown tire? broken suspension? driver passes out?), we easily could have seen a repeat of Williams' accident scenario.

Drag racing is a dangerous sport. That's why we need professional organizations like Track Rescue and the sanctioning bodies to protect racers -- most often from themselves. Unfortunately, racers at all levels rarely take the opportunity to visit the top end and see what it looks like before they arrive there at 100, 200, or even 300 miles an hour. If you've got a problem at that point, it's probably too late to be looking for escape paths and it's definitely way too late to ask for a gate to be closed.

We know racers are interested in safety, but their interest often extends only as far as the corners of their vehicle. They typically put blind trust in the tracks and safety personnel to make sure they've got the safest venue possible for racing, and right or wrong, if that means a little inconvenience by swinging a gate after every pass, I'd say it's worth it. Wouldn't you?

 

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