One of the more enjoyable forms of communication is the 'vicarious experience'. For
instance, we may never get a chance to set foot upon the moon, but it's still
possible to 'experience' it, almost to the point of actually being there, if the
writer or film producer is skilled enough. In Mimosa 22, the writer of the
next article allowed us to vicariously experience being a paramedic/firefighter in
southwestern Virginia. He now takes us back to that same area, where hazy summer
evenings can turn into...
Above everything else, it's the noise that overwhelms you. The noise of 43 perfectly-tuned NASCAR engines roaring and screaming their way around the half-mile, high-banked oval track while 130,000 highly charged race fans scream their approval. It not only fills all five of your normal senses, it takes hold of your body and shakes every muscle and every nerve until you come to feel that you and the cars and the 130,000 fans and the lights and the track are all welded together into one supercharged life form that might achieve escape velocity at any moment and hurl itself right off the planet. This is NASCAR racing at the Bristol Motor Speedway and at this track it's all flat out, all the way. I wasn't a race fan before I worked the ambulance crew there at the race last fall, but now? Let me tell you about how I came to be quite literally in the middle of that night of thunder...
I had joined the local volunteer Fire Department in the winter of 1996 and after several months the pace of activity there had settled into something of a routine for me. My Department serves a largely rural part of the county and the more widely distributed population base means that we usually answer one or two emergency calls each night. In between times we stay at the fire hall training and maintaining equipment, and I get to hear a lot of stories about the calls my more experienced comrades have worked in the past. Many of them have previously worked with rescue squads in larger cities and often describe running eight or ten, even twelve EMS calls per shift. Thinking that it might be good for me to get some big-city experience too, I went to the Bristol Life Saving Crew last fall and signed up as a volunteer. The pace was a lot faster with the Crew. My first night with them I ran seven calls and the second night we ran nine calls -- a couple of them rather messy ones -- and didn't get a chance to come back to the station until the end of our shift twelve hours later. I'll have to tell you about some of those calls sometime.
Bristol happens to be the home of the Bristol Motor Speedway. It's one of the oldest racetracks on the NASCAR circuit and is unique for its half-mile oval track with curves so steeply banked you can't walk up the surface of them without stooping over in a half crawl. It's just like a giant Hot Wheels race track. The drivers love it because it's so different from the bigger tracks like Daytona or Charlotte. The fans love it because unlike the bigger tracks, there's not a seat in the house where you can't see Everything that goes on, and with 43 cars crowding onto that track there's a lot going on. Wrecks happen fast and often, and the drivers that race on the NASCAR circuit aren't the least bit afraid to risk scraping the paint off their cars. All 43 of them will gladly tell you they each came there to win.
Forth-three drivers and 130,000 fans means a lot of work for EMS workers, and about 200 EMTs, Paramedics, and firefighters were recruited from area agencies to work this race. It just so happened that my Crew had the assignment to work inside the track itself thus serving the drivers, their crews, and the relatively few fans able to acquire pit passes. This seemed to me to be a lot more fun than dealing with the 130,000 fans up in the bleachers all day so I signed up to work the race with the Crew.
Our day started at five o'clock that morning when we reported to the crew hall to get our assignments. As I arrived a medivac helicopter was just landing in the parking lot next door. It turned out that the race track had leased the copter to be dedicated to the race track so as to cut down transport time in the event of an emergency with one of the drivers or fans, and we were to provide the flight crew. Watching it fly out to the track a bit later I reflected that with our own helicopter we must have every base covered. Since I had a certification to drive the largest emergency vehicles (most of the Crew didn't have that, but as a firefighter I did) my assignment was to drive the Disaster Truck. That sounded pretty exciting until I got my first look at it -- the Disaster Truck is actually a retired Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that was donated to us after it became too expensive for the local Pepsi plant to maintain. It now contained three complete army-style field triage hospitals all carefully stuffed into its cavernous rear end. It drove like a lump of mud, and as I rocketed down the highway at a blazing 25 miles per hour, I wondered if it had been christened 'Disaster Truck' before or after Pepsi gave it away.
I did arrive in time for the safety lecture, and after parking the truck under the grandstands I joined it in time to hear some of the basics about dealing with wrecked race cars. The first thing to keep in mind is that they get hot. Real hot. Their motors produce a lot more heat than a regular car and much of it is dispersed into the frame and body of the car itself. The flame retardant suits that the drivers wear is as much to protect them from the normal heat of racing as from the possibility of fire in a crash. In the event of a wreck the crash truck and our ambulance would be the first on the track to respond and we were warned not to touch the cars with our bare hands (I later found out the hard way that they were indeed that hot). Then we were shown the ways to reach in and quickly release an unconscious driver from the safety harness, to unhook the radio and air conditioning lines from their helmets, and how to pull the driver out through the window while keeping the neck and spine supported -- all this assuming that the fires that often accompany a wreck would let us get close enough. The fuel used in NASCAR is of a higher octane then you or I run in our cars and when it burns it's a bit harder to extinguish (I was to see this for myself later that night).
Another responsibility for the crash crews is to make sure that the master switch in each car is turned off. When there's a wreck, the drivers are going to bail out as quickly as they possibly can and run for the pit walls. The master switch cuts the power to the vehicle, and turning it off reduces the possibility of fire as the car is being towed back to the garage area.
I mentioned earlier that I'm not a race fan; one illustration of this happened a bit later that day. I'd been told that those switches were located in different places in different cars and I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at a few of them. Spotting a car and crew that didn't seem to be too busy, I walked over and asked one of the fellows standing around it if he'd show me where the switch was on that car. He was a tall lanky fellow in his `60s with a big mustache and wrap around sunglasses. He looked at me kind of funny and asked why I wanted to know. Maybe he thought I was thinking of jumping in and trying to take a few laps, but I explained that I was on the crash team and I might have to go out on the track and help rescue a driver in the event of a bad wreck. He grinned at that and said, "Well, we sure want you to know how to do that! Come on with me," and he then gave me a complete tour of the car and showed me all the controls and safety harnesses. He showed me how to quickly remove the steering wheel to allow more room to work on a driver and gave me some tips about helping a hurt driver out of a car -- which was mostly to let him do it himself as much as possible. This guy seemed to know a lot about racing.
"Are you a driver too?" I asked.
He gave me a long look and a slow grin and said, "I been around the track a time or two. I just own this team now." I thanked him and shook his hand and he walked off, still grinning.
I walked over and had a look at the side of the huge car carrier that housed that particular race team. The carriers are usually decorated with the names of all the sponsors as well as the name of the driver and owner. Turned out that I'd just met Richard Petty, the single most famous driver in NASCAR history. I think I'd have recognized him if he'd been wearing his hat.
Those car carriers are fascinating vehicles in themselves, containing all the tools, spare motors and parts, plus a full kitchen, bath and shower, bunks, all the pit crew equipment, and everything else that the full race team needs during the two or three days they stay at a track for a race. The back wall of the carrier folds down to become an elevator that lifts the car up to its storage space overhead of the crew section. They usually carry two cars up there to each race -- the extra is for when the primary car wrecks during practice or qualifying, but can't be used as a replacement if a crash occurs during the actual race.
They pack the carriers into the infield pretty tightly and those fans lucky enough or with enough pull to get inside the infield spend all day trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite drivers and maybe get an autograph. I'm surprised that they allow fans in there at all since NASCAR fans seem pretty dogged about getting all their various souvenirs autographed.
Like I've said, I'm not a race fan. I was there to do a job and I have to tell you, the drivers just seemed like regular guys to me. I talked to several of them that day and I suppose that because I was wearing the crash team uniform and not hounding them to sign something for me they treated me more like one of their associates. The only driver that I wasn't able to approach freely was Jeff Gordon -- one of the hottest names in NASCAR today, but that may not have been his fault. Though wildly successful he seems to be highly unpopular with many fans -- when he hit the wall during this race thousands of them stood up and cheered. Gordon actually seemed to have bodyguards with him, and he was whisked out of sight whenever he wasn't needed on track. The only time I saw him that day was at the infield church service held for the drivers and crews Sunday morning. He and his wife sat near the front. I noticed that several other drivers attended as well. Since these same folks travel around to the same races weekend after weekend I imagine they start to feel like a fairly close community after a while. Some of the teams had their children with them and they all played together in the infield.
After the church service I reported in to the field hospital where I'd be working out of most of the day. I was assigned to the lead ambulance when the race started and was to be available in the crew area until then. Even though there were over 1200 people working or roaming the infield, we only had one non-race related call that day, a woman with one of the teams who got a bit too much sun on that hot August day. It was a different story out in the grandstands. The race started at 7:30 PM but by noon the stands seemed full of hot, sunburned race fans. It was quite a sight to stand in the middle of all that and just watch them. The stands were constantly glittering with the reflected sunlight off the bottoms of soft drink and beer cans. There were several accidents: cuts, bee stings, heat exhaustion, and so forth. A few people fell on the stadium stairs and got bruised up a bit. There were a couple of fistfights among drunk race fans, but these were quickly broken up by the Sullivan County Sheriff's deputies who were out in force. There wasn't as much of that sort of disturbance as I would have expected given the circumstances. I later learned that pretty much all the fans understood that any fight for whatever reason would automatically mean arrest and immediate transport out of the track -- and so they kept quite well behaved for the most part.
I listened to all this on the track headset radio that all the EMS workers were wearing. Later in the afternoon I listened in to one incident that happened in the stands; a woman approached one of the EMTs out in the grandstands and reported having chest pains. He took her to the grandstand aid station where she was checked out with a heart monitor, and what they saw made them advise her to allow them to take her to the hospital in town immediately and be seen in the ER. She refused. Then they had an ER doctor come out and talk to her and tried for about 30 minutes to get her to change her mind. All she kept saying was, "I paid too much for these tickets and traveled too far to leave here before the race is over," and she still refused to leave. All a doctor or an EMT can do is give advice and offer to help a patient. Any unimpaired adult has the right to refuse any medical treatment, and so the lady went back to her seat and watched the race, even though she had been advised that she seemed to be having a heart attack. Moments after the race ended she was brought back to that same ambulance by those who had been sitting with her. By then she was in severe pain and gasping for breath. Unfortunately at that point the medivac helicopter had just left to transport another patient, and the roads were so congested with outgoing race traffic that it took nearly 45 minutes to get her to the hospital by ambulance. She got to see her race, but she died in the ambulance on the way out of the track.
I knew nothing about that until much later. Out on the track practice had started and we got into positions to respond if one of the cars should happen to crash. Stock car racing evolved from an amateur sport that started back after World War II. Regular production, or 'stock', cars were souped up and raced on dirt tracks on weekends by the people who then drove them to work on Monday morning. Today, stock cars still look like regular cars on the outside, but the only real resemblance is in the body style. Inside, everything has been hand-built and fine-tuned to give top performance with minimum weight. There is a seat only for the driver and it's customdesigned for him like the seat for an astronaut. The motors are far more powerful and far louder. When one car starts, it fills the entire stadium with an uncomfortably loud noise. When all 43 are running, you have to have hearing protection or you'll go deaf. I tried slipping my headset off during the race just to see if I could stand it, but the noise was so loud that I honestly thought I'd ruptured my eardrums -- they rang for days afterwards. All the race crews were wearing headsets of course; communication was impossible without them.
Race time was getting near. ESPN was broadcasting the race and they had several crews at the track; they even had their own helicopter hovering overhead during the race. There were also three small aircraft flying around towing advertising banners all day long. They'd change them every hour or so, and I was surprised at the ads. (Why would race fans be a good target audience for prefabricated homes, a local video store, and a particular brand of soap?) There were pre-race ceremonies -- a parade of NASCAR dignitaries and drivers around the track in convertibles, followed by fifty Harley Davidson motorcycles roaring around the track, each with an American flag flapping from the back. The crowd loved it. Then it was time for the drivers to enter their cars. Our ambulance moved to our position just inside the first turn (where a lot of wrecks usually happened) and the pace car moved out followed by the tightly bunched race cars.
They went around the track at maybe 70 miles per hour while the cars sorted themselves out into their assigned positions. One lap, two laps, three -- then suddenly the pace car darted into the pit area and over the radio we heard the race controller shout "Green, green, green!" as the cars leap forward at top speed. I thought I'd seen them go fast in practice, but that was nothing compared to this.
I'm standing just behind the pit wall not thirty feet from the cars with nothing but air between us, and the pack shoots past me so quickly that I can't turn my head fast enough to watch them go by. The wind pulls at my clothing, and as they pour into the curve I'm showered with bits of hot rubber from the tires as they bite into the rough concrete surface. Momentum pushes the cars up against banked curves so steep that earlier in the day I'd been unable to stand up straight on them. Forty-three cars all pour into a path two lanes wide, all thinking only of getting there first. Blue flame shoots from their exhausts like roaring, thunderous monsters belching fire. The roar as the pack shoots by resonates within my body -- it absolutely shakes every part of me inside and out. This is a Hot Wheels fantasy made real.
The first car to drop out is #74 -- Randy Lajoie. In spite of months of constant work and testing on that car, some mechanical problem has knocked him out early. The pit crew pushes his car behind the pit wall. Atop his car hauler their friends and family sit and watch the rest of the race but there's no excitement in their faces now. To either side of them other teams watch their cars. Their race is still alive.
There's a wreck at the far end of the track. I can't see it from where I am, but the crowd is on its feet. The yellow caution flag is out and damaged cars begin darting into the pits. Furious work with torn sheet metal, tires changed, gas shot into the tanks, and the cars drop off their jacks and shoot back into the pack. I see a heavily damaged #18 car being pushed behind the wall by its angry, disgusted crew. There are dozens of photographers everywhere, darting about like hawks and shooting hundreds of photos. The pack roars on. The pace is fast and unrelenting. Everything happens so fast and everyone of the race teams has to stay focused on their particular jobs. Used tires from the previous pit stops get carefully labeled in chalk and stacked aside. They'll be loaded in trucks after the race and hauled back to the manufacturer, Goodyear, for analysis.
The miles roll by. Or rather they roar by -- these drivers are intent on what they're doing. Five hundred miles of unrelenting high speed tension. Five hundred laps. Two thousand left hand turns. A crash right in front of me -- it happened so fast I didn't see it! Sheet metal is flying through the air, and a large piece skids to a stop at my feet. The wrecked cars slide on around the curve and stop out of my sight -- just banged up, no one hurt. Most of the cars are banged up pretty good now, with tire marks from other cars burned into their sides. Swappin' paint, they call it. A few still look pristine, but they're running at the back of the pack. The #88 car -- damaged in the last wreck -- shoots by with the entire front end missing, but it charges just as hard as any of them. One of my favorites is the #00 car of "Buckshot" Jones. He's already been in two major wrecks and his car is badly chewed up, but he's still right in there racing hard.
Eight laps from the end of the race the inevitable happens. A wreck coming out of Turn 4 piles up at least six cars and damages several others. One car smashes into the outside wall and bursts into flame. The fans sitting on the other side of the fence scatter wildly up the bleachers. As it burns we leap into our ambulance and wait for the fire truck ahead of us to get through the opening in the pit wall. People from the pit area are in our way, photographers mostly, who scramble for a good shot while the car burns.
The red flag comes out -- race stopped. Drivers jump out of the other five wrecked cars and scramble for the pit wall, but the driver of the burning car is still in there. We're sitting there with lights and siren going, but people are still running between us and the track. I hear the track announcer shout over the radio and the track PA system, "Get out of the goddamned way, people!" as track security arrives to shove the people blocking us out of our way. I notice that they weren't very gentle about it either, but they get the job done fast. We enter the track and the driver is finally helped out of the burning car by the firefighters. He's hurt. Another ambulance gets to him first and rushes him to the infield hospital.
Race control comes over the radio and asks us to check all the wrecked cars just to make sure that no one got overlooked in the excitement. Two of us jump out of the ambulance and run to check them. All are empty, but on the third one I notice that the master switch is still on. Leaning in, I learn the hard way just how hot a race car can get. I turn the switch off (thank you Richard Petty) and the wreckers arrive to clear the track. Walking back to the ambulance I pass the car that burned. On an unscorched fender I see the decal of one of its main sponsors: Kingsford -- the company that makes barbecue charcoal.
Eight laps to go, and the battered survivors line up for the restart. They've all worked hard just to get here and everyone is still determined to win. Four laps are run under caution and then the pace car shoots into the pits and the cars leap ahead just as hard as at the start. They slam into each other, pushing and shoving like angry snorting bulls trampling anything in their path. One car passes another on the last lap to win. It's over -- I am almost numb with the noise and the excitement. I don't even register who actually won. It seems almost an anticlimax. There's another race in another state next weekend and the crews are already loading up to head back to the shops. Most of them have a lot of rebuilding to do.
Back at the infield hospital, the driver from that burned car has back injuries. He's strapped to a backboard and I help load him in the ambulance to be driven out of the track to the medivac helicopter waiting just outside. As it lifts off the spectator who had complained of chest pains earlier in the day arrives back at the aid station in the grandstands and says, "I'm ready to go to the hospital now." Then she collapses...
We remained on standby for hours while the track emptied and the crews packed up. Since the race ended well after midnight I had assumed that the crews would probably stay till morning, but they packed up and left quickly. The last one was gone within an hour, but the fans lingered far longer. I drove the disaster truck back to the station, glad that it hadn't been needed. The roar of the race still pounded in my ears.
It had been an extreme day, but I don't think it had turned me into a race fan. However, there was another race scheduled for Bristol next April, and I realized as I left the track that I intended to be back there in Turn 1, waiting for a crash that I hoped wouldn't happen. Why would I subject myself to such an ordeal again? I can't answer that question even now. The race was an experience that I'd never imagined for myself (and still don't fully understand) but I do know that I like being part of the racing action in the small way that I had been. There'll be more 'nights of thunder', and I'll be back.
All illustrations by Charlie Williams