Murto: NASCAR needs own safety team

World-class racing organizations have traveling safety teams for the protection of its competitors; when will NASCAR join their ranks?

The Petit Le Mans ALMS sports car race at Road Atlanta – the final ALMS race – wasn’t even finished before rumors raced through the pits that the IMSA Safety Team, which travels with the series, will not return.

ALMS was purchased by Grand Am, NASCAR’s version of sports car racing. The United SportsCar Championship (USC) was formed for 2014 with the merger of the two. ALMS used the IMSA Traveling Safety team, just as the NHRA has its traveling Safety Safari and IndyCar has a traveling safety team. But Grand Am – like NASCAR – used local volunteer safety personnel. Reports surfaced that the IMSA team was told they would not return in 2014.

Support for the IMSA Safety Team was swift and universal. On Twitter, the hashtag #ISupportTheIMSASafetyTeam has nearly gone viral. And for good reason; disbanding the safety team is nothing short of a step backwards.

NASCAR has the opportunity here to do the correct thing. In fact, it is shameful that none of its top three touring series has a traveling safety team. But the sanction deserves credit on a number of fronts.

Pit road speed limits in motorsports were first implemented by NASCAR. Over-the -wall crew members in NASCAR were wearing helmets and fireproof suits when F1 crew members were still wearing shorts. And although developed for IndyCars, nobody pushed for SAFER barriers harder than NASCAR, which mandated them at all tracks on which its major series competes.

But NASCAR was reactive. Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and finally Dale Earnhardt all died before real change occurred. And the sanction first tried to assign blame to faulty seat belts. Pit road speed limits only became the norm after we lost people on pit road.

And when NASCAR tries to be proactive it gets pushback from within. The announcement that 2014 will bring pre-season baseline concussion testing of drivers was met with suspicion by Brad Keselowski , whose “my health is my responsibility” attitude does not consider the risk to other drivers (or himself) if he competes with a concussion.

NASCAR does train and certify volunteers at racetracks on which their top series compete. And many of those tracks – such as the half-mile facility at Martinsville – have state-of-the-art medical facilities. The volunteers earn the certification NASCAR gives them as first responders.

But there are good reasons to have a crew of trained personnel who are familiar with the competitors. In serious accident situations, the knowledge of a full-time safety crew could save a life. Each driver may have a unique medical issue that requires attention, such as diabetes, history of blood clots, history of concussions, or other previous injuries.

And in the case of sports car racing, safety personnel must deal with different types of cars and different types of fuel. It’s an awful lot to remember for volunteer safety personnel who may not again encounter those situations.

When ESPN was the primary broadcaster of all NASCAR events, ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch – who was trained as an emergency medicine physician – made use of his medical training. He saved the life of Ernie Irvan after his 1994 practice` crash at Michigan. And in 1988, Punch was the first on the scene after Rusty Wallace rolled his car down the front stretch at Bristol, reviving the unconscious driver. He also aided many injured pit crew members during events. NASCAR should hire Dr. Punch to create traveling teams for all its series.

Just as Keselowski fears doctors and their baseline concussion testing, everybody should fear lawyers’ involvement in racing. Litigation drives up the cost of everything, and the fear of litigation often trumps common sense. Some wonder off the record if NASCAR’s resistance to traveling safety teams isn’t the result of some lawyer in Daytona Beach advising that it’s the best way to insulate the sanction from a lawsuit. Others believe it’s simply about the almighty dollar – traveling safety teams cost money, and that impacts the bottom line.

Negative PR also impacts the bottom line, and nobody in the world of sports car racing believes that losing the IMSA Safety Team is a good idea. NASCAR would be wise to continue the safety team with the USC. In fact, it would be even wiser to finally move forward and join other world-class racing organizations by creating traveling safety teams for all of its national tours.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.