Craig Murto: NASCAR needs a full-time safety team

Matt Kenseth started on the pole for the 400-lap Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Richmond Saturday night and had a car that was capable of winning.

But during a caution, as the cars headed to pit road, so did an errant ambulance. As drivers swerved and slammed on their brakes to avoid the ambulance, Kenseth’s car struck the back of Clint Bowyer’s automobile, which resulted in a broken radiator for Kenseth and an early retirement from the race.

At one point during explanations of the incident, it seemed as if NASCAR threw the ambulance driver under the bus, stating that he entered the track without permission and didn’t stop when told to stop.

But at the same time, NASCAR admits that race control is not in direct contact with the track safety crew and that Saturday night they “didn’t sync up.”

In the spring race at Richmond, it was a safety truck that was in the way when cars headed to pit road. Apparently they did not sync up that afternoon, either.

NASCAR does have standards as to the training of safety personnel at each track. But each track uses local safety crews; local tow trucks, and local ambulance and firefighting gear.

It’s time that NASCAR has a full-time fleet of safety personnel that travels to each race. Even the Hooters Pro Cup Series when it existed had a full-time safety team. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has its Safety Safari, and Indycar has a traveling safety team.

A traveling safety team has the advantage of personnel who are familiar with the drivers. For example, Ryan Reed, the Xfinity Series driver, is a diabetic. That could be critical information if he ever needs care at the scene of an accident.

Traveling safety teams also become much more familiar with the actual cars from which they may have to extricate a driver. That knowledge could save critical time during an emergency situation.

I know safety personnel working at all racetracks usually do their best. But as demonstrated during both Richmond races this year, it would be advantageous to have safety personnel on the track who are familiar with race procedure.

I’m sure the ambulance driver didn’t want to be in the way and risk getting run over by Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars heading to pit road. But I would also venture to guess that if the ambulance driver worked every Cup race of the year as his full-time job, he would be familiar enough with race procedure that he would never be in the way.

The Pro Cup Series was a short track series, and it had a traveling safety crew 15 years ago. The NHRA has a safety crew, as does Indycar. The late racer Tim Richmond made the case for a traveling safety crew in NASCAR in the mid-’80s; maybe it’s time we heard his words.

And while we’re at it, I have to shake my head at the overall officiating at Richmond. One caution because the leader’s tire smoked when he locked his brakes? Then a caution with three laps remaining because a car scraped the wall without any debris? That final caution robbed Martin Truex Jr. of a race win.

But there was also a piece of debris on the backstretch at the exit of Turn 2 that sat there for 80 laps, until the race was over. Cars nearly struck it exiting pit road. That would have been a legitimate caution if NASCAR had seen it. The section of grandstand in which I sat watched and waited for the caution that never flew. We sat in bewilderment when the debris wasn’t picked up during the final caution.

At Dominion Raceway in Thornburg last Thursday, four-time NASCAR champion Philip Morris won the $10,000 Late Model event. Then on Saturday, Morris went to Motor Mile Speedway in Radford and secured the track championship. Jared Mees won the American Flat Track motorcycle feature at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway. Closer to home, Winchester Speedway flagman Dave Menefee informs that Kenny Moreland scored the win Saturday night in the Winchester 200.

This Saturday night, South Boston Speedway makes up a rain date for the Pro All Stars Series (PASS) Super Late Models. Besides the 150-lap PASS feature, there will also be a 100-lap NASCAR Late Model Stock Car feature and a 50-lap feature for the Limited Late Model division. Racing begins at 7.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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