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A Day at the Races

I'm writing this column from inside a MedTec Type III ambulance next to the most famous asphalt in the world. Inside the ambulance with me are Ronnie Long and Mark Rothwell. Outside are 250,000 NASCAR fans gathered for the 2003 Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS). We're getting rained on. With the race stopped, we're looking at some of the fans with our binoculars. We like looking at them because in many ways we value their intellect. Especially when it rains.

Fact is, there's not much to do during a rain delay. Which makes it the perfect time to write a column about well, about whatever Ronnie and Mark tell me to. I'm taking advantage of the fact that we're held captive by the fickle fortunes of weather to make them write my column for this week.

So, guys, what's on the mind of the typical paramedic these days?


"You know, when I went to the Charlotte race last year, it was just like this. Rain, stopped. Rain, stopped, " says Mark.

There's no reply from Ronnie, who is looking out the window at the crowd, the track, the porta-pottie, the 450-pound guy in a gray t-shirt in the upper deck of Section K who we know is going to drop from an MI before the day is out, and the woman who is ignoring the asphyxiation warnings by walking through the rain with a plastic dry-cleaning bag over her head.

To provoke a response, I read him what I've typed.

"You know, you could have put the porta-pottie last," says Ronnie. "I mean, I have a family and all. What will my kids think?"

Probably not much. They'll be too busy admiring the fashionable cut of their Dad's Nomex suit, aviator headphones and white crash helmet. If this gear sounds different that what you normally wear to respond to a call, you're right. EMS at the races is a different world.

It's not only the clothes that are different. It's the rules. When a car crashes, look at the window. If the driver lets down the webbing, he's okay. If he doesn't, there's a problem. The doors can't be opened to get to the patient because there are no doors. Care is provided through the windows. There's no room above the head to remove the helmet. If you need to get the helmet off, the roof comes off first. Drivers are extricated from the car and the seat. Restraints are five-point, six-point, or seven-point, plus the separate head and neck restraint devices. If the driver gets out, let him walk toward the ambulance. It's okay to ask if he hurts anywhere. It is absolutely not okay to ask what happened. Never focus fully on the patient, but always keep one eye up and to the side. If someone grabs your belt and starts to pull you away, don't fight it. They're trying to pull you out of the way of something going much faster than you. There is no argument about "load and go" versus "stay and play." Those 180-mph four-wheeled projectiles make it a non-issue.

EMS at the Speedway is a year-round proposition. More than 320 days a year, there is some kind of activity, be it racing or testing, on the track. The racing not only occurs during the big NASCAR weekends in February (Daytona 500) and July (Pepsi 400). Daytona also hosts a Rolex-24 hour endurance race and a multitude of motorcycle events during Bike Week and Biketoberfest. During light days, there may be only one or two EMS units active. During motorcycle events, up to eight units are on site; large events bring out a total of 36 ALS and BLS units to serve drivers, pit crews, and spectators. During Speed Weeks this year, DIS EMS responded to more than 150 calls; last July, 250 patients received care from Speedway EMS services (the difference between February and July? The heat). The Speedway works hand-in-hand with local EMS services to ensure the best response to events both on and off the track.

While I'm impressed with the Speedway's EMS capabilities, I have to confess to never really being a NASCAR fan. I do have an appreciation of what the drivers undertake. Several years ago, I was invited to one of the twin 125-mile races the Thursday before the Daytona 500. Standing next to the wall of the tri-oval, I was forced to admit that it's a different world to see the race twenty feet from your face. Like ice hockey, auto racing doesn't do television well. On the airwaves, everything is visual, and there's no perspective of speed. Up close, however, you hear the cars first (the speed of sound is still faster than a Chevy with a restrictor plate). By the time you look up to see where the sound is coming from, the cars are gone in a blur of color. It's truly amazing. I can't imagine the concentration and stamina required of the drivers to do this for three hours at a stretch, running up on each other's bumpers. But after the first twenty laps, I could honestly say I'd had enough. I was happy to go back to complaining about race traffic, race fans, and the fact that you can't get into a restaurant for the two weeks before the race.

(Living in Daytona, you acquire a certain data bank of race-related knowledge. Not unlike a New Yorker who claims that the world begins at the East River and ends at the Hudson, we naturally assume that everyone knows the basic facts about NASCAR. I was awakened to this error when asked to write a school paper detailing how different historical commentators viewed the Bible. I decided to set it as a conversation between critics set at Hampton's Fried Chicken, the participants sitting underneath framed photos of Dale Earnhardt and annoying other patrons by sounding too much like Jeff Gordon. I'm convinced my poor grade had nothing to do with the merit of the work, but simply because the northern reviewer had no idea who or what I was talking about.)

As we're driving back to the Infield Care Center to wait out the rain, we take a brief detour onto the track. The phrase "The High Banks of Daytona" make no sense until you're driving in a truck going 60 mph and notice that you're not even beginning to slide up the 31 degree incline. As we arrive, paramedic Rick Beauregard chides me for riding in the wrong ambulance. I tell him that I'm sorry he feels that way, because I'm going to immortalize Ronnie and Mark in my column. Initially, he seems unimpressed. However, feeling his opportunity for fame slipping away, he remind us of Beauregard's Rule of Racing: Accidents happen where the flag points. So far, he's been right.

At DIS, rain means food. As we're feasting on the barbecue prepared by the Sanford Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #140, a medic notes that the pork butts we're enjoying reminds him of someone he used to date. I mention to my writing partners that I'm not sure this last sentence is politically correct, and it'll probably get cut. They recall that earlier in the day, as we drove through the infield to our posting on the backstretch, I made a similar remark regarding the explosion of confederate flags and the well overall paleness of the crowd. They reminded me that for better or worse, this is definitely the Deep South.

The red flag is unfurled because of rain. With more than half the laps completed, the 2003 Daytona 500 is in the books. Time to abandon my post in search of trinkets for friends and family (what I really want is a poster of Daryl Waltrip shouting "Booggity boogity booggity!" Long story). For Ronnie, Mark, Rick and the rest of the EMS staff, there's still a long way to go. One needs to be there for the crowd as they empty the stands. Being there for those in need is what EMS does best.

(A final journalistic note: My day at DIS taught me to never use a computer when the window leaks on your keyboard. The "O" key is shorted out. Rnnie, Mark, and I have been trying t have a cnversatin withut them. This is very hard t d. They think I sh0uld use a zer0 instead, which gives rise t0 s0me interesting w0rd c0nstructi0ns. I w0nder if this is h0w the p0et e.e. cummings g0t his start. But making the best 0f a bad situation that's what teamw0rk in EMS is all ab0ut).


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