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EMS Spends a Day at the Daytona 500 Races

The wreck in Turn 2 was surreal. Sitting by the tunnel in Turn 4, a mile away as the crow flies, we learned about it on the radio. We heard the units being dispatched, and we could see the smoke. But that was all for us. It was like living one block over from the scene of a riot. You knew something was going on, but you had no idea what it was. Occasionally, a car would limp by smoking, trailing a fender but there was still no real news. And even the comment that three walking and talking drivers had been taken to the Infield Care Center to be checked was more focused on whether they might be willing to autograph a shirt for a paramedic scholarship raffle than on whatever might have been left behind. This was a fender bender, after all (granted, the fenders were traveling at 180 mph, but a fender bender, nonetheless).

On the Saturday morning preceding the big race, the Daytona 500, I was sitting in a Type II ambulance on a small hillock at Daytona International Speedway (DIS). It's a cloudy February day, and we're watching the first two dozen laps of the NASCAR Busch Series Hershey's Kisses 300. Adam Huth is in the right seat. He's the lead medic today. Patti Dobler will be driving, responsible for putting the ambulance between Adam and the oncoming cars. My job, as a highly skilled emergency physician, is to follow along and stay the heck out of the way. That's a job I can handle.

By way of contrast, real accidents are spoken of in hushed, almost reverential tones. Last week, one of the track workers was struck and killed by a racer. What actually happened and who was at fault is probably a moot point. Things just happen when you mix slow, lumbering bipeds and large, high-velocity pieces of metal. The impact of a car hitting a person at 100 mph is bad, but to learn more about the accident in excruciating detail, as EMS people often do is something that I don't even want to relay to you. I'm totally unable to express any feelings about it in any way that makes an iota of sense. Neither can the experienced DIS EMS crews, and that's what marks a real accident.

The "glamorous" world of working the race

There's a sense of glamour about telling people you're going to "work the race," and I'd be lying if I said it doesn't sound cool. It's great fun to strut about in a blue, flameproof suit; a white helmet; and headphones. It must be similar to what the President felt when he put on the flight suit to land on the carrier after the major conflict ended in Iraq. (For the record, I'll say that I don't blame President Bush at all for doing the carrier landing. If I'm the president, I'm running up into the cockpit of Air Force One asking for flying lessons and ensuring NASA's funding so I can have the last seat on the Shuttle.)

In reality, the glamour is far less, and the professionalism far more, than anyone might think. Many of the EMTs and paramedics working at the Speedway have done so for a decade or more. They often know the drivers and track crew personally, and they feel a strong sense of ownership of the race. And although for many, this is a part-time job, it demands full-time alertness, dedication and training. But at least there's a panoramic view of the track through the windshield. As for me, without a regular seat in the rig for the lonely doctor, I spend most of the race (apart from the four seconds that you can actually see the leaders flash by the window of the van) sitting on the corrugated floor of the med unit, receiving an unusual posterior imprint as my souvenir of the day.

Last year, I came to think that racing is like hockey in that you can't really appreciate it on television. When I was here for the previous Daytona 500, I began to have an appreciation for this. The cars are going so fast and yet hold so close together that the drivers have to possess true skill, nerve and conditioning. It's actually kind of humbling to recognize that there's no way on earth I could do this.

Two new ideas strike me during this race. One is that the speed of sound has concrete meaning. It's like how I gained a sense of the speed of light. When I was at the University of Florida, we had a contract to provide medical support to Space Shuttle launches and landings. You would be three miles away from the launch site, about as close as anyone could get, and you would see the boosters fire and the Shuttle lift off the pad. It was only later, when the spacecraft had cleared the pad and was well up in the sky, that you began to hear anything. Light does go faster than sound. In a similar fashion, one hears the cars and feels their vibrations long before they show up outside the ambulance window. The cars are fast, but sound is faster.

Second, the reality of racing is that in many ways, racing is better seen on television if you want to see the entire race, that is. Unless one has an ideal seat, high in the stands at a small racetrack where you can see the entire course, the fan sees only a small piece of the race. The strategy, the passing and the continual jockeying for position can't really be adequately imagined from the segmented perspective of the average fan's seat. Television allows one to follow the entire course of the track and see the leaders change over time. This is not, of course, to say that television is any kind of substitute for being there (that's an intentional Jerzy Kozinski reference). Seeing is different from, and far inferior to, experience. The only way to experience racing the sights, sounds, feelings and atmosphere is to actually be there. But television does have its uses.

EMSbehind the scenes

My thoughts are interrupted by a strange glare on the windscreen. It's created by the flash of the light bar on an adjacent wrecker, focused and amplified by discrete drops of water. Rain has begun to fall.

The red flag comes out, but we're still on station. Patti takes this opportunity and heads for the portable water closet. Adam reminds her to not look down. Apparently she did so once and was intestinally displeased by her findings. Adam, mindful of Patti's delicate constitution, says I shouldn't write this. Patti has another view. "If I can help another person," she says, "I'm willing to tell my story. Please, please tell people to Never Look Down." It's that kind of self-sacrifice that makes EMS a noble profession.

Needless to say, a lot of "behind-the-scenes" things go into making the Daytona International Speedway the World Capital of Racing. Surprisingly, much of it has to do with my new role in public health. It turns out that during Speed Weeks, the agricultural tracts around the Speedway morph into the world's largest trailer park. (I've also heard that the Daytona Beach International Airport, situated next to the Speedway, owns enough land that it becomes the largest airport in the world with on-site housing).

The Volusia County Health Department is keenly involved in the environmental health issues, such as sewage disposal and spillage, posed by this influx of vehicles. Although an environmentalist might complain that the entire Speedway is dedicated to the excessive use of fossil fuels (personally, I think it'll be very cool when cars are powered by hydrogen), the fact is that the Speedway goes out of its way to maintain the environment as best it can given the business it's in. I truly believe that's because the folks at DIS value "Natural Florida" as much as anyone, but even the cynic would have to admit that keeping things clean makes the customers (race fans) happy. It makes me wonder if other industries pollute simply because customers are never on-site to see them do it. It's a valuable lesson other industries might learn.

The rain keeps coming, and we've been called back to base. I get hit up to join a pool for the Daytona 500. Twenty bucks gets you the chance to draw a slip of paper from a dish. The number on the paper corresponds to a spot on the track's starting grid. I draw the second spot, held by Elliot Sadler. I'm pleased with this draw. My son likes Sadler's car because it has M&Ms painted on it. I like the car because Sadler's one of the driver's I've actually heard of.

(I'm admitting to betting on the race just in case anyone ever wants to elect me to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I did place a bet. No, I did not bet on my own team. And although I regret hurting anyone by my actions, I'm not contrite or sorry. Baseball just has to understand that this how I get my entertainment. And if anyone at NASCAR is listening, the best way to get youngsters into the sport is to immediately get whoever makes this Yu-gi-oh thing sponsor a car. As the freely spending parent of a trading card-addicted child, you'll have to trust me on this.)

Thirty laps were down when the race was stopped. A race can be called when more than half of it has been completed, and on our 2.5 mile tri-oval, that works out to 61 laps. It takes about two hours to dry the track and 30 minutes to start the cars and turn the laps. We stare at The Weather Channel, looking for a gap in the bands of green that pass over the Funcoast of Florida. There are none to be had, and by 4 p.m., that's obvious to even the stewards of the race. They'll try again on Monday. And even though I can't be there, I know DIS EMS always will be.

Final thoughts on the Daytona 500 weekend

President Bush came to the 500 to issue the traditional command, "Gentleman, start your engines." Some political columnists have noted that he was really here in a campaign appeal to "NASCAR Dads," the newest of our cleverly labeled demographic blocks. A friend of mine noted that this group might better be called, "NASCAR Bubbas." This observation prompted me to note that this term is close to the Yiddish term "Bubbe," which means "grandmother." I'm looking of a connection between NASCAR racing and my great-grandmother Rose, who used to pay me to eat bowls of Jell-O while I watched Lawrence Welk on her living room floor. There may be a Pulitzer Prize here for me.

(By the way, if "Gentleman, start your engines," are the most famous words in racing, Fox Sports Commentator Darrell Waltrip begins his call of each race with what he terms the second most famous words in racing: "Boogity boogity boogity." No comment required, though I'll confess to being absolutely delighted by the fact that an ED clerk got me a bumper sticker bearing this identical phrase.)

Things heard and seen only at a NASCAR event:

  • "The choir will meet by the porta-potties."
  • The New Acronym Department gives us "OBG" ("Over-Beveraged Guest").
  • The Culinary Advertising and Promotion Society has NASACAR legend Benny Parsons reminding us that, "Ragu and Racing Go Together." Yep, that's three great Southern traditions: Benny Parsons, NASCAR and prepackaged Italian food. This is clearly not the South I remember. Time to tear up the Confederate Credit Card.
  • And in honor of our country, there was the "Proud to be American" sign. It was sponsored by the United Auto Workers and that other great American company, Daimler Chrysler.
(Special thanks to Bruce Beckwith, Director of Emergency Services at Daytona International Speedway, and Dr. Steven Bohannon, Speedway EMS Medical Director, for allowing me to participate in their efforts. I had a blast.)


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