Every driver goes through it: the messy task of transitioning from speaking their mind to navigating the complex waters of the NASCAR Cup series. It's a challenge learning how to handle the media, celebrity and an ever-present spotlight that makes personal moments scarce and illuminates any foible. It creates a mix of brooding, it tinges the ability to speak your mind and, for the thin-skinned, it creates an unpalatable diarrhea of commentary that reads like hogwash.
It's political correctness to the nth degree. Perhaps that's why veteran driver Bill Elliott's excerpts from his Harper-Collins book "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" are so revealing. Elliott pushes aside the hooey and puts the hammer down hard on safety in NASCAR. He goes so far as to challenge the sanctioning body and their efforts to protect drivers, insinuating that they did not step up until after Dale Earnhardt's death, and that the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and other racers across NASCAR's series did little to prompt change.
Whether that is true or not is impossible to surmise. But the missing piece of the puzzle in NASCAR's safety plan seems to be a full-time traveling medical team. Right now, the responsibility of hiring medical personnel lies with the race track.
NASCAR is the most-watched and -attended racing sport in the country yet it is the only series without its own medical staff. Champ Car World Series, Indy Racing League, Formula One and the National Hot Rod Association all have one. NASCAR's stand has been that they are more comfortable with tracks hiring local people who may not be familiar with the drivers but are familiar with the local hospitals and procedures.
But F1 and the IRL found in the mid-1970's that relying on local personnel created a scenario where you were never sure who you were getting and what their credentials were.
Champ Car's approach is simple: they have a motorcoach that doubles as a locker room and medical field unit. At any given race they have an orthopedic surgeon, critical care doctor, trauma specialist, two emergency room-trained nurses, a safety director and crew to staff the safety trucks.
The annual cost? Roughly, $2.5 million.
Just to put that in perspective the purse for the 2006 Daytona 500 was $18,029,052.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon agrees with the comments in Elliott's book but realizes that things have come a long way in NASCAR. He would, however, still like to see the series foot the bill on this last piece of the safety discussion.
"On some sides of things, I think Bill has some legitimate things that he's brought up. NASCAR, until recently, has not been very proactive," Gordon commented. "But they have made some big, big gains in being more proactive these days. You can't go back in time and fault things that have happened in the past. You can only hope that from this day going forward, that they're doing the right things. I see them working hard to do the right things.
"I probably don't know enough to comment. But I would like to see guys that are specially trained that know the teams, the drivers, and the cars. I agree with the local medical staffs that know the local hospitals and doctors and things like that. But as far as what is being taken care of on track, and getting them to the hospital or to that next stage, I would like to see a designated safety team that travels. I think that would be a good thing."
NASCAR does have a guideline that mandates tracks what medical staff tracks should have on hand.
"It is part of the sanctioning agreement (with each track) that they are required to do a number of things to adhere to our medical guidelines," explained Ramsey Poston, Managing Director of Corporate Communications. It includes a requirement of two medical doctors on site every day (that arrive) a half hour before the event and stay an hour after the event. And those doctors have to be emergency-trained in trauma or critical care. Most tracks also go beyond that and have cardiologists or neurosurgeons. They need to have a nursing department and they must be trained in one of the specialty critical care areas like emergency or ICU."
In addition, there is a medical liaison that travels the circuit that keeps the medical records of drivers and their family histories.
Is that enough? NASCAR believes that it is.
"We think that (using local people) is the best for everyone," continued Poston. "We believe that to have someone who can navigate through the local politics serves much better than having someone who is only in the community once or twice a year."
You would be hard pressed to find someone racing full time to vilify NASCAR on safety. They have made great strides in the last few years to improve conditions and continue to be at the forefront of new technology and safety innovations. But it was hard to find a driver that didn't think that a dedicated team was a good idea. Ultimately, if you are hurt wouldn't it be more comforting looking into the eyes of someone you know?
"I'm happy with the care," commented Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "We have sufficient support medically here and at all the tracks. But it would be more effective if you had the same person in the same team all the time. Other forms of motorsports have that. It's just more effective to have it that consistent. The medical people understand and get familiar with each driver's history, medically.
"That's invaluable in certain situations. I think that would be a big plus. NASCAR definitely has the funds to afford it. I don't see why it shouldn't be there. But what we have is very sufficient and good, but to have a team that's consistently there all the time that continues to gather knowledge and have that information readily available would take a lot of confusion out of certain situations and you never know it might save a life."