Rapid Response-Transforming Indycar Safety

This is not a film for the squeamish. The film clips of some of the worst accidents in the last 65 years or so are still frightening to see. I have seen most of these clips before, sadly some in person, and I still felt ill watching them. They do serve a purpose, however.

Rapid Response presents the story of two doctors who become immersed in racing somewhat by chance, and how they transform the safety of Indycar racing not only at the Indianapolis Motor speedway, bu throughout the entire Indycar circuit.

I identified with Dr. Steve Olvey in the first ten minutes of the film.  We share the same first driving hero. He said his first favorite driver was Bill Vukovich. He was at the 1955 when Vukovich was killed. He said he picked another favorite driver. That driver soon suffered a similar fate, as did the one he picked after that. Such was the life of a race fan in the early 50’s and 60’s. One in seven drivers died across all motorsport in this era.

Olvey’s father talked him out of a racing career and convinced him to go to medical school. He jumps at the chance to be on the medical staff at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during May.  Under the tutelage of Dr. Tom Hanna, Olvey begins to see ways to improve the speedway’s medical procedures.

Booby Unser, Al Unser, and Parnelli Jones share stories of some of their injuries, including how they lied about their condition so that they could continue driving. All three admit to probably driving with a concussion at some point.

When the Indycar sanctioning body goes to a track, they arrange for local volunteers and doctors to be on hand in case of an emergency or serious injury. Olvey decides it is better to have the same medical staff at all the tracks fror a couple of reasons.  First, they know the drivers, and second, the drivers seem comforted to see a familiar face after an accident. He also adds the mandatory presence of a medical helicopter at the track.

While Olvey combines his medical practice with his love of racing, Dr. Terry Trammel becomes involved almost by accident. In his first year on staff at Methodist Hospital, he was on duty when Danny Ongais is brought in from the track after his horrific crash in the race. After a three and a half hour surgery, Trammel is able to save Ongais’s foot from amputation.

Trammel later converts his home basement into a physical therapy center. Drivers stay at his home to rehabilitate. Tony Kanaan, a guest on more than one occasion, refers to the basemnent as “the dungeon.”

The doctors work together gathering data on all the foot and leg injuries common at the time. Through extensive research and with the use of of computer models, Olvey and Trammel determine  the nose of the car needs to be lengthened for the drivers’ protection.

The HANS device comes into use after Gonzalo Rodriguez’s fatal accident at Laguna Seca. The earliest device is too big to work in an Indycar. After coming up with a workable model, the HANS device is soon mandatory.

I learned a lot from this film. I had never really thought about how all the safety devices and procedures we take for granted today came into being. I am old to remember when none of the current safety measures were in place. The history in the film is just as important as the story it tells.

The film has some great classic footage from the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1950’s. Not all of it is crashes. Rapid Response is currently being shown in limited release in 10 states and Ontario, Canada. If it is in your area, I recommend seeing it.

6 thoughts on “Rapid Response-Transforming Indycar Safety

  1. Well written Mike. You’re correct, we are old so we do remember most of these accidents. But, it shows our allegiance to IndyCar Racing.

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  2. My wife and I saw this last Friday, after which she told me that I had not adequately prepared her for the wrecks in the film (she is not a long-time racing fan). I did tell her there were likely to be several awful wrecks, but I suppose it really isn’t possible to prepare someone for seeing a selection of Indycar’s worst wrecks. I had not seen most of the one in the film since around when they happened and it was hard, really really hard, to see them again. But the story the film tells really does make it important to view these awful incidents again. Dr.s Olvey and Trammel and the safety team deserve such respect for their work.

    It is often remarked upon how far race cars have come in terms of safety via car construction, devices, and track upgrades, but the safety team’s role and continual improvement is sometimes taken for granted. Perhaps that is because they have been such a steady pillar for so long, and are perhaps the strongest piece of the safety puzzle in Indycar racing. The part of Rapid Response discussing the safety team’s nearly perfect recovery record with drivers who received head trauma and major concussions is especially interesting.

    Sadly, there was only one other person in the theater we went to (a large theater in urban Houston that is probably not too close to most of Houston racing fans). He was a very nice fellow, though, a long-time SCCA member who spent many years volunteering as a corner worker at IndyCar races. We chatted with him briefly after the film. I do hope more race fans go out and see the movie, it is an important piece of recognition for a group of folks who cannot be appreciated enough.

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