Bad things happen in race cars. You're driving at the limit, and just a tiny step over is enough to bring on disaster. I know from personal experience. Missed my apex by about six inches at 85 MPH. Dropped just one wheel off. The suspension got stiff. And then I was sliding backwards across the green grass, saying to myself, '"This is going to be b-a-a-a-a-d!"
Racing is about testing the limits of yourself and your car. Things can break, the driver next to you can screw up. You can screw up. The moon enters Mars. That's all it takes to make you go off in a race car.
When that happens your friendly neighborhood corner worker often has to run to the car. There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do that. One way can clear the race track and perhaps save a life. The other way can leave you dead. This writeup is about the Right Way, or the Gospel according to Lake Erie Communications.
The first thing to remember is that once you leave your corner station or point position you become vulnerable. The racers all have a car around them, and a bunch of steel bars. If a car has been destroyed badly enough to expose bare driver parts, get on the horn and stop the race!. You have nothing to protect you but your brain. Remember that and think.
When a car goes off near your corner station the first thing to do is wait. The problem may solve itself. I've seen cars smash hard into tire walls then casually motor away. Dead motors may restart. Give the driver time to start his car. It may take a while. The Wankel Rotary engines made by Mazda are very popular among racers for their reliability, low cost and high power-to-weight ratio. But if one stalls the engine may have to cool a bit before it can restart. Notice the large jet of flames shooting out of the exhaust? Wankels and big motors, like the thumpin' V8s in a GT-1 car dump a lot of fuel into the motor and the unburned stuff burns as it is leaving. Don't panic if the flames are coming out of the exhaust. Give it a minute or so, and you'll probably hear noise of an engine bursting into life. The guy will probably drive away, and you can stay put. But watch the grass. Dry grass can burn.
If the car really is staying put, the next concern should be where is the car? If it is across track, you may not be able to cross. At the start of a race, when problems are most common, crossing can be fairly easy. Even a champ car can't get around Mid Ohio in under a minute. You may have time. But once the race gets started the cars will get spread around. If the race groups are large, a safe gap may never appear. Even with a small group you may not be able to safely cross. Formula Atlantics have lapped Nelson Ledges at an average speed of over 120 MPH. Sure the track looks clear. Now. But an Atlantic can pop in and out of view within a couple seconds. First determine if you can get there safely.
When you go you will want the following items.
A Fire Extinguisher. You probably won't need it but if you do you won't have time to return for it.
If you are flagging an open wheel car, an eight foot section of rope, which you can use to pull the car without getting in between the wheels.
A little loop of rope that you can use to hook on the roll bar, to give your self a spot to pull.
A good knife, to cut the driver's harness, if you absolutely have to get him out of the car, right now!
When you run keep your eyes facing traffic. If this car got there, so can another one. Race cars generally spin or go off in predictable directions, generally on the outside of a corner. But contact or a mechanical problem makes anything possible. I have a seen a race car suddenly turn right and drive directly into a wall. I have seen cars pirouetting like the June Taylor Dancers glide by my station. I've seen cars cap three barrel rolls with an end over end. Shit happens. Fast. If you aren't looking, you can't protect yourself.
If a car does come your way, run perpendicular to the car's path. Unless your name is Barry Allen, race cars are faster than you. Even when they're moving sideways.
When you approach the car, always keep the car between you and oncoming traffic. Use it as a shield. And keep your eyes on traffic as you work the situation. Ideally, run with two people. One of you can attend to the driver, while the other plays safety. But you have to trust the other person, and not everyone is trustworthy. At The Runoffs in 2001 I had to turn my partner toward traffic three times while I attended to a Formula V driver who had been injured in a three car pileup.
When you get to the car, first attend to the driver. That innocent looking pull off may signal a heart attack. After all, racing cars are hot and few activities are more stressful. Find out if the driver is in good shape. Ask him his name. Where he is, and such until you're sure he's fine and knows his business.
If the driver is okay, give a thumbs up to the nearest corner station. The communicator or corner captain will relay your hand signal as he passes on the driver's status to race control. If he is not, signal for an ambulance. You do that by racing both of your arms over your head and touching your hands together, making a point. You sort of look like a big "A". If matters are really bad, follow your ambulance signal by pointing to the ground, perhaps emphatically. That tells the station you have a big problem. You want that ambulance Now! You may wish to pump your fist if you want help. Help will be sent. If the situation is critical you may even want the session stopped. You signal this by simulating a slice across the neck, back and forth.
If the driver appears injured and you suspect a head or spinal injury you may wish to immobilize his head. I'm not going to try and teach that here, but if you need to do this, get your signalling out of the way first. Make sure you ask for help. Because once you immobilize the head, you are committed until the paramedics relieve you.
Even if a driver seems okay, after a hard hit tell him to go to Medical for an examination. In fact, tell him Medical is expecting him, and that if he doesn't go, someone will come looking for him. Usually a steward, who is doing something that stewards shouldn't have to do. Drivers don't like making stewards angry.
If the car is on its roof, and your questions have established that the driver is okay, you will have to get him out of the car. Make sure his switches are off. Shutting off the electricity shuts off the fuel pump, which is desirable when a car has flipped. Have him brace himself while you release his belts. If you don't he may knock himself silly when his head hits the turf. Then bring him out on the side of the car that is away from traffic.
Assuming the driver is okay, the next concern is the car. Is it in a safe spot, by which I mean a spot where few cars go off? Is the race almost over? Then the car may be safely left until the race session is over. If so, you should get the driver out of the car, and over the nearest wall. Get him out on the side away from traffic. Either way you need to determine the condition of the vehicle. Ask the driver in specific ways. If the car can roll on all four wheels, you signal for a flat tow, which you signal for by extending your arms horizontally so you resemble a "T". If the car is in a bad spot, and you need a rope tow now keep the driver in the car, and instruct him to use very light braking to maintain tension on the rope, once the tow is underway.
If the car has wheel or suspension damage that makes a rope tow impossible, then signal for a Wrecker. You do this by raising both arms, spread over your head in the form of a big "W". Get the driver out of the car, if you can. He'll ride the wrecker in, not his race car. If the car is leaking fluids that might make the track slippery, you should call for a Tilt bed wrecker, if one is available. Tilt beds are flat and would catch most of the fluids. You signal just like a rope tow, except your "T" is angled steeply. If the car is leaking fuel, call a fire truck just in case. Gasoline doesn't burn that easily, but when it does start it burns bad. You call a fire truck by extending both arms horizontally to one side of your body, making an "F" shape.
Remember, while you're doing all this, to keep your eyes on traffic.
Sometimes there is something you can do to clear the track. At a recent SCCA national race at Nelson Ledges I ran to a Formula V that had impaled itself on the tire wall. As I approached the car, I saw the driver attempting to drive off, foiled by the fact he had enmeshed himself in tires. His car rested on top of one. I told him to be patient, and keeping his car between me and traffic removed tires front and rear until he could get enough of a run to drive off. Then I took my fire bottle and humped it back to station.
This may sound difficult and complex, but it's also fun! Running to cars is the time when a corner worker really gets to strut his or her stuff, to make themselves a player in the action. I have personally stood on track during a race, shielded by the broken car while racers passed me on either side. I've pulled drivers from flips. And I've crossed track to push a high centered formula car off the curb. It's scary, but the adrenaline rush can be wonderful. But you have to stay smart when you're running after cars.