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NASCAR drivers looking at series-specific medical help

CONCORD, N.C. -- The quick response of the IndyCar Series safety team in saving James Hinchcliffe from suffering catastrophic blood loss in his accident Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway demonstrated the critical role the series-hired safety team plays in driver care.

NASCAR doesn't have its own safety team, instead relying on the tracks to hire the doctors and emergency medical technicians who treat the drivers. While NASCAR requires an emergency response plan, holds an annual safety worker summit as well as weekly meetings at the tracks hosting each event and can dictate staffing requirements to the tracks, NASCAR's traveling medical staff consists primarily of nurses who keep driver files and know their medical histories.

The IndyCar safety team, according to the series website, includes approximately 30 people and brings at least 18 to each race, including a trauma physician and an orthopedic physician.

Drivers talked with NASCAR after Kyle Busch's accident earlier this year about the week-to-week staffing levels and training. Busch suffered a broken right leg and broken left foot in an accident Feb. 21 at Daytona International Speedway in one of the most crushing wrecks in recent years.

"NASCAR is adamant that having true ER folks that every single day fight in the ER room to save people's lives are the best people to have in place here on a weekend for us," six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Thursday. "In my heart, I feel like there is maybe a hybrid version where, yes, we have those EMTs here, but we also have people that are very sharp and NASCAR-specific, car-specific, know the drivers, know our cockpits.

"I know that NASCAR briefs them and works with them on all that."

With the tracks primarily owned by two companies, it is not unusual for doctors and first responders to work at multiple tracks.

"Once [NASCAR] explained the process and how the doctors and things were chosen was definitely kind of eye-opening as to how much money and time were spent to make sure they have the right people at every race track -- and really the longevity of the staff," Kevin Harvick said.

NASCAR is careful in its rulebook to avoid liability: "Although safety is first priority and a concern for all parties involved in NASCAR-sanctioned Events, NASCAR cannot be -- and is not responsible for -- all or even most aspects of the safety efforts required throughout each Event."

"In my heart, I feel like there is maybe a hybrid version where, yes, we have those EMTs here, but we also have people that are very sharp and NASCAR-specific, car-specific, know the drivers, know our cockpits." Jimmie Johnson, on whether NASCAR should have a series-dedicated safety crew

Johnson and Harvick said NASCAR recognizes the role it must play in treatment at the track. NASCAR has not had a driver die in any of its national series events since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in the 2001 Daytona 500, a tragedy that resulted in several safety initiatives by the sanctioning body. The track crew at Richmond International Raceway was credited with quickly putting out a dangerous pit-road fire during an Xfinity Series race last month.

"I don't think anybody is saying it can't always be better, but I feel pretty confident in what the process is and the medical staffs that we have at the tracks," Harvick said.

Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar champ who made the transition to NASCAR in 2008, said he has attended NASCAR's safety summit with first responders.

"I know that there's a tremendous amount of good people between the doctor staff and the safety staff here, even though it's an alternating group of people," Hornish said after qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "A lot of drivers would love to see a core, at least a group of four or five guys that are the same every weekend. ... They know how to handle all those instances, the protocols are taken care of and a lot of things aren't afterthoughts.

"I wouldn't want to ever turn this upside down as far as how they do it. But I think NASCAR would be well-served to look and see at least about getting one group of guys that would be able to handle a major situation like that."

iNASCAR senior vice president Jim Cassidy said NASCAR views its system as "a leader in motorsports."

"Our internal team ... is engaged year round with best-in-class medical experts and safety personnel who provide the highest-quality service to our competitors at the very best medical facilities in proximity to our events," Cassidy said in a statement Friday.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, said he can see both sides.

"If they hadn't had the safety crew that they had, we might have been talking about something different right now," Gordon said. "I'm very thankful they have that crew. We have talked a lot about it [for NASCAR]. There's mixed opinions on it. I would like to see something like that.

"NASCAR has some pretty good reasons why they don't do that. Having local emergency staff here in the facilities, there's a lot to be said about that, too."

A safety crew for NASCAR, which has 38 races in its top circuit and several weekends when its three main national series don't race in the same location, would require many more people than the IndyCar crew that travels to its 15 race weekends.

Hornish said having a crew that is so focused on being first responders for racers has to help.

"That's all they do all year long -- focusing on how to be better about doing that particular job. That makes you a step above everybody else," Hornish said. "It's really smart what they're doing, and I'm sure James is very thankful to have them around."