Simona de Silvestro (78) had a narrow escape from a fiery accident at the Firestone 550K at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 5, 2010. (IMS Photo/Ron McQueeney)
The Boy Scouts are sponsors on the #19 Dallara of Dale Coyne Racing driven by Alex Lloyd. Their motto is "Be Prepared."
Normally, that is also the motto of the Holmatro Safety Team, the specialized safety crew that travels to every IZOD IndyCar Series event. But for a few moments on Saturday, it appeared that several members of that crew were slow to remember the motto.
Fans are buzzing about the close racing, the exceptional 2nd-place finish by Danica Patrick, and an all-around strong event in Saturday's Firestone 550K at Texas Motor Speedway, but I can't get away from one indelible image - that of Simona de Silvestro struggling fiercely to escape her cockpit as flames poured over the sidepod.
I spent years on the NASCAR beat begging, pleading, threatening, cajoling and making a nuisance of myself trying to get the stock car sanction's attention on establishing a dedicated, traveling safety crew like IndyCar's. They never listened - the closest they have gotten has been a traveling medical consultant that works with the local track crews, but they still prefer to use the local boys instead of having a team of traveling specialists.
I have argued that this attitude is terrible for NASCAR because a traveling safety crew is trained and drilled for quick response to the unique threats to a racing driver's life. The kind of severe trauma and hazards faced by racers require specialized attention; a dedicated crew like IndyCar's Holmatro Safety Crew are far better suited to address these hazards quickly and efficiently because one assumes that they train incessantly for those moments.
In theory, a traveling safety crew is like a Special Forces unit, practicing and training for specific tasks while the "regular army" provides a more general support. It was this kind of specialized skill that saved the life of Alex Zanardi in 2001 when his legs were sheared off in a wreck with Alex Tagliani - still ranking as one of the great miracles of motorsports medicine.
So you expect a quick-response team like the Holmatro Safety Crew to be on the spot of a wreck ready and able to address it quickly, competently and with a minimum of fuss. And in fairness, this is what happens 90% of the time.
Saturday night, however, was not one of these times.
De Silvestro's car had impacted the wall on the right side, and as her car slid towards the infield bright flames erupted from a suspected oil fire. As the car slid to a stop, the Holmatro Safety Crew vehicles were already on scene. The fire, however, raged on, and before long the flames began to lick at the helpless de Silvestro as she struggled to free herself from the cockpit neck collar.
The Safety Crew leaped from their vehicles and then, inexplicably, began dancing around in agitation. Pointing, yelling, seemingly doing anything but putting the fire out. One man grabbed a hose, pulled it from the safety truck, and ran over to the car... but there was no water pressure. Another had a fire extinguisher but either had the wrong type or couldn't get it to work. It was eerily like a Keystone Kops movie, except that while this was happening the flames were eating away at Simona's gloves and firesuit.
Finally, one of the crew members braved the flames and began yanking Simona physically from the cockpit. Two, three, five, ten pulls on de Silvestro's torso, but the Swiss driver was caught in the cockpit by her legs and feet. Finally, with one Herculean effort, he pulled her free. And then - only then - did someone arrive with an extinguisher that doused the flames around the cockpit.
Simona sat for quite some time near the inside track wall, visibly shaken by her literal trial by fire. Eventually, she walked to the ambulance and rode to the care center. Incredibly, she suffered only burns to her hands but was otherwise unhurt.
The worst injury was to the pride and image of the Holmatro Safety Crew. Perhaps it is unjust to cast blame on the crew for the haphazard treatment that the accident scene received. IMS Radio color analyst Davey Hamilton certainly thought so, and he went out of his way to excuse the Holmatro crew for not having much practice with a fire situation.
But there is no escaping the fact that the Holmatro Safety Crew is, in fact, specifically tasked to respond to specialized situations of this exact type, with fire and severe racing-related trauma at the top of their specialty list. So if Hamilton is right and the Safety Crew was rusty at the very thing they are in existence to address, then there is a clear failure in training and preparation that needs to be addressed immediately.
The Holmatro Safety Crew are not glorified janitors whose main job is to clean oil spills, pick up carbon fiber debris and direct traffic - those are jobs for the local track workers. The HSC is the quick-response team that drivers know and trust, with whom they travel to every series event. While everyone is entitled to an off-night once in a while, one would hope that there is enough proper training and drilling to keep an off-night for the safety crew from happening in a situation like this one.
Maybe part of the reason why my response is so extreme is that I have become accustomed to the skill and competence of the specialized safety crews that have attended IndyCar races over the past decades. That level of performance makes it all the more jarring when there is a lapse. Hopefully, the frightening events of the Firestone 550K will spur the Holmatro Safety Crew to step up their drills and procedures so that this won't happen again.