Following no fewer than three alarming incidents last weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, as well as other safety related concerns earlier this year, a number TUDOR United SportsCar Championship teams are pushing for the return of the IMSA Safety Team.
The longtime traveling staff of medical and safety workers, which had been a mainstay in the American Le Mans Series since its inception in 1999, was disbanded late last year in the wake of the sports car merger and IMSA’s new insurance policy.
A “Track Services” program has since taken charge, with local fire, EMT and safety workers staffed at each circuit to handle emergency situations. While IMSA still has a response unit at each race, its limited crew is not authorized for any hands-on medical attention to drivers.
The transition hasn’t come without incident. A fire from the Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper at Sebring took more than 20 minutes to extinguish, while the DeltaWing burned to the ground last weekend following a similar blaze that wasn’t controlled quickly.
While a Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge car burned up at CTMP as well, perhaps the most concerning incident of the weekend was Boris Said’s heavy crash in the Marsh Racing Corvette DP, which saw a slow response time to the dazed and injured driver, in a car that reportedly had a punctured fuel cell.
“I’ve been concerned with what I’ve been seeing all year long, especially at [CTMP],” AJR team owner Alex Job told Sportscar365. “We need the IMSA safety crew back, so we have the proper trained doctors, personnel and equipment.
“This is a professional series with extreme diversity in the cars. We need a professional safety crew that knows the drivers, the cars and the teams’ needs.”
One of the major concerns has been driver extraction. IMSA’s previous traveling staff were specifically trained on the intricacies of each car, while the local crews typically are not.
“The ALMS safety team was a superb organization,” Risi Competizione team manager Dave Sims said. “The extraction system they had, they used to come around and extract drivers in the paddock to see how they would do it. We’ve had nobody at all [this year] and I’ve been pushing hard for this to happen.
Sims experienced the situation first-hand at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, when his driver, Matteo Malucelli, was involved in a massive accident with GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing’s Memo Gidley. The crash sent both drivers to the hospital and left Gidley with serious injuries.
“At Daytona with Malucelli’s [accident], they went to the door and slammed the door on him thinking he was OK but he wasn’t. He was unconscious,” Sims said. “Then they struggled to get him out because they didn’t realize they could take the door off.
“It’s paramount that they get a safety team in the series. A lot of the manufacturers are getting very scared. The worst thing to do is to have a driver get seriously injured or killed in one of the works cars.”
When asked by Sportscar365, multiple manufacturer representatives declined comment on the safety matter.
No fewer than three cars have also been destroyed this year due to prolonged fires, an issue that could have been easily avoided, according to Sims.
“When the DeltaWing caught fire, the guys didn’t know how to turn the master switch off. It was same with the Viper at Sebring,” he said. “It was just pouring fuel on the fire.”
Added Extreme Speed Motorsports team manager Robin Hill: “If you look back to the Sebring race, where the Viper was burned down to the ground, the TV camera blatantly looked at the fire marshal, standing on the other side of the fence, with his fire extinguisher, not doing a thing.
“They burnt up $400,000 plus, which could have easily been avoided.”
Job, Sims and a handful of other team owners and managers voiced their concerns to IMSA management last weekend at CTMP, including President and CEO Scott Atherton and CEO Ed Bennett.
While the sanctioning body has been receptive to the teams’ concerns, no decision has been taken on what to do moving forward.
“IMSA takes safety and on-track incidents very seriously, and a careful review of the events of last weekend is currently under way,” Atherton said in a statement provided to Sportscar365. “It would be premature to speculate on any changes to our Track Services program at this time.”
Traveling safety teams have been a critical part of many series, such as IndyCar, Pirelli World Challenge and NHRA, but none of the championships under the NASCAR umbrella, including the former GRAND-AM series, has utilized such a system.
“I’ve never ran with a sanctioning body that’s had that response team,” Spirit of Daytona team owner Troy Flis said. “It’s hard for me to say that’s a big thing. Everything I’ve always had, they’ve done a good job on.”
Flis, who has been involved in GRAND-AM since its inception, has been pleased with IMSA’s new Track Services program and saw a positive initiative from the group at CTMP.
“I was very impressed in Canada as one of the safety crews did walk around the car and ask some questions about how to turn off the power,” he said. “It’s great they had the interest.”
The IMSA Safety Team, however, served more than just the drivers on track, as ESM’s Hill points out.
“It’s not only the drivers but the crews too. People get hurt in the paddock. People fall off tailgates,” he said.
“Last year, if one of my guys got hurt under the tent, I knew exactly where to go and to which person to bring them over to help my guy.
“Right now, I’m running around trying to find out where a medical person might be that might be able to deal with my crew guy.
“It’s not a very reassuring thought that if you’re lying on the ground with a broken leg that you don’t know whose going to come look after you.
“I think IMSA really needs to sit back and look at it to see what the goal is. Ultimately we’re putting on a show for the fans, which is great. But we are racing, which is a dangerous sport. That’s why safety has to be paramount.”
Job, meanwhile, is hopeful that the situation will be acted upon.
“I know myself and some other people have pleaded a big case last weekend,” he said. “I guess time will tell what will come of it. I would just like to think positively that they will come to their senses and bring the IMSA safety crew back.
“We killed a car [last Friday] and by the grace of God we didn’t kill a driver. I hope it doesn’t take killing a driver to finally get that acted upon.”