Monday, June 22, 2009

Sears Point NASCAR weekend—why I miss it and why I don’t

As I mentioned in my post from a couple of days ago, I used to be one of the nurses in the “infield care center” at Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway—I hate those naming rights things!) from 1992 to 2000. I earned the right to work at the “clinic” for those four days by becoming a member of the San Francisco Region Sports Car Club of America (SSCA) and volunteering to provide emergency medical care at club races at Laguna Seca (close to where I live), along with some professional events. Once a year I’d venture up to Sonoma to work the Sears Point NASCAR race. It was my vacation, the one thing I looked forward to each year, my Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one.

When I first started to work the race, the NASCAR guys actually took to the track on Thursday for practice, then qualifying on Friday afternoon after several more practices, a couple of Saturday practice sessions and then Sunday’s race. But in the mid-1990s NASCAR decided to “cut costs” and let the big boys play on the track starting on Friday. So on Thursday, only club racers and the lesser NASCAR series, called the Southwest Tour, were on the track. There was a skeleton crew but I was there—even if few other on-track workers were. I put in 10–12 hour days, made sure that the proper paperwork and medical charts were filled out when a driver or crew person came in (I didn’t see civilians—only NASCAR or SCCA people). The doctors were also volunteers and were usually very devoted to providing the very best medical care possible, even with limited supplies or medications on hand. On race mornings, I was there at 6 or 7 a.m., as soon as the garage area opened, in case something happened before the doctors got there at 9.

The first race I worked was at Laguna Seca, an IMSA event, in 1991. I’d attended the Sears Point race and went looking for information on how to be one of those people on the track. I hit the jackpot—being an RN, even one with a bad back, my skills were needed. And I would be given unique access to both tracks, able to go places that spectators could not go. The people in the club itself were fun, and the medical people, all much older than me, were people I could learn much from.

My first NASCAR event worked was 1992’s race. We didn’t yet have the nice building that is there today—we were in a dusty trailer truly in the infield, at the start line at the drag strip. The garage area (there was no garage, only the team haulers enclosed within a temporary cyclone fence) was across the track—very inconvenient! But we did out level best, and did treat people. Most of the problems were due to oversampling of Napa Valley wines. I spent my time sitting in an ambulance, or on a rescue truck, as the clinic had a couple of nurses older than I with much more “seniority” if you will.

That year was also the first time I was plopped in front of Bill Elliott. The EMT I’d been working with that weekend and I were dispatched to one of the rigs to check up on a crew person that one of the docs had treated, and the doctor wanted me to be able to make a final note and close the chart. The EMT I was with, a gal named Annie, had suffered a career-ending ankle injury. So there we were, two gimps, getting to walk into the garage area, past civilians standing by the gate waiting for their favorite driver. On race morning, when all of the mechanics were frantically doing last-minute tweaks to their cars.

Annie took me to Bill Elliott’s hauler, and spoke to one of the guys. I stood back, nervous as all get-out. I am not shy, but this was Bill Elliott! The guy motioned for me to come toward him, and he said “Go stand by that door [at the side of the hauler] and wait there.”

It happened too fast—out came Bill, I was speechless. I babbled something about he was the reason I was there, the reason I watched NASCAR, and that when he quit, I quit. He laughed and said, “You should be more grateful I have a guy like Henry (the truck driver) who drives the rig here. He’s the hero.” [It had been Henry who plopped me in front of the hauler door.]

Anyway, Bill signed my brand-new #11 Budweiser jacket across the shoulders, I posed for a photo that Annie took, and off I went.

For that race, I worked on the rescue ambulance at the hairpin turn. (I think it was called turn 7, it’s no longer used by NASCAR, replaced by something very boring called “the chute.”) That day, Bill lead the most laps, but because of a set of slightly off tires at the last pit stop, he was unable to hold on to the lead and ended up fifth. That year, Bill was in the hunt for the championship, too.

I walked off the track headed into the garage area to use the bathroom. Lo and behold, who was walking off the track at the same time as me? Yeppers, Bill. I asked him where that finish put him in the points and he held up two fingers. I said “good luck the rest of the season and see you next year,” and he said goodbye and thanks for being there. I could hear spectators ask the gate guard, "Why does she get to go in there and who is she anyway?" It was awesome. People were jealous of me.

My worst nightmare would have been having to work on Bill after an accident, but that never happened. Yes, I did work on some drivers. One year, when Bill did not make the trip to California because of a bad wreck at Talladega (he fractured his femur), I chewed out the driver who was taking Bill’s place (Tommy Kendall) when he wrecked what was a very good car during a Friday practice session. He had to come in and be checked over after taking a pretty hard lick. This was the #94 car, Bill’s team, a car that did not win a single race, an exercise in futility for Bill and frustration for his fans who knew he was a better driver than his finishes showed.

Eventually we got a proper building to use for our clinic. The track of course had no money for decent equipment so most of the stuff we had was Navy surplus, as the doctor in charge was retired Navy. We had beds, and privacy partitions, and IVs and a simple pharmacy stocked with sample medications.

The volunteer doctors eventually shared duties with proper emergency room doctors who were paid to show up. A couple were excellent clinicians, though one irritated the heck out of me when he asked for freebies after he’d treat a crew person, owner or driver. He did this for two years, until the third year, we asked him not to do that anymore and he refused to take the gig again.

Toward the end an LVN joined the club, and time and time again I watched her do things that were outside the practice of an LVN’s license (even stuff beyond the scope of my license!) and I began to fear that she’d do something and I’ be held liable. I actually watched her “try” to treat an insulin-dependent diabetic who’d left his insulin at home by giving him oral hypoglycemics she’d taken from the doctor’s office where she worked. I told her to send the guy to the hospital, period. Only by the grace of God was that man not harmed by her actions.

So the writing was on the wall that the SCCA’s medical team would no longer be needed. Every year was supposed to be our last from about 1997. The last year ended up being 2000, though we had no way of knowing for sure.

That year, I watched the Saturday support race from the garage area, standing on a slightly raised area, right next to Dale Earnhardt. There was no question that I would bug him for anything—by that point I was beyond asking the drivers for autographs or freebies. It just wasn’t right.

That year was Dale Earnhardt’s last Sears Point race. He died at Daytona the following February.

After Dale died, the powers-that-be of NASCAR (Bill France and his son Brian) started making changes to the sport that I just didn’t like. Supposedly sponsors wanted young talent, up and coming kids, pretty guys, marketable guys. There were drivers who had little talent but who could string together a sentence and not have a heavy southern accent.

Bill's last full season of driving in a competitive car was 2003.

My heart was not into the idea of attending that race as a spectator, so I quit the club, quit volunteering for even Laguna Seca races, and let that part of my life go, something that had made me feel of value while I struggled through my back surgeries.

I wonder if I’d still be working that race though. Bill has mostly retired from the sport, and I seldom watch a race unless he’s in it, and even then it’s frustrating because he doesn’t do well—subpar equipment, subpar part-time crew, underfunded presumably because Bill’s not a 20 or 30-something guy without a southern accent. Bill will be 54 years of age in October, and can still drive the wheels off a car.

I tried to watch today’s race, the tenth one that’s gone on without me (I missed the inaugural event in 1989, having suffered my career-ending back injury mere weeks before the race). There is no way I could traipse up those hills to the seats that have been installed at the top of the hill. There is no way I could deal with the grandstand that replaced the Southwest Tour’s garage area and parking lot. I don’t have a favorite driver and I’m sick of Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson being shoved down my throat. I was used to watching from the clinic, with a television monitor, waiting for something to happen.

Seems that event, like so many others I’ve had to let go because of my back, might not be worth my time anymore. But I miss the people and I miss the simple heartfelt thank yous I used to get when I gave my best effort in getting the crews, drivers and their families the best medical care possible in a MASH setting.

I don’t have anything in my life right now that made me feel as whole and valued though …


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