This article first appeared in the September, 2020 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.
After 15 years of road racing, I hit the track with Emergency Services to discover a whole new level of excitement
It’s 5 a.m. as I roll out of bed, the sun’s rays beginning to dance on a deserted horizon. The day will be a bona fide scorcher, so says my phone, with highs well exceeding 100 degrees F. If tales of Central California’s relentless summer heat hold true, those sinister triple-digit temps will be in the shade. I guess that’s why Cal Club Region time-shifted its late June SCCA Road Racing weekend, with Group 1 hitting Buttonwillow Raceway Park at 6:30 a.m.; hours earlier than the norm. But none of that matters. As a racer, the track is paradise, especially considering the pandemic had shuttered all activities for the three prior months. But this time, the Nomex I’m donning this Saturday morning isn’t my usual, and my race shoes have been stowed in favor of work boots. Yes, this weekend I’m covered head to toe in safety gear to work Emergency Services for the very first time – and I’m giddy anticipating whatever story is about to unfold.
“You just need black pants, a red shirt, helmet, boots, and gloves if you have them,” Sarah Hobbs had told me before the event. She’s a regular with Cal Club’s Emergency Services crew, volunteering along with her husband Steven at nearly every race weekend despite recently welcoming their first child into the world. I don’t know if they’ve seen it all, but from amateur to professional races, they’ve certainly experienced more than I have – especially considering the closest I’ve come to Emergency Services is when my racecar caught fire a few years back and I got to ride in Big Bubba, Cal Club’s fire truck, back to the pits.
“We have extra helmets and possibly extra gloves on the truck,” she’d said, adding, “We usually meet at the outside tables at the tower a half hour before the first cars are on track.”
Since I still need to register and get my wristband, and SCCA’s pandemic guidelines mandate social distancing and mask wearing, I’m up early just to be safe.
From the back of my truck, I grab a duffle bag filled with my new attire. As a race driver, I know looking the part is key to success, so I’d ordered new gear for this weekend. Also, being a driver who’d been in a racecar that was ablaze at this very track, the need for flame-resistant material was a no-brainer.
Two weeks earlier, I’d contacted RaceQuip for the company’s Chevron-5 Nomex SFI 3.2A/5 red jacket, black Nomex pants, and two-layer SFI 3.3/5 355 red gloves. I’d also ordered RaceQuip’s fire retardant pit crew helmet. Unfortunately, RaceQuip was out of balaclavas so I’d wrestled an old (clean) one from the bottom of my racing bag.
The Chevron-5 series is built from breathable Nomex with side stretch panels and arm gussets. Motion, I assumed, would be necessary when climbing on and off recovery vehicles, so I’d also opted for the two-piece setup. Having never worked Emergency Services before, though, it was guesswork.
I slide into my gear, lace up my work boots, and head to registration.
Welcome to the Job
At 6 a.m. sharp, I show up at the race tower to discover I’m one of the last to arrive. Mark Smith, the event’s Race Chair, is hastily distributing radios, the Emergency Services trucks are set up and ready to go, and Steven and Sarah, with baby strapped tight to Sarah, have their hands full of gear. Steven tosses me a radio and directs me to the corner near pit-in that Emergency Services calls home.
I’m introduced to Jordan, another new volunteer. Unlike me, he’s completely unaware of how race weekends work or of the types of racecars. I soon discover, though, that while I’m intimately familiar with the SCCA, vehicle recovery is like nothing else. Jordan, on the other hand, has experience operating tow trucks and working as a medical responder. Combined, I comment to Jordan, he and I should be able to make up one competent person.
While Group 1 grids on the other side of the paddock, recovery straps are threaded into key locations of both Emergency Services tow trucks – nicknamed Tow 1 and Tow 2 – and Steven offers the grand tour. John Kielb, he says, will be the driver of Tow 1, the primary tow truck for the weekend; Fire and Rescue with its personnel will roll Big Bubba if needed. I ask who will be helping us on Tow 1. John’s job, Steven explains, is driving, so it’s Steven, Jordan, and myself hooking cars. Sarah would normally be there too, but she’s in Timing and Scoring keeping the baby cool – although she’d prefer to be with the action.
As Group 1 hits the track for qualifying, Steven walks us around Tow 1, Tow 2, and Big Bubba. There are straps, tie downs, clamps, oil dry, brooms, extinguishers, and more. Big Bubba’s numerous compartments reveal everything from fire hoses to the Jaws of Life to a well-used baseball bat Steven jokingly says is for making driver attitude adjustments. Turns out, its purpose is for creating clearance on damaged cars, but as a racer, I’m still chuckling at the joke.
Sitting under the E-Z Up, I notice I’m not the only one wearing Nomex. Some are wearing fire-resistant jackets while others are in one-piece race suits. I admit to Steven that I feared I was going overboard with my gear. “If you're going to get gear,” he responds, “it's better to be over-prepared than under. If you’re in Nomex, then we can send you out on the fire truck, too.”
I’m glad, but also concerned. I’m pretty sure I’d struggle to tow a racecar should the need arise, so I’m confident I’d do more harm than good in a fire.
Then the radios crackle.
We’re mid conversation, then we aren’t. Steven says, “Come on,” and I grab my helmet in time to realize I’m the last one not on the truck. Note to self: more hustle.
Turns out, this is a simple call: Someone has driven off on Phil Hill. A high-speed, tricky, blind crest of a turn, Phil Hill is all about setup; get it wrong and the racecar will pinball off the track and back on, dragging copious amounts of dirt. Our job is to sweep that dirt.
Tow 1 and Big Bubba roll, while Steven and I jump into a pickup that’s not only equipped with a fire hose and water supply but also plenty of brooms.
We wait for the last racecars to enter the pits, then the caravan of Emergency Services vehicles dive across the track heading for Phil Hill. Five of us, brooms in hand, make short work of the job and, before you know it, we’re back in our vehicles heading to pit-in, ready for the next call. There’s not even a time delay for Group 2.
Leaving the scene, I turn to Steven and say, “Well, I feel really bad now.” “Why?” he responds. “I probably dip two tires there at least once a weekend,” I admit. I doubt I drag <I>that<I> much dirt onto the surface, but still.
“Don’t worry,” he replies, “most of the time the other cars clear the dirt for us. It’s just when it happens toward the end of a session.”
My mind wanders, trying desperately to remember when my offs mostly occur, because now the racer in me feels like a jerk.
Learning the Ropes
The next call involves no brooms. A street car during the Track Event session has rolled to a stop in front of a flag station – and this time when the radio squawks, I’m moving fast.
We depart for the track within seconds, John in the driver’s seat, Steven riding boom, and Jordan and I in the side-mounted jump seats. John sets the tow truck perpendicular to the track, waits for the signal, then guns it into the infield. We fly over the track at an astounding pace, clearing the immediate danger zone of a hot track and heading to the rescue – another danger zone. We discover the Track Event car has a tow hook, so Steven waits for traffic to clear, hooks the car, and John quickly pulls us to safety.
The third call comes a few groups later, and we don’t miss a beat. We’re not a well-oiled machine, but there’s improvement. This time, it’s a Prototype 1 car that I recognize as Jim Devenport’s, and it’s stopped on the outside of Turn 1. It’s an easy extraction since the car’s backwards near pit-out. Steven turns to Jordan and asks if he wants to help strap this one.
The difference between practice and qualifying sessions is minimal when you’re working Emergency Services. But races, Steven notes, are different. “We all stand up for race starts,” he says as a field of SRF3s, FFs, and FVs near the green. I notice John is already in the tow truck driver’s seat, the truck idling.
Nothing happens. After Group 2 comes and goes, we’re all settling in.
Group 3 involves a number of my racing buddies, and I’m getting quite engrossed in the race. Then one of my friends running STL, Morgan Trotter, doesn’t come around again. So, when the call comes in, I know exactly who dispatch is talking about when they say, “White 61.” What none of us know is what it means.
At the scene, Morgan’s issue is a head scratcher for me. A subframe failure has snapped just about every suspension component on the front right of White 61, and the car sits unmovable. Steven speaks with Morgan to assess the situation, then turns to Jordan and me: “You guys are doing this one,” he says.
Next to the brooms on the tow truck sits a long metal beam called, as far as I know, a lifting beam. Steven runs straps through the White 61’s wheels while Jordan affixes the beam to Tow 1’s boom. We attach the straps to the ends of the beam, and with a flick of the wrist, Steven raises the front of Morgan’s car. Soon thereafter, we’re heading to the safety of the pits with White 61 in tow.
A Lazy Sunday
Steven, it turns out, is a great teacher. He handily shows us what to do yet is equally as quick to delegate. He also gives the option for us to skip calls, readily admitting that Emergency Services isn’t for everyone. And it’s not. Every trip onto a hot track is intense.
Emergency Services is, however, for people like Sarah and Steven. Sarah is such a fan of the job that she spends the second half of Sunday with us just waiting for a call. In fact, before the weekend began, she’d warned me that she was going to be on the tow truck at least once that weekend.
With a few race groups to go on a lazy Sunday, the radio jumps to life. A car’s off and slowing. Jordan and I grab our helmets and head to the tow truck; I turn to find Sarah already seated. Steven is under the E-Z Up with his daughter. I offer Sarah a warning: “You’re about to find out how useless Jordan and I actually are,” I laugh. Then the radio squawks again: call cancelled.
The weekend is winding down with one race to go, so Steven grabs me and Jordan and teaches us how to stow the tow truck recovery straps. In no time at all, Tow 2 is ready for its eventual trip to the garage.
The final race of the day is Group 1, since Cal Club opted to run Sunday in reverse order. With 21 starters, 12 in SRF3, it’s a healthy group for a mid-summer Regional. The pack had raced well on Saturday, and once more, we stand for the start. The green flag flies and into Turn 1 they rip, everyone emerging cleanly. Back at pit-in, we begin to stow chairs and collapse the E-Z Up. I watch as the tight pack of SRF3s swarm Riverside, a fun 100mph sweeper – then one car kicks up dirt, and all hell breaks loose.
When You Least Expect It
I’m running while watching three SRF3s spin into each other, bodywork airborne. I don’t recall getting on the tow truck, but this time I’m one of the first. John already has the truck in gear and we’re rolling within seconds.
We’re through the infield before my gloves are on. I don’t remember strapping my helmet, but I check, and it is fastened. The last 15 seconds were a blur.
Close behind is not only Big Bubba but also Tow 2 – who’s driving that? Come to think of it, who’s on this truck? I glance to see Jordan in the other jump seat and Sarah at the boom. Perhaps Steven is driving the other truck. But where is his baby, and is anyone with Steven?
John positions his tow truck to shield us from oncoming racecars, and I find myself amidst a sea of racecar parts. My boot crunches a portion of a wheel; a busted fiberglass clamshell sits 10 feet away. I scan for the damaged racecars to find two of the three drivers already standing; the third had his bell rung, for sure. The ambulance is now on the scene, and he’s awake, so I take to collecting parts while the race is black-flagged.
I turn to find Race Chair Mark Smith on site, rapidly tossing parts in the back of his pickup. John, Sarah, and Jordan have already lifted one car and are racing to the paddock while Steven and Mike Lawler – a Cal Club Region Steward who Steven had recruited as the incident was happening – run straps onto a second car. I’m piling busted parts onto Big Bubba and Mark’s truck as Sara’s team races back for the third car. Minutes later, I’m in Big Bubba heading to the pits. Incidentally, it’s the same seat I rode in when my racecar caught fire here all those years ago. In Big Bubba’s front passenger seat, a Spec Racer driver is making similar memories.
John, Sarah, Jordan, and I spend the next hour shuffling damaged Spec Racers from a makeshift bone yard near impound to their paddock spaces. Sarah’s operating the boom, but after helping us strap the first car, Sarah says that’s now Jordan’s and my job.
In the paddock, Sarah jumps from the tow truck and helps direct John. For the next Spec Racer, she tells me, that’ll be me. I quickly see how similar Sarah and Steven are – their teaching method for noobs is identical, and, at least for me, perfect.
Delivering the final SRF3 to its paddock space, a racer comes over, handing us waters and telling us how grateful he is. Turns out, he’s not one of the SRF3 racers at all – the Emergency Services crew had recovered him several events earlier and he’s still thankful.
The praise keeps coming from drivers and crew in the paddock as we pass by. “I feel like such a poser,” I say to Sarah as John drives us back to pit-in where we will, for the second time, put the straps in their appropriate compartments.
“For what?” she asks. “You just did everything they’re thanking you for.”
We return to pit-in to find Steven heading off to collect his daughter from a nearby RV. It turns out that not only had he recruited a worker to help on Tow 2, but he’d also found someone to watch his child. All in seconds.
Back at my pickup, the race weekend concluded, I find dirt, grease, and grime splattering my once new RaceQuip jacket and pants. As I place it back in the duffel, I realize it looks more worn than my other race suit does after five seasons behind the wheel. But it took the abuse and kept me safe. After a wash, it’ll be back to normal. Mostly. It turns out, there’s one small stain, probably imperceptible to most, that persisted. But that's OK, because I’m proud of the story that mark tells.
Words by Philip Royle