Four days after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, American open-wheel racing series CART held its first race in Europe, hastily renamed from the German 500 to the 2001 American Memorial. With 12 laps remaining, fan favorite Alex Zanardi was exiting the the pits when his car spun 90-degrees, broadside to traffic. His Honda-powered Reynard shot across the track, leaving no time for driver Alex Tagliani to react, and at an estimated speed of 200 mph, the impact cut Zanardi’s car in half behind the front wheels. By conventional thinking, it wasn’t a survivable accident for either driver.
Except, thanks to the work of Dr. Steve Olvey and the CART medical team that he’d spent decades developing and honing, it was. Zanardi lost both legs in the crash, which also severed his femoral arteries, but instantaneous medical attention and a prompt evacuation to the nearest capable trauma center saved his life. Tagliani was kept overnight for observation and treatment of back pain, but released the following day. Zanardi faced a lengthy rehabilitation, but never lost his infectious spirit, returning to the same track two years later in a car equipped with hand controls to finish the laps not completed in 2001. Today, he’s a world-champion Paralympic athlete who continues to race cars, most recently in the 2019 24 Hours of Daytona.
Such miraculous results weren’t always the norm for racing crashes, and in Rapid Response – My inside story as a motor-racing life saver, Dr. Olvey recounts his efforts—primarily with CART, after a brief time with USAC–to make racing safer, and motorsports medicine more structured and consistent. From an early age, he understood the sport’s cruelty: At age 11, attending the Indianapolis 500 with his family, he witnessed the aftermath of Bill Vukovich’s fatal crash.
As a medical school student, Olvey volunteered to work on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s medical staff, but in 1966 little was known about trauma care. The ill-equipped track ambulance was on loan from a local funeral home, and the infield care center was more for hospitality than for treating patients. Still, the IMS staffed it with doctors and rudimentary medical equipment, more than could be said for many other tracks raced by USAC at the time.
Olvey’s efforts to advance the field of motorsports medicine can’t be overstated. Today, the IndyCar series travels with purpose-built crash response trucks, staffed by doctors and paramedics. Medical helicopters are always at the track on standby, and modern infield care centers more closely resemble emergency rooms than doctor’s offices. Nearby hospitals are evaluated in advance for their ability to treat critically wounded drivers and personnel, saving precious minutes in the event of a helicopter evacuation.
The science of trauma medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds, too, thanks in part to the work carried out by Dr. Olvey and his CART/IndyCar colleague, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammel. CART was the first racing series to implement a concussion protocol, and thanks to the scientific study of crash events and injuries implemented by Dr. Olvey and Dr. Trammel, cars, equipment and tracks are safer than they’ve ever been.
Originally published in 2006, Rapid Response is now in its second edition (released in time to correspond with a movie of the same name, due in theaters in September 2019). For fans of American open-wheel racing, the book is a must-read, filled with both humorous anecdotes and grim reminders of the sport’s dangers. The hardback book contains 312 pages and 56 pages of photographs, some not for the squeamish. Be sure to carve out some time before picking up the book, since for those passionate about racing history, Rapid Response is a difficult read to put down.
Released in April 2019, the second edition of Rapid Response – My inside story as a motor racing life-saver is available from QuartoKnows.com.