The renowned doctor got his start in racing attending to sunburns during the Indy 500. Now he is a leading authority on protecting drivers.
By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- Steve Olvey was drawn to the spectacle from the earliest of ages.
Never would he be a driver like those who blurred past the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stands he sat in as a 2-year-old, but there would be a role suited especially for him.
It was as a sophomore medical school student in Indianapolis that Olvey spotted a bulletin board ad in the student union building asking for volunteers at the Indianapolis 500.
"They put me in a tent in the infield, taking care of sunburns and alcohol abuse," Olvey said. "I really wasn't anywhere near the racetrack, but it was a foot in the door."
This self-proclaimed race nut has forged a reputation as an innovator in the 40 years since, driven by a determination not only to make CART, but all forms of auto racing, safer.
Olvey, 59, whose expertise with head and neck injuries and support of the HANS device gained national attention in the days, weeks and months following Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, splits his professional time as director of the neuroscience and intensive care department at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and as CART's director of medical affairs.
But he's much more to those who count on his expertise.
"He's a friend to all the drivers," veteran Jimmy Vasser said. "And he's reassurance also. There's a feeling of reassurance because he's around."
Long viewed as one of the safest and most forward-thinking forms of auto racing, CART has benefitted from the direction of Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell, CART's chief orthopedic consultant, who have overseen the fortification of emergency services operations at every track CART visits. Their efforts undoubtedly have saved several lives and limbs.
"Here's another doctor that's as much of a race nut as I am," Olvey said of Trammell. "The two of us have the same goals. We teamed up. And instead of one person in the wilderness trying to chip away at the problems, at least there are two of us going after things."
Olvey and Trammell have worked with other medical professionals and engineers to identify injury trends and correct them through improved equipment.
From the crushable materials in the nose of cars to wheel tethers, improved cockpit design, the implementation of the HANS device to protect against deadly head and neck injuries and the use of an accelerometer ear piece by drivers that acts as a sort of crash data recorder, CART cars and equipment are made with safety in mind.
"Those two guys are really amazing," driver Patrick Carpentier said. "They're the best. Even when something happens to me, and I'm at my house, I call those guys.
"They're aware of everybody and how they are, their health. It's good especially when you are racing cars going at the speeds we travel. But we hope not to have to use them."
CART boasts a traveling safety team consisting of more than 40 doctors, nurses and various other personnel along with an 850-square-foot mobile medical unit trailer that has equipment able to treat any life-threatening emergency and up to four people at once.
It's a vast improvement from the mid 1960s when Olvey worked as a resident in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's care center.
Back then it was common to see OB/GYN's and ophthalmologists as track medical directors, ill-equipped ambulances that doubled as hearses or empty patient beds covered with cold cuts, brownies and potato salad for employees' lunches.
"It was really apparent that the MO was to get the driver out of the car and into the ambulance as quickly as possible and on his way someplace else," Olvey said. "There really wasn't any thought of having to do anything (medically) at the race tracks.
"It was more of a picnic for the medical staff than it was a well-organized medical program. It was about that time I started to help organize the local medical people, require ambulances that were appropriately equipped with paramedics and have the medical director's people tuned into critical care and emergency medicine and getting mass casualty plans in place."
The president of the United States Auto Club asked Olvey in 1975 to start a traveling medical program comparable to that in place in Indianapolis.
When CART formed three years later, car owners Roger Penske and Pat Patrick asked Olvey to do the same for their new series.
"I was a little bit reluctant to do that because I had such close ties and friends in USAC and at the speedway," he said. "But it seemed to me to be the way the sport was going. I went with CART and carried that concept into the new series."
His relationship with Trammell was forged in 1982.
Then a young orthopedic surgeon at Methodist Hospital, Trammell was on duty taking trauma calls when Danny Ongais crashed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and nearly lost his leg.
When Rick Mears crashed during a 1984 race in Montreal, severely injuring both of his feet to the extent doctors suggested amputation, it was Olvey who convinced everyone that Mears should get a second opinion. Trammell operated on Mears and the driver returned a year later and earned his third and fourth Indianapolis 500 wins in 1988 and 1991, respectively.
Perhaps their greatest challenge, and triumph, came in September 2001 when they helped save Alex Zanardi's life. The racer's car was sheared in half and his legs severed above the knee in a collision with Alex Tagliani during the American Memorial 500 in Germany.
The safety team truck arrived 29 seconds after the crash and a helicopter took Zanardi, Olvey and Trammell to a top-level trauma center in Berlin. Zanardi survived and today walks with the help of prosthetic legs.
"Everything fell into place and worked the way it should that day," Olvey said.
What he was not prepared for was the aftermath.
The danger of forging such close ties to the drivers and their families is the toll it takes when something like Zanardi's accident happens.
"When we knew that Alex looked like he was going to at least survive the incident, both of us really had a very traumatic next several days," Olvey said. "It took a long time to be able to be comfortable with that whole thing and to deal with it because we were so close to Alex."
The positives of the job, however, are what continue to motivate Olvey.
"I try to stay physically very active so I can do this," he said. "I still love it very much. The interest is still there. So as long as I can physically keep doing it, I intend to keep doing it."