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Safety crews stand by for race

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Is the city prepared if a 1,535-pound race car going 170 mph crashes or ends up in the bay during the Grand Prix?

Race officials say they've covered all the bases.

"Racing is a very dangerous sport, and that's why we put such a huge effort in trying to provide safety at the facility," said Lon Bromley, director of safety for Championship Auto Racing Teams, known as CART.

CART, the sanctioning group that brings racers and race teams to Grand Prix events, uses something called the Simple Green Safety Team. It's a squad of doctors, paramedics and firefighters who will be the primary rescuers at wrecks inside the 1.8-mile circuit.

Dive teams and firefighters with the St. Petersburg Fire Department will stand by in the event a car flips over the fence and lands in bleachers or water along Bayshore Drive NE.

Six blocks away, Bayfront Medical Center is keeping a Bayflite helicopter on its roof to transport burn victims to Tampa General Hospital's burn unit.

"I think we've got everything in place," said Terry Barber, St. Petersburg's deputy fire marshal. "I think we're ready. I know we're ready."

St. Petersburg has assigned 56 firefighters and paramedics to the races each day through Sunday. St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, citing safety threats such as a terrorist attack, refused to disclose the number of officers working in or around the race track.

Racing and city officials said they have been working for months to make the race safe for drivers and the potential 100,000 spectators expected over the weekend.

Grand Prix fans might see a few crashes, race officials said, but officials hope nothing comes close to the city's Grand Prix in 1987. Jim Fitzgerald, a driver in the Trans-Am series, was killed after slamming into a concrete barrier. At that time, the course ran around Tropicana Field, then known as the ThunderDome.

The races can be dangerous for spectators, too.

At the Michigan Speedway in 1998, three fans were killed and six others were injured by a tire and other debris that hurtled into the crowd after a seemingly routine one-car crash during a CART race.

Like other races, CART has erected a barrier around St. Petersburg's downtown course that consists of a 3.2-foot tall concrete wall and nearly 11-foot high chain link fence. The back of the fence is reinforced with four strands of cable wire, which are meant to "catch" a car.

"It brings it back in," said Bromley, CART's safety director. "Without that wire, you'd get the fence collapsing."

Bromley oversees the Simple Green Safety Team, the 32-member squad of doctors, paramedics and firefighters. CART also has on site a million-dollar medical trailer with state of the art equipment.

Bayfront Medical Center will have two doctors and hospital paramedics assigned to the race. And St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue has assigned people to key areas too, including the turns.

A fire engine also will be at pit row, which has water sources every 150 feet. The fire department will transport drivers to hospitals and handle emergencies off the race track. Three St. Petersburg dive teams will be on a dock and boats along the track and will be the primary responders if a car launches over the fence.

If a car lands in the water, St. Petersburg rescuers will handle the extrication. Cranes will be nearby if a car needs to be flipped over to get to a driver.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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