In the spring of 1986, a small group of doctors, nurses, paramedics, physiologists, a psychologist or two, and even a couple of sportswriters, gathered in a small auditorium at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where, among other aspects of the new science of motorsports medicine we saw a slide presentation on the surgery and post-op rehab that not only put Indy 500-winner Rick Mears' feet back together after they'd been shattered in a crash during a race a couple years earlier, but eventually put him back into a race car to win again.
As I recall, the key speakers at that inaugural meeting of the International Council of Motorsports Sciences were Dan Marisi and Jacques Dallaire, exercise physiologists from the University of Montreal (Marisi also had a Ph.D. in sports psychology) who had worked with several world-class auto racers, and Methodist's own medical miracle men, Stephen Olvey and Terry Trammell.
It was Dr. Trammell who had operated on Mears, and on so many other injured drivers. It was Dr. Olvey who had put together the safety team that worked the races -- and worked to make an inherently dangerous sport as less dangerous as possible.
Though without the surgical photos we saw that day at Methodist, the story of the CART Safety Team and of the history of motorsports medicine in North America in the last quarter of the 20th century is told in Dr. Olvey's book, Rapid Response.
Actually, the book also deals with the early 21st Century and the deaths of NASCAR racers Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., deaths that might have been prevented had the work of Olvey and the others spread more quickly than it did from Indy racing to other circuits.
Olvey grew up in Indianapolis. His father was a doctor and long-time Indy 500 ticket holder who was on the same bowling team as Dr. Thomas Hanna, who practiced family medicine 11 months of the year and worked from the infield first aide station at the Speedway each May. Olvey joined Hanna's Indianapolis Motor Speedway medical team as an intern in the mid-1960s, an era when the team included an ambulance that actually was the hearse for a local funeral home, equipped only with an oxygen bottle and driven not by a paramedic but by the funeral home's embalmer.
Olvey started going to other racing venues on the circuit, where, more than once, he had to transfer an injured driver from the track's ambulance to one actually licensed to travel on public roads. Finally, they'd reach a hospital only to find there were no doctors in the emergency room.
Olvey recalls one nurse flatly stating the local doctors either were at the race or were out playing golf.
One the doctors did arrive, they didn't consider racing drivers to be any different than other patients and figured standard procedures followed by a long, sedentary rehab were the only way to go when all the drivers wanted to do was to get back into their cars and race.
Olvey and Trammell changed such practices, not only saving drivers' lives but getting them back to work, especially after the creation of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series with car owners and drivers willing not merely to hired a medical staff, but to listen to Olvey, Trammell and the others and to work together to make the tracks and especially the cars that raced around them much safer.