Thursday, September 5, 2019

Review: "Rapid Response"

These days I'm seeing a lot of documentaries about musicians coming out, so it was actually something of a breath of fresh air to watch a science-y doc about medical innovations.

But "Rapid Response" isn't a dry recitation of university studies or talking eggheads, but a look at how the dangerous sport of auto racing spurred 50 years of massive improvements in safety and medical response capabilities.

This story is at its heart an Indianapolis one. Back in the early days of open-wheel racing there often wasn't even an ambulance on site at the track. If there was any emergency vehicle, it was a hearse loaned by a local mortuary that had little more than an oxygen tank in the back.

Co-directed by Roger Hinze and Michael William Miles, "Rapid Response" is essentially a love letter to auto racing that nevertheless doesn't skimp on portraying the inherent danger of the sport. Some of the statistics thrown out are just shocking: during the early heyday of open-wheel racing, one out of seven drivers was killed each season.

Two doctors in particular emerge at the center of the story: Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Stephen Olvey, an Indiana University School of Medicine grad who got his start as a medical student volunteer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960s. He later would became a leader of the medical teams for the United States Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams. Olvey's book formed the basis for this documentary.

Playing out chronologically, "Rapid Response" paints a picture of how much medical safety has improved over the last five decades, which comprise the entirety of Olvey and Trammell's careers. Both men admit there were times they thought about walking away from the sport, horrified by the death and mayhem to the human body caused by vehicles that fly at more than 200 m.p.h.

Instead, they stayed in for the long haul and helped lead a wave of innovation that not only saved the lives of drivers, but has even became a standard part of the cars you and I drive today.

A veritable who's who of racing legends appear in interviews: Al and Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and more.

In the early days when a driver suffered a burn, they'd wipe motor oil on it. Pit crews or even members of the spectator crowd would usually be the first to respond to a crash. Eventually Dr. Thomas Hanna had the idea to establish a mini-hospital at the IMS. For years, Indianapolis was known as the best place to have a crash because the medical teams were often non-existent at other tracks.

The documentary walks us through various historical crashes, not from a voyeuristic intent but to see how the medical teams responded to the individual challenges faced. Layer upon layer, piece upon piece, a safety net was built around the drivers to better protect them from the inevitable crashes -- and save the integrity of the sport.

For example, early on the most common serious injuries were to the feet and ankles, since when the shallow noses of the cars met the wall, the driver was essentially stopping the vehicle with his legs. Longer noses with crumple zones were brought in.

Later, the effect of concussions and serious brain stem injuries led to the introduction of the HANS device, which stabilizes the racer's helmet and has now become standard equipment in virtually every sphere of auto racing.
Dr. Olvey talks about the time he actually called off a race because G-forces on the track were causing drivers to crash for seemingly no reason. Fans and race organizers grumbled, but relented. It's amazing to think of that sort of thing happening 50 or even 20 years earlier.

In another incident, driver Rick Mears suffered two badly broken ankles in a race near Montreal, where the Canadian doctors wanted to simply amputate his feet because it was the cheapest and most expedient solution. Racing doctors intervened, Mears flew back to the States for extensive surgery and still has his feet today.

The medical response to auto racing is still evolving. Amazingly, Kanaan talks about doing one of his rehabilitations in the basement of Dr. Trammell's own home. His first time back in the driver's seat was racing go-karts in the physician's circular driveway.

As "Rapid Response" notes, virtually every sport is plagued with injury and death. When doctors and organizations fail to respond, it can lead to a gradual but seismic shift in how we perceive the sport -- much as we are seeing with the NFL today.

This is the tale of how the often anonymous medical teams behind racing strove to stay ahead of the curve, and save lives.

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