Dr Stephen Olvey is best described as American racing’s answer to F1’s Professor Sid Watkins.
Olvey was at the forefront of improving driver safety in Indycar racing from the 1970s until the series dissolved in 1995. He remained with the new Champ Car series until it collapsed in 2003.
The demands for better safety in American racing developed in much the same way that they did in Formula One. Olvey recounts these in “Rapid Response” much as Watkins did in “Life at the Limit” and “Beyond the Limit” and it carries a stark warning for F1 fans who think the sport has become excessively safe.
The advances made in safety in Formula One since the 1970s are strikingly similar to those in CART / Champ Car at the same time. Both enjoyed substantial periods without fatality in the 1980s, only to suffer some fatalities in the 1990s.
“Rapid Response” is unavoidably morbid in parts and is substantially more explicit than either of Watkins’ books.
But salient truths come to light from the carnage. The most important of which is how exceptionally difficult it is to prevent serious injury and death in a sport where competitors regularly exceed 200 mph.
In Formula One today, twelve years after the horrors of 1994 and five years since the last racing-related fatality at the track, many fans and onlookers believe the sport has become excessively safe. Look at the enormous run-off areas around circuits, they say, which make it far too easy for a driver to run wide and not be delayed.
I have had some sympathy for these arguments myself but, reading “Rapid Response”, they become much more difficult to justify. It is extremely difficult to draw a line declaring what is ‘sufficiently safe’.
I suspect this is why, rightly or wrongly, FIA President Max Mosley reacted with such outrage when the drivers recently discussed their concerns about the Monza circuit in public (as they had done about Silverstone earlier this year.)
As gory as it is in places books like “Rapid Response” are exceptionally important. Fatalities are, thankfully, extremely rare in modern motor sport and continue to get rarer.
But modern sensitivities are reducing the opportunity for intelligent, reasoned discussion of the deaths that do still occur. Television stations increasingly refuse to show serious accident footage for fear of appearing voyeuristic.
That is an entirely reasonable sentiment, but utterly unrealistic in the age of the Internet when fatal crash footage appears on Youtube in five minutes tagged with the likes of, “check out this awesome cool crash!!!”
“Rapid Response”, then, is a timely and welcome addition to that debate.
There are a few puzzling omissions – for example, there is no mention of the collision between Willy T. Ribbs’ car and marshall Jean Patrick Hein at the Vancouver race in 1990, which killed Hein.
But otherwise this is an excellent read and very thought-proking – especially for younger fans of the sport with less experience of its history of carnage.
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