‘Start your engines:' How IMSA's AMR Safety Team keeps drivers safe every race weekend
Members of IMSA's AMR Safety Team break down the unique opportunity in motorsport medical and rescue response
Children are often encouraged to think about future career options, starting at a young age. Some children daydream about becoming a doctor, firefighter, teacher, police officer, professional athlete or astronaut.
And while these career aspirations can change as each child grows and develops, some remain infatuated with their desired path. Oftentimes, this is the case when children look up to or admire a parent or family member in a similar position.
Since he was young, Jonathon Eahehart loved watching race cars speed through the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an annual automobile hill climb to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado, with his father – a race car driver himself. Over the years, it became a special father-son bonding experience.
"I really enjoyed it when my dad was racing. It was just a lot of fun watching him, but he just did it for fun. It was something that we did on the weekends," Eahehart recalled.
Eventually, Eahehart became a paramedic with American Medical Response (AMR) in Colorado Springs, where he has worked for the past 11 years. However, his passion for racing was never far off.
In 2019, Eahehart found himself with the opportunity to live out his childhood dream in an extremely unique way. Instead of racing like his father, he was offered a position with the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) AMR Safety Team, a group of EMS personnel who are specially trained in providing motorsport medical and rescue response.
"It was so surreal to experience being inside of the safety vehicle while these really expensive, really fancy race cars go speeding past," he said. "It's even more than my childhood dream, because I don't think even as a kid I knew stuff like this really ever existed."
The experience, he said, is unlike anything else.
A unique EMS experience
Jackie Weaver, who has been in EMS for nearly two decades, became an EMT in Olympia, Washington. She later became a paramedic and worked in Centralia, Washington, and eventually transferred to Portland, Oregon, about six years ago.
Toward the end of 2019, Weaver, like Eahehart, joined the IMSA AMR Safety Team.
"It's a challenge. It's something different," she said. "The job itself is just such a unique opportunity to learn new skills and work with an amazing bunch of people."
Weaver's first race with IMSA was the July 4th weekend at Daytona last year. But her most memorable event was when she was flown to a race during her interview and selection process with the team.
"At that point, I had never actually been out of the Pacific Northwest," she said. "Everybody was incredible, very gracious, open and welcoming. I got to see the race, which was great, but it was also nerve wracking for me … just not knowing what I was walking into."
Those nerves, she said, quickly melted away.
Safety procedures in place
Dr. Michael Levy, who serves as the medical director for the AMR paramedics on the safety team, said there's a reason why Weaver's nerves dissipated.
"There's a lot of safety procedures in place there, and there's a lot of training to make sure that everybody stays safe," Levy said. "These crews have to have the clinical skills; they have to have the judgment."
Part of the team's training includes being situationally aware of what's going on around them. The degree of situational awareness, Weaver said, is similar to working a wreck on the freeway.
"It's about being aware of the cars around you, your space and what's on the ground," she said.
Crews must constantly have safety in mind, Eahehart added. "We have to make sure everyone is safe the whole time. So when you get out of the vehicle, your head is on a swivel; you're looking for moving parts, things that aren't right, things that are right."
Unlike a typical day on the ambulance, crews are taught skills like how to walk safely on a racetrack and how to assess and interact with a driver. Additionally, crews are taught to always stay behind their block, which is usually some form of a vehicle.
"You never put yourself in a predicament where you're not behind a blocker, which is something that's helping to protect you," Eahehart explained. "You're always making sure that there's nothing that's changed or surprising that could potentially put you or somebody else in danger. It's everybody's job to make sure that at the end of the day, we all go home safe."
When the need arises, the team members respond quickly to the scene and the first thing they do is assess the racer to see if there are any injuries – particularly anything that might be serious.
"These are highly selected people that have got a lot of street smarts," Levy said. "It's that clinical experience and years on the street that is an important distinction."
For example, Levy says experienced providers can look for things that might not be extremely obvious unless you can connect the dots.
"High velocity crashes rarely happen, but things we have to watch out for, which can happen, is a cockpit in a hot environment," he said. “On a hot day, there's the possibility that a driver may be sluggish because of dehydration or heat injury. It's important that these providers look for these things and help keep drivers safe."
Being a part of the IMSA AMR Safety Team, according to Levy, is a big commitment.
Making a commitment to the team
Because the races are spread out around the U.S., there is a fair amount of travel involved, which Weaver says is part of the enjoyment of it, but it's "also one of the challenges, depending on how far you're flying," she said.
"Ten days from now, I leave home and I'll be gone for 11 days total," Eahehart said. "I'll be with my partner all 11 days, 24 hours a day for 11 days straight. At the end of the day, we've become a very close-knit group of people because we spend so much time around each other, train together and work together."
Races are typically on weekends and team members are responsible for getting their shifts covered if they're scheduled to work a regular AMR shift.
"I don't have any problems trying to find coverage. People work my shift for me while I'm gone," Eahehart said. Weaver echoed the sentiment: "I have a great group of coworkers who are willing to either trade shifts or work them for me."
The opportunity to become a member of the team, Weaver said, has given her the opportunity to recognize what she does as a paramedic on the street matters just as much as it does at the track.
"You want to be able to be the best paramedic you can at home to make sure that you can provide the best medicine to the drivers when you're at the track," she said.
Each team member's job, Levy said, is about making sure drivers, as well as crew members, are always kept safe.
"You want to be as good as you possibly can in your clinical craft," he said. "It's a different kind of medicine. It's one of those things where it focuses on your skills, aptitude, and the ability to process things quickly and solve problems in terms of what's the best way to handle a particular situation."
The IMSA AMR Safety Team, according to Levy, is another one of those neat things about EMS. "There's all these different branch points in terms of where your career can go and this is just another one of those things," he said.
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