Eglin firemen keep NASCAR teams safe at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AFMCNS) -- When a multi-car crash happens at Talladega Superspeedway, sending cars spinning and flipping and raining debris on the track, or when crew members get hurt along pit road, there's always a group of professionals who put their lives on the line to save another - firemen.

Four Eglin firefighters, John Piccuito, J.R. Suddarth, Tech. Sgt. Jimmy Reed and Perry Beote, are among a group of firefighters from all over the country who go to the spring and fall Talladega NASCAR races to make sure the drivers and race teams are safe.

Sometimes that means protecting the race teams from themselves.

"A successful event for us is having no one know we are there," said Sergeant Reed, an Air Force Reservist who works at Eglin Fire Department Station One as a civilian lead firefighter.

Every morning the team gathers together and discusses the agenda for the day and the important safety items, especially on race day.

"Every decision you make - base it on safety," said Tony Carrol, Station Nine battalion chief in Destin, Fla., during race day's morning meeting. They are an all-star cast of "the best protecting the best," he said.

Race day begins as fans start pouring into the infield to check out all the cars, pit crew teams and wait anxiously for a glimpse of a driver. Anything can and does happen in a split second during a race, whether it's in the stands, in the pits or on the track.

"You never know what's going to happen next," said Mr. Piccuito, Eglin Fire Department District Six chief and pit fire supervisor at the race. "We've had cars rolling down pit road completely engulfed in flames, unconscious drivers, injured pit crew members and out-of-control cars hit the pit walls. You just never know."

When 43 race cars get together and run inches from each other at more than 190 mph, something is bound to happen. This is exactly what Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Scott Riggs and Jeff Gordon found out during the race.

Waltrip, driving the No. 15 car, went for a ride when his car rolled twice in an eight-car melee in turn one that involved Earnhardt Jr. and Martin in the first big wreck of the day. Riggs, driving the No. 10 car, flipped into the air, landing his car on its nose in another eight-car pile up later in the race.

Each driver walked away from the incidents; each driver escaped injury.

"The risk is always there, but (NASCAR) tries to minimize it for the drivers and the fans," Sergeant Reed said. "We bring street smarts to the track. The fire and rescue teams are made up of firemen from all over the country who work vehicle accidents every day."

The experience the firefighters gain on the streets comes in handy for them as cars roll into the pit area at 55 mph, sliding into a 30-foot pit space for a sub 10-second tire change and fill up. Sometimes there isn't enough room for the pit crew and all the cars trying to make pit stops.

During the spring race at Talladega, Rusty Wallace, driver of the No. 2 car, didn't know he ran over the leg of the jack man for the No. 31 car. The pit fire crew, watching the event unfold in front of them, jumped into action.

"The fire crew pulled the jack man over the wall and started the initial care," said Mr. Suddarth, Eglin Fire Department District One chief. "Pit road action continued and the whole crew was still covered. They filled the gaps immediately."

There have been many incidents for the over-the-wall crew involving crew members struck by a car. Although considerably slower than the 190 mph speeds on Talladega's 2.66-mile track, cars can still be lethal weapons at 55 mph. The firemen in the pit stalls understand the danger involved and respond as quickly as possible.

"It's amazing how quick (the emergency crews) are in their response to the wrecks; these guys are putting their lives at risk as much as (drivers) do," said Kerry Earnhardt, car No. 33 driver. "They are out there with vehicles that go much faster than anything on the street."

Heat from the cars, the fumes from the 112-octane gasoline, metal gas cans and lug nuts could be a recipe for disaster. To cover each stall, a fire and rescue team member stands ready in every pit stall with his hands on a fire extinguisher, watching the action closely in front of them. They have a pit supervisor who stands by backing up a small group of firefighters.

"Our primary responsibility in the pit stall is to protect the gas man," said Mr. Suddarth. "The gas man looks for the fireman before every race. We are who they want to meet."

The drivers and teams know the firefighters are right there in case something happens. Ricky Rudd, the driver of the No. 21 Air Force car, knows they are there, but doesn't necessarily want to have to have to talk to them during the race.

"Hopefully we won't have to see any of them on race day," said Ricky Rudd. "That means everything has gone smoothly. It's unfortunate at Talladega, they usually have their hands full with the big multiple car wrecks.

"I have a lot of respect for those guys and my hat's always off to them and what they do."

With only a few races left in the Nextel Cup season, firefighters from around the country will continue to protect the race teams.

For 14,457 miles, 43 cars run 36 races during a season, it takes only one moment to change people's lives forever. The Talladega fire and rescue crew knows what's riding on the track and will do everything they can to keep the drivers and fans safe.