“Rapid Response”– A Review

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I have mentioned before that one of the perks of being a lowly IndyCar blogger is that occasionally I get asked to review certain things. I’m not quite sure why my opinion on books, TV specials, DVDs and movies would matter to anyone; but I still get asked. As I’ve also said; if I don’t like what I’ve been asked to sample – most of the time I’ll just let it go and not write anything. I don’t want to trash something that someone was nice enough to ask me to sample.

Now I have trashed some things on this site over the years that I sampled on my own. The most vivid example that I recall is when I reviewed the book Blood and Smoke by Charles Leerhsen, back in 2014. That book stoked the conspiracy theory that the 1911 Indianapolis 500 had actually been won by Ralph Mulford instead of Ray Harroun. When I posted my review, Leerhsen saw it and took issue with it and posted his rebuttal on my site. Fair enough.

But if I’ve been asked to review something here and I actually go to the trouble to write a review – that means I liked it. Such is the case with today’s post.

Last month, I was offered the opportunity to attend the worldwide premier of the documentary Rapid Response, which was based off of the book of the same name by Dr. Stephen Olvey. The book recounts Dr. Olvey’s days as CART’s Director of Medical Affairs and his close association with Dr. Terry Trammell. I had read the book over a decade ago and it was one of the few that I would put in the category of “…could not put it down”.

So when I was extended an invitation to go to the premier, I didn’t have to think long and hard whether or not to go.

The premier of the movie took place at the IMAX Theater at the Indiana State Museum on the Friday Night of Race Weekend – the night of Carb Day. The event was complete with free adult beverages, free heavy hors d’oeuvres (I think the shrimp were from St. Elmo Steak House, but I can’t confirm that) and of course – a red carpet.

Susan and I were joined on the red carpet by our good friend and fellow blogger, Paul Dalbey. Since it was the night of Carb Day and many would be coming directly from the track, the organizers were smart enough not to have a strict dress code. Instead they only requested “smart casual”, whatever that means. A few were in jeans, while a few were in suits. We did at least have a shower after the track and fell somewhere in the middle in our attire.

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After the cocktail hour, we were ushered into the IMAX Theater for the showing. Once inside the theater, the event was hosted by Robin Miller. He introduced the film and told of his own experiences why a Safety Team that followed the series around was deemed necessary. Some of his tales were funny forty years later, but to think these tales of incompetence and ineptitude by local track medical teams were actually happening was shocking.

After a few of his personal anecdotes, Miller gave the film a proper introduction and the projectors started rolling. The film started off with old footage from the early to middle part of the last century. Crash footage was necessary to the film to demonstrate the violence that drivers experienced in crashes. I’m not sure you would necessarily call Dr. Olvey the narrator; but he is interviewed frequently and his voice is heard throughout. He shares that his first visit to IMS was for the 1955 race as a young boy when his favorite driver, Bill Vukovich, was fatally injured.

The film introduces us to Dr. Tom Hanna, the longtime Medical Director at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hanna had been a physician on staff at IMS since 1936 and was named medical Director in 1960. He expanded and modernized the infield care hospital that now bears his name and served in that capacity until his death in 1981.Hanna hired Olvey in the late sixties to assist him during the Month of May and on Race Day. In the early seventies, Dr. Terry Trammell was hired.

Then the scene moved to the infamous crash of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 that led to the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. I’ve seen a lot of footage from that fiery crash, but Rapid Response shows some angles I’ve never seen before. There were interviews from Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser, who were both involved in the crash. The documentary talked of how at even an event the size of the Indianapolis 500, the emergency vehicles were primitive at that time. What served as an ambulance was actually a hearse from nearby Conkle Funeral Home in Speedway.

There are crashes shown throughout from the sixties and early seventies – some famous and others not so famous. While I’ve seen most of the crashes from IMS during that time, there were many documented crashes at other tracks during that time that I had never seen.

While some may feel that crash footage should not be necessary to tell this story, I disagree. It was appalling to see what drivers suffered in crashes and the primitive care they were receiving at the tracks. Olvey and Trammell both spearheaded the revolutionary idea of a safety team comprised of the same doctors and trained paramedics that travelled around with the series at each track.

It was interesting to watch the evolution of the medical care at race tracks. What was even more impressive was the role that Olvey and Trammell took in leading the charge for safer cars, safer tracks and safer procedures.

Dr. Trammell’s specialty is orthopedics, while Olvey focused more on head trauma. As the safety measures they campaigned for were put in place, they both started analyzing trends in driver’s crashes and subsequent injuries or deaths. While there had been a sharp decrease in soft tissue or skeletal injuries, the most severe injuries or fatalities were due to head injuries.

One fatal crash that caught their attention was that of Gonzalo Rodríguez at Laguna Seca in 1999. Most have seen the footage when the Marlboro Penske car went off track just before the famous corkscrew, hit the wall, flipped over and landed upside down further down an embankment. In the hospital, Olvey was struck by the fact that here in front of him was a race car driver without a scratch on him. Yet, he was dead. An autopsy revealed that the massive deceleration caused by hitting the wall, caused a basilar skull fracture, essentially causing his brain to separate from the spinal cord. This accelerated the development for what we now know as the HANS (Head And Neck Support) Device.

By 2000, CART mandated use of the HANS Device among all of its drivers at all tracks. NASCAR was slow to react, claiming it would restrict their drivers from being able to escape a burning car. That changed with the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, who died of a similar injury.

The film also gets into the science of a concussion, showing explanatory graphics that I had never seen before that helped me to understand exactly what happens in a concussion.

Dr. Olvey also admits that in reflection of the horrifying Gordon Smiley fatality at IMS, he was internally conflicted with whether or not he wanted to continue in his role after what he saw in the aftermath of that Turn Three crash during qualifying for the 1982 race. He obviously decided to continue, but made it clear that what he witnessed that day had a profound effect on him.

The documentary also discusses the miraculous works Dr. Terry Trammell has done in rebuilding the feet and ankles of Indy car drivers. Dr. Trammell recounts the 1981 crash at Indianapolis of Danny Ongais. His feet and legs were hanging out of the sheared cockpit and were completely mangled and disfigured. It was assumed that Ongais would have to have at least one leg amputated, but Trammell had just started and took the stance that his watch was not going to start off with an amputation. He carefully rebuilt the legs, ankles and feet of Ongais and Dr. Trammell is why Ongais can walk today.

The 1984 crash by Chip Ganassi at Michigan was presented in a fashion I had not seen before. I was well aware that Ganassi was involved in a frightening career-ending crash in the early eighties, but I’ll admit – I had no idea that it was life-threatening. Olvey tells how when he got to Ganassi, he had sustained a severe head injury and was not breathing. Once his breathing resumed, he was unconscious and in a coma.

Olvey reveals that at that time, a head injury of that magnitude usually prevented a full recovery. But Ganassi was one of the very few to display a full recovery from that significant of a brain injury. Ganassi was in the audience that night, sitting just a couple of rows in front of us. I tried to see a reaction from him, but he sat stoically watching and didn’t move or make a sound.

The film comes to a conclusion, documenting the horrific Alex Zanardi accident in 2001, where Zanardi’s legs were completely severed in a crash at the Lausitzring in Germany. It is not an exaggeration in any way to say that Dr. Trammell saved Zanardi’s life that day. The photos and videos are grim, but once again – they are shown to prove the point of what those at the scene were faced with. Only the quick action of Dr. Trammell and his crew is why Alex Zanardi is still with us today.

But the Zanardi story in the film doesn’t stop with his injuries. It continues to show the emotional comeback two years later, when Zanardi completed the remaining laps of the race he was injured in, in an obviously modified car eerily similar to the one he was driving when the crash occurred. The scene from the film still sends chills through me just thinking about it as I type almost three weeks after watching it.

When the film concluded, the lights came back up. Dr. Olvey was in attendance and he was called down to the front for a brief Q&A session. When we were dismissed from the theater, we were invited to have dessert in the lobby afterward. I knew what my thoughts were on the movie, but they were confirmed by the others I talked to.

The film was extremely well done. The producers walked a fine line between being too graphic with crash footage, but trying to convey the severity that the Safety Team was faced with. I thought, for the most part, that they succeeded in striking the right balance.

Most documentaries are in the eighty to ninety minute range. Rapid Response seemed closer to two hours, but I can’t be sure of that. My impression of the film was that the first hour was interesting, informative and very engaging. I would also say the same for the final forty-five minutes. That leaves about a fifteen minute period in the middle when I felt myself becoming numb to some of the crashes. That’s not to say the footage was unnecessary, but personally at that point of the film, I was growing a little tired of them. But it was at that point when the head injuries of Ganassi and also Robert Guerrero were detailed and my interest was revived.

When I read the book over a decade ago, I remember that it went into great detail about the Greg Moore fatality at Fontana in 1999. I was surprised to see that there was not a single mention of the Moore accident in the film. Since the book has been updated, I was also surprised that there was no mention of the Dan Wheldon or Justin Wilson fatalities or the near-fatal accident of James Hinchcliffe in 2015.

But this film was not about fatalities or the latest incident. It is about the chronological order of events that has led to the development and evolution of what is now known as the IndyCar AMR Safety Team. That was achieved without bringing the latest fatalities into the film.

Although Dr. Steve Olvey wrote the book and he and Dr. Terry Trammell star in the film, this is not presented as a celebration of what those two men have done. It is about the collective efforts of the men and women that have served on the Safety Team over the years and how they have helped in the evolutionary process. But even though the film didn’t come out and say it – I’ll say it. The racing world owes a great deal of thanks to these two men. They have made our sport a lot safer.

To view the trailer and get updates on theaters and dates as the release approaches, click here.

Rapid Response will be released in the US and Canada in September. Whenever it is available on blu-ray, I’ll be one of the first to buy it. It was that good.

George Phillips

Please note: As I usually do at this time of year, I am going on a short break. IndyCar finally has an off-weekend this weekend and it is also Father’s Day this Sunday. Therefore, I am going to relax and recharge my batteries after a grueling Month of May and two race weekends for the start of June. There will be no post here on Friday June 14, nor Monday June 17. I will return refreshed and ready to go with a new post on Wednesday June 19. Enjoy the upcoming non-race weekend and I want to wish a Happy Father’s Day to all of my fellow dads out there. Please come back next Wednesday the nineteenth. – GP

10 Responses to ““Rapid Response”– A Review”

  1. Can’t wait to see it, please remind us in September that it is coming out so I can get a copy quickly. The book is very intense and a must read for any Indycar fan.

    I had actually wondered if any of the forbidden footage would work its way into the film, such as Jeff Krosnoff’s resuscitative efforts being filmed by ESPN. Thankfully it sounds like it wasn’t.

    Enjoy your Fathers Day weekend!

  2. There’s another great film on this topic called “Yellow, Yellow, Yellow” that I highly recommend. There’s also one that revolves around the F1 safety developments called “1” and it is also highly recommended. We cannot give enough thanks to these heros who have saved our heros time and time again.

    Happy Father’s Day to all, and enjoy your much deserved break George.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Revisiting terrible wrecks can be a challenge for me, but I do plan to watch this. I value the safety team greatly and they deserve any accolades that can be given.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    Thank you for bringing news of the book and the film to our attention. A September reminder would be appreciated.

    • Yes, George, we thank you for blogging. You do good work.
      On a hospital bed, fractured from head to ankle, on the other side of the ocean, I watched on television the crashes of Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore. Miserable. May God bless men and women who rush to the rescue of others.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Lordy how I miss Greg Moore. One of the best there ever was. I was able to see him race and win at the tricky Milwaukee Mile.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    NBC is already beginning to run TV promos for RA on the Milwaukee Channel 4 NBC 6 PM sports with Simon and Local sports guy Lance Allen.

  6. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    I just discovered this book within the last 4 months. I bought it and couldn’t put it down, until about halfway though. It just became “too much,” similar to those 15 minutes you describe while watching the movie. I’m surprised to hear that there was no mention of Greg Moore’s accident in the movie. The details of Greg’s accident in the book were some of the hardest parts for me to read.

    The book also offers fascinating insight into the field of Emergency and Trauma Medicine as a specialty. What you have described as “incompetence and ineptitude” can also be attributed to the fact that Emergency Medicine was not a field of specialty for physicians until the 80’s. Emergency rooms were not always open 24 hours a day. Ambulances were commonly just hearses. It was a very different time. My husband has extensive experience in the fire department, emergency medicine and rescue technology and was not surprised at some of the things I told him about from the book. (I was surprised though).

    I can’t wait to see the movie, although I know I will have to wait. It’s not showing anywhere close to me, nobody wants to admit that New Orleans even hosted an IndyCar race! I guess I’ll settle for waiting to buy it on Apple TV or Amazon Prime.

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