TSS medical center one of the best
by Elsie Hodnett
TALLADEGA — Like race fans he watches for the “big one,” but in a different way.

“The Talladega Superspeedway is NASCAR’s biggest, fastest track,” said Dr. Bobby Lewis, medical director for Talladega Superspeedway. “Because the drivers draft during the race, there is more opportunity for a multiple-car accident. We usually have a ‘big one’ each race.”

Lewis said if there is a “big one,” it is not unusual to get 8 to 10 drivers in the medical center all at once.

“But they may not all be injured,” he said. “With safer cars, safety innovations, safer walls and SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) there are now less serious injuries from crashes.”

Lewis said during races, there are two doctors suited up in protective gear and trained to go out onto the track incase of a wreck, two ambulances on standby and a LifeSaver helicopter.

“I’m trained to help get drivers out of the car and do any lifesaving procedures immediately on the track,” he said.

Lewis said he first became involved with the track in 1981, when the LifeSaver helicopter began coming to staff the races.

“I was a physician on the helicopter,” he said. “I’ve been the medical director for about 15 years now.”

Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch said Lewis is a phenomenal resource for the track.

“His experience with NASCAR and the intricacies of racing make him the perfect person to lead our team in the infield medical center,” Lynch said. “His leadership and medical knowledge is confidence-inspiring to drivers and series officials. As a track operator, it’s comforting to know Dr. Lewis is at the helm.”

Lewis said having the LifeSaver helicopter available has been a lifesaver—literally.

“The worst wreck I’ve seen here happened in the late 1990s,” he said. “One car went over the wall on a turn. While everyone was watching that, Stanley Smith’s car got hit broadside. He came as close as you can come to dying and lived, but had it not been for the helicopter he probably wouldn’t have survived.”

Lewis said the LifeSaver helicopter can transport injured people to a trauma center in roughly 15 minutes, compared to 45 minutes to an hour by ambulance.

“We flew out a driver from this year’s spring race who hit the wall very hard and had a concussion,” he said. “And Carl Edwards’ wreck a few years ago, his car got airborne and hit the fence. He was not injured but parts of his car and the fence struck and injured fans. We LifeSavered two fans who were injured and treated the rest here. Fortunately, they sustained minor injuries.”

Lewis said typically it’s a waiting game.

“It’s something of a joke—not if something happens but when it happens,” he said. “And when it happens we rush to respond.”

Lewis said in addition to the two doctors who are suited up and able to go onto the track, the two ambulances and LifeSaver helicopter, there are 2-3 additional doctors, 8-10 nurses and an x-ray technician in the 10-bed medical center.

“We have a modern, up-to-date x-ray system here,” he said. “There are also three aide stations in the grandstands to take care of fans, each staffed by a doctor. All combined, on a slow race week we have about 400 visits and on a busy race week we get about 700-800 visits from minor to serious medical complaints.”

Lewis said the medical problems are pretty much what you would see in any emergency room.

“With all the race fans, that is enough people for a significant-sized city here over the course of the weekend—and all the medical problems that go along with it,” he said. “We almost always have a heart attack or two. We’ve seen pretty much everything—cuts, scratches, broken bones, strokes and more. We joke about it, but the one thing we haven’t done yet is deliver a baby.”

Lewis said the job is never boring.

“We stay open 24/7 through the race, and have at least two emergency physicians as part of the team,” he said. “You meet really nice folks here and get to know then very well through training and working together—you have to know you can count on the people who will be helping you. When I go out there (to help an injured driver), I know the medics—who they are and what they can do—and they know I can help them out.”

Lewis said Talladega Superspeedway has been recognized in the NASCAR community for its medical center several times.

“We are very proud of that,” he said. “We have great teamwork here.”

Lewis said what he looks forward to most is seeing the friends and folks he works with each race.

“It’s always satisfying to take care of folks, and they are appreciative of that,” he said. “We have people who were treated during previous races come back and say thanks or stop in to say ‘hi’. One man had a heart attack in the stands, and the medics saved his life. He came back a couple years later to say thanks.”

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.

© 2012