Get ready for 'Rapid Response,' a very real look at how modern IndyCar track safety came to be

“Rapid Response’’ was produced by A Mile Away Productions. At 1 hour 39 minutes, it will debut Sept. 6, 2019 in select theatres nationwide.

Steve Olvey considered a career as a race driver before his father convinced him to go to medical school. Racers everywhere are grateful. The longtime director of the University of Miami  trauma center is known for building the Indy car safety team.

In “Rapid Response,” three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser recalls the time he drove blindly through a conflagration created by a fatal two-car crash at the Speedway. During the ensuing red flag, Unser smeared motor oil on significant burns to his face and neck, then got back in his car to finish the race.

Today Chip Ganassi is better known for TV interviews atop the pit box for one of his race teams. As a driver in 1984, he suffered significant brain injuries in a wild crash at Michigan International Speedway. Doctors at the University of Michigan medical center told his parents that he might never walk or function independently again. With better track-side care, the medical community began to understand that maximizing the brain’s potential to heal begins with immediate, proper intervention.

Through much of the Speedway’s century-plus history, inebriated partiers in the Snake Pit could expect better medical care than the drivers.

Racing folk of a certain age will know where the documentary “Rapid Response’’ is headed 30 seconds past the first frame. They’ll be flooded with bad memories and filled with dread to the point where, before the title flashes, they’ll be compelled to avert eyes from what’s certainly coming: the horrific accident that cost Alex Zanardi his legs and almost his life during the first major sporting event after Sept. 11, 2001.

From the darkness comes light. “Rapid Response” starts and ends with Zanardi’s crash at the Lausitzring because of the outcome — one people watching in real time could not have imagined. Zanardi returned to professional racing and won four Olympic gold medals in para-cycling. He couldn’t have done that without the dedication, passion and compassion of a handful of people who built Indy car’s traveling safety team over three decades.

The film is based loosely on the book “Rapid Response: My Inside Story as a Motor Racing Life-Saver” by Dr. Stephen Olvey, and its narrative is straightforward. It tracks improvements in driver safety and medical response from the first tentative attempts to end the blood sport in the late USAC era to the golden age of advancement under CART to today, when Indy car’s safety/medical team is still widely considered the best in motorsport. Its lens is the eyes of the pioneers and the recollections of racers who benefited, from Bobby Unser to Helio Castroneves.

The first ambulance at the Speedway was actually a polished-up hearse from the local funeral home, with neither a doctor nor medical equipment inside.

Once the title rolls, “Rapid Response’’ drops back to vintage Indy car footage (and wicked wrecks) from the 1950s and early ‘60s — an era when one of every seven national and international level drivers would not make it through a given season alive, and when fans attending the Indianapolis 500 could expect better medical care in an emergency than the drivers. Famous drivers recall their fears and motivations. Olvey recalls what drew him toward racing as a kid, finding a new favorite driver every few months because his previous favorite had been killed, and how he struck up a bond with a young orthopedic surgeon named Terry Trammell, who said “I’ll fix ’em. You keep ’em alive.”

We see the first legitimate trackside ambulance, the first racing practitioner to ride in the ambulance, and the first doctor to attend every Indy car stop (Olvey, in both cases). We hear Olvey describe the one time he seriously considered walking away from racing—the 1982 qualifying death of Gordon Smiley, a road racer who may have been over his head at the Speedway but vainly went after a 200-mph run — and the backlash from tracks and promoters to new safety requirements enforced by CART. We see the advent of genuine trauma care trackside, medevac choppers and proper concussion care, and we learn how the detailed study of racing injuries contributed to the safety of race cars and protective devices like HANS.

There’s plenty of gore, including a rarely published photo captured a fraction after impact, which shows Zanardi’s hands still positioned where the steering wheel had been, the stumps of his exposed legs and what were formerly his lower extremities spinning airborne like chunks of meat. Yet the approach throughout “Rapid Response” is fact-driven, no manufactured drama or emotion necessary. It mimics the safety team’s approach to business: focus, and leave the emotion aside, as Trammell did after he slipped through Zanardi’s blood on the Lausitz banking and got to what was left of Zanardi’s car.

These guys couldn’t have done much for Alex Zanardi. It wasn’t so long ago that first responders at Indy car races were volunteers with no specialized or medical training.

“Your eyes tell you this guy got both legs amputated above the knee,” Trammell recalls. “This is a non-survivable injury, but your mind’s going ‘yeah, I can fix this.’”

Fixing Zanardi meant quickly staunching massive blood loss, pumping him full of blood substitute and reversing his cardiac arrest as he was taken to a chopper. Olvey stared into the trauma physician’s “golden hour,’’ after which a victim’s chance of survival drops precipitously, and grappled with a mortal decision. There was good hospital in nearby Dresden, but he knew Zanardi’s chances were much better at the tier-one trauma center in Berlin, 35 minutes away. “If he died enroute, I’d be second-guessed forever,” he says.

Zanardi was on the operating table in Berlin 59 minutes after impact. The rest is history.

They weren’t pretty, but the first Indy car safety vehicles actually had appropriate equipment to safely extricate and begin treating injured drivers.

You’ll cry enough through “Rapid Response,” but maybe you’ll wish for a few more laughs, given that Olvey and Trammell are genuinely funny guys. At times the pace might be a hair slow, the analysis too detailed, for mainstream audiences.

We aren’t a mainstream audience. See this one, and get hands-on Olvey’s book (it’s more salacious, maybe, certainly more inside Indy car and broader in scope). “Rapid Response” can be tough to watch, but commitment is rewarded with an even-handed, informative, engaging look at a committed group of people — often overlooked but maybe the most genuine of auto racing heroes.

Watch the trailer for “Rapid Response” here.

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