If you ask a race fan to name the team that has been involved with the Champ Car World Series (CCWS) the longest, most will answer either Dale Coyne Racing or Newman-Hass Racing. A trivia savvy fan will answer the Champ Car World Series (CCWS) Safety Team.
The CCWS Safety Team travels with the series to each on track event. The team is highly trained, advanced as any Champ Car race team on the circuit.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Chris Hillen, a veteran member of the CCWS Safety Team. Through this interview, we hope to give you a chance to see what is involved with being a member of the best safety team in motorsports.
Mecca of Speed: What made you a candidate to become part of the CCWS Safety Team?
Chris Hillen: I am a fulltime firefighter-paramedic, with over 26 years of field experience. This experience includes being part of fire departments in both Wisconsin and Colorado (Denver). I also have a long time interest in open wheel racing, with fond memories of attending the Rex Mays Classic at the Milwaukee Mile and the Indy 500 as a child.
Mecca of Speed: How did you find out about the CCWS Safety Team?
Chris Hillen: I became familiar with the CART Safety Team (the team name before the series name change to Champ Car) while watching and attending races in the Midwest.
Mecca of Speed: How did you become a member of the CCWS Safety Team?
Chris Hillen: I was working with Tim Veith (one of three Wisconsin based CCWS Safety Team members) as a paramedic. Tim recommended I send a resume to Lon Bromley, the Safety Director for Champ Car. After going through the interview process, I was one of six new crewmembers they brought on board that year. The series started our training by flying us to Miami Homestead, for extensive training on Indy Lights and Champ Cars.
Mecca of Speed: How long have you been a member of the CCWS Safety Team?
Chris Hillen: This will be my ninth year on the safety team.
Mecca of Speed: What type of fire and rescue training do you apply to your roll on the CCWS Safety Team?
Chris Hillen: The team trains every time we get together. This training can be during the off season, open tests and race weekends. We practice extrications, review team procedures and potential situations unique to the venue we are at.
Mecca of Speed: Has any of your training and experience with the safety team crossed over to how you approach fire and rescue?
Chris Hillen: I think each job makes you more proficient at the other. Working with 20 other firefighter-paramedics from across the country, we brainstorm and exchange ideas. Our safety team is an ideal group to compare new techniques we use in our profession on a day-to-day basis.
The CCWS Safety Team is equipped with state of the art rescue equipment. Most of us would love to have this equipment at our full time jobs. The battery powered Holmatro hydraulic rescue tool, is an example of something I would love to have on my fire truck.
When we go out on a fire/rescue call, I drive an engine and always remember to position it to protect my crew on the street/highway. This technique I developed from observing our crew chiefs positioning safety trucks on the racetrack.
Mecca of Speed: How many people are on a safety crew and what are their rolls within the team?
Chris Hillen: We have a crew of four on each Ford F-150.
The crew chief drives and is in charge of operations (much like the captain on a fire truck).
The right front seat is the physician or senior paramedic. Their job is to provide medical care to the driver if necessary.
One of the men seated in the back is the “fireman.” He is responsible for fire suppression. We have fire bottles, or a pre connected booster line for big fires and extrications.
The other man who rides in the back seat provides backup to the physician as needed. He brings out supplies such as oil dry, lift straps or the Holmatro rescue tools.
Mecca of Speed: When the CCWS Safety Team is sent to an incident, is there a set procedure that is followed by the team?
Chris Hillen: No two incidents are identical, but we try to approach each one in the same manner. Scene safety, fire suppression and medical care are initial priorities. Other assignments include containing fluid spills, removal of the racecar and transporting it to a safe location and rendering the track surface back to racing condition. We will also transport a driver back to pits after an incident during qualifying, if it falls within our safety parameters.
Mecca of Speed: What type of equipment do you carry on a safety truck and where is it located?
Chris Hillen: Our medical bags and extractor are located upfront with the physician/paramedic.
We have a 50 gal tank containing H20 and Coldfire, which is an additive that assists us in extinguishing fires.
The rear of the truck has a 30ft retractable fire hose and four fire bottles. We have straps and pins for lifting and flat towing racecars. The gas and battery powered Holmatro rescue tools are also located in back along with oil dry, broom/blowers, debris bags and a tool for removing the on board camera from the roll bar
The truck is also equipped with a quick-jack for turning racecars in tight spots.
Mecca of Speed: On average how many races do you work with the safety crew each year?
Chris Hillen: Between open tests and race weekends most members work about 12 events yearly.
Mecca of Speed: Do you work with the same crew on the truck at each race, or do the members of the crew change from one event to the next?
Chris Hillen: With about 20 men on the CCWS Safety Team and 16 required for an event, the crews rotate. The physicians and crew chiefs, who are Lon Bromley (Safety 1) David Hollander (Safety 2) and Mike Carey (Safety 3) work every event.
Mecca of Speed: How many safety teams are stationed around a track on a race weekend?
Chris Hillen: We have three safety trucks on station and the PS1 (Pit Safety One) with a staff of two in the pits during events.
Mecca of Speed: Standard race practice is to always follow the direction of the track. When you are finished with an incident do you rotate to a new position, or do you follow the track around to the location you were at previously?
Chris Hillen: I have done both at the discretion of Race Control and the Chief Steward. It is a decision usually based on time constraints.
Mecca of Speed: Could you give us an outline of your schedul during a race weekend, starting from when you leave home for a race to your return home?
Chris Hillen: Most of us fly in to the event location on Thursday and check in to the team hotel. Some international venues require a few hours setup, which we do on Thursday afternoon.
During the days of an event, our team arrives at the Safety “Compound” by 6:30 AM. Truck assignments are made and all equipment is checked, run, fueled, and inventoried. Tire pressure, fluid levels, emergency lights and fire pumps are also checked on every vehicle, including the backup truck. We then discuss our roles and responsibilities with local fire, EMS and wrecker crews.
Spare oil dry and extinguishers are brought out to our stations. Next, we perform a track inspection. The racing surface is cleaned by Safety 5, which can be easily identified by the jet engine mounted on the back used to clean the racing surface.
During active sessions we are in full time radio contact with race control and handle any situations or request made during the session.
During down time between sessions, we train and catch a bite to eat.
After the days events we collect racecars that has been moved to safe locations during a race or practice session and return them to the team. We drop off any car parts at “Tech” for inspection and re-supply our trucks as needed.
At the end of an event, if the next event is an international race, we do a precise inventory of everything for a customs manifest. After a quick shower, crewmembers fly home Sunday night or Monday morning.
Mecca of Speed: Does the CCWS Safety Team provide on track safety for all the support series on a race weekend?
Chris Hillen: CCWS Safety Team provides safety for our sanctioned series and its participants. The Champ Cars, Atlantics, two seat show car, and the pace cars, the entire CCWS community are our responsibility.
Mecca of Speed: Is there a difference in safety protocol between oval, street, and road courses?
Chris Hillen: All three present distinctly different challenges.
Ovals tend to have high-speed incidents, with lengthy debris fields. Fluid spills on an oval must be dealt with immediately. Incidents are always full course yellow, with all three trucks rolling.
Street Circuits have limited visibility, can be quite narrow and necessitate careful placement of vehicles to prevent track blockage.
Road courses can involve large sand/gravel traps, where we may have to use a Gehl lift to move racecars. At street and road courses we may use a local yellow, or deploy only one or two trucks.
Mecca of Speed: All things considered, is there any part of your involvement with the CCWS Safety Crew that you find the most satisfying?
Chris Hillen: I can’t think of a more exciting part time job to have. I have had the privilege to travel to Australia, Japan, Brazil, England and multiple locations throughout North America. It has been an honor to work along side some of the “best in the business.”
Content credit Chris Hillen and John Vatne. Photo credit Chris Hillen.