Hendricks oversees racetrack safetyWritten by David Steffen | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Combine cars, gasoline, the occasional spark and high speeds, and the situation at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) could become volatile. But Fire and Safety Director Shawn Hendricks and his crew work tirelessly to make sure it never does. They train for the worst-case scenario, as well as just in case.
The pressure’s on during the 30-second period when a race car pauses for refueling and tire changes.
“When they start down the pit stop, it’s somewhat of a stressful time,” Hendricks said.
As the pit crew scrambles to refuel the car, replace tires and clear the car for takeoff, dangers arise. Hendricks said tire changing poses risks, since lug-nut removal can create sparks within close range of gasoline fumes. Pit fires could potentially ignite and flying tires from quick changes could pose a risk.
But he said during his two-year tenure, there have never been any catastrophic incidents.
“Knock on wood,” he said, rapping on his desktop.
Hendricks first came to MIS as a firefighter six years ago. Today, he oversees the combined safety efforts of 236 crew members involved in fire fighting, EMS, wreckers, jet dryers, sweeping and cleanup.
He monitors races from the pit road and relies heavily on his hearing to detect accidents. An over-revving engine or the tell-tale sound of impact alerts him to problems.
Television monitors give him a panoramic view of the track, and radio earpieces help him keep tabs on safety teams around the track.
Only a red flag — or a major incident that freezes a race — would lead Hendricks out onto the track.
“The only time we’d go forward over to the track is if something went severely wrong,” he said.
Hendricks and the safety crew prepare year round for each season, which typically lasts from May to October. Every January, he travels to Charlotte, N.C., to receive NASCAR safety updates and training. He helps coordinate the safety crew’s emergency drills, as well, including mock fire emergencies. Crews practice extinguishing the flames, he said.
In addition to his 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job in Oregon, Hendricks works weekends at MIS.
“Once it opens in May, I don’t have any days off until we finish the last race in September or October,” he said.
But his dedication to his job and colleagues keeps him coming back. And supportive loved ones help grease the career wheels.
“I love it. I’m really lucky my wife lets me do it,” he said with a laugh.
It’s rewarding to see his safety crew work like clockwork while on nationally televised racing events, Hendricks said. He has also developed a bond with the men and women on the safety crew. He appreciates their knowledge and calls them “phenomenal.”
“The thing that keeps me wanting to go back is the people,” he said. “There are guys who have worked there since the track opened.”
Despite the long hours and the hard work, Hendricks said it’s rewarding to help ensure everyone’s safety at MIS.
“It’s probably one of the best things a person could ever do,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it. I really enjoy the job.”