Volunteers provide racetrack safety at Willamette Speedway

Every summer, the roar of high-octane racing can be heard across Lebanon as Willamette Speedway offers entertainment to racetrack enthusiasts. It’s a thrill many drivers love to participate in, but it can also be a dangerous one.

The emergency response crew at the Willamette Speedway dedicates itself to make sure the drivers have a safe night, and is made up of volunteers who have a background in medical and firefighting experience.

While the work can be dangerous, they all seem to agree it’s all about having fun and enjoying the relationships they build together.

Doug Van Sant owns and operates Extreme Fire & Rescue, the emergency response company that works on the track at Willamette Speedway. He’s been volunteering his firefighting and EMT services at Willamette Speedway and other speedways along the West Coast for almost 25 years.

Van Sant got into the business by chance, when a friend asked him to help at the Eugene race track for one race, he said. It “stuck” since that day, and now he operates three trucks and adds to his equipment when he can.

“I started out with a backboard and basically a Band-Aid box,” said Van Sant, a Eugene resident and electrician by trade. What he does for Willamette Speedway is “just a hobby,” he said.

While Extreme Fire & Rescue does receive some monetary compensation from the speedway, Van Sant uses those funds to purchase fuel, replenish equipment, and fix any breakdowns they might have, he said.

Assistant Chief Guy Miller of the Halsey-Shedd Fire Department has been volunteering on the safety crew for three years, along with his lieutenant, Josh Harris. They joined after they saw the safety crew assist during a race, and they thought it would be fun.

Miller said Van Sant has put together a top-notch team.

“With the Extreme crew he’s put together, he’s really stepped up here,” he said. “With the trucks and equipment we got, with the training we try to keep under our belts, and just learning from each other, it flows.”

Most of the volunteers have a background as a firefighter or EMT, and they all come from outside of Lebanon. That is, except for one.

Rick Barnes was the only safety crew member from Lebanon, and he’d been volunteering at Willamette Speedway for at least 25 years, Van Sant said. He was always stationed at Turn 3, and his job was to send the cars onto the track.

Barnes died in March.

“He was like a father figure to us,” Van Sant said.

He was the guy who would always remember a birthday and bring Christmas presents for the families, he said. And every single morning Barnes would text a joke to the crew.

Like Van Sant, Joel Imamura from Halsey has an emergency services background and joined the safety crew after helping out for a night.

“It’s a lot of fun, and we’re a close-knit family. I trust these guys with my life,” Imamura said.

Tony Hadeed, a firefighter in Portland, has been volunteering at the speedway for nine years.

“I started doing it just for fun because Doug invited me, and the racetrack kind of became a family for me,” he said. “The EMS has always been a big part of my life, and it’s an opportunity to come down here and help out with medical services and spend time with good friends.”

As a firefighter, Hadeed is used to structure fires, but he said the work they do at the speedway is much different.

When there’s a structure fire, or even a car crash, firefighters have 10 to 15 minutes to get ready and arrive on scene, he said. Meanwhile, the dispatcher is relaying information to them, so they have time to mentally prepare for what to expect.

“Here, you watch it happen. You don’t have that response time,” Hadeed said.

At the speedway, crew members have about 100 feet in which to decide what to do, he said.

“It’s really exciting; it’s like a five-hour adrenaline rush,” Van Sant added.

Nearly every race has a flip, crash or fire, he said.

During races,  crew members post themselves in emergency trucks near Turns 1 and 4.

“We have to be at our highest readiness all the time,” Van Sant said. “You just sit there and anticipate.”

They keep eyes on the cars, looking for anything that might seem out of the ordinary for a race car, he said.

Van Sant recalled one incident when a car stopped for no apparent reason. When crew members  checked on the driver, they found the driveline had broken, punched through the firewall and broken the driver’s arm.

“You just never know what you’re going to find,” Van Sant said.

Drivers are less concerned about a crash or flip than they are about catching fire, Van Sant noted.

“You have 20 to 25 gallons of race fuel that’s very explosive,” he said. “We’ve had oil fires and brake fires, but the fuel is the biggest thing.”

Drivers wear harnesses and helmets while racing, but they might also opt for fire-retardant clothing and other safety gear.

“It’s up to the drivers of the car to get the best safety equipment,” Van Sant said.

Harris pointed out the crew wears a lot of hats. Not only do they watch for accidents, but they also remove debris from the racetrack and dust dirt over oil spills. They sometimes even help people in the stands or control any fights that might break out, he said.

“We aren’t necessarily just track crew. We come outside the track and do anything related to safety,” Harris said.

Van Sant likes to keep his crew ready for anything. They watch videos of other racetrack crashes, and practice for any situation they might expect.

“We have some mock cars that we practice extrications, fires, rollovers, and stuff like that,” Van Sant said.

Even though the safety crew volunteers their time for a very serious job, it’s all about fun and family to them. After the races they gather around the campfire as such.

“The biggest thing is just making sure everybody goes home every night after having fun, even if they’ve been in a bad wreck and they can go home to their loved ones and come back to race the next week,” Miller said.