Funny where a photo can lead you.
Just ask Jake Steele, the chief director of track services at Kalamazoo Speedway, whose 10-man crew is responsible for clearing the racetrack and facilitating the care of injured drivers after a crash.
Kalamazoo Track Services has been in operation for nearly 30 years, ensuring the safety of the drivers who compete and the fans who attend races at the speedway. The crew is employed by Kalamazoo Speedway owner Gary Howe and is entrusted with maintaining a clean, safe racing surface for every event at the track.
Steele (full disclosure: he’s the half-brother of this story’s author) and fellow crew members Terry Kizer, who is also Alamo Township Fire Chief, and Sam Corradini, track services coordinator at the Speedway, decided to expand the role of KTS by offering track safety training to crews of other tracks. In the spring of 2016, they held their first training session, a four-hour program that drew a dozen participants from two tracks in the state of Michigan — Kalamazoo and Spartan speedways.
A few months later, in July 2016, Steele, 29, came across a photo on social media of a racing accident at Bakersfield Speedway in California that showed a race car burned completely to the ground, with only its steel frame and drivetrain left on the dirt racing surface. Steele learned the Bakersfield track had only one fire extinguisher and no designated track safety crew. The driver was lucky to escape with his life.
In the comments section of the photo post, Steele struck up a dialogue with motorsports personality Mitch Walker. Steele wrote that he wanted to improve his own crew’s skills and the training KTS was providing, and Walker suggested he contact Paul Lapaire, the architect of a unique safety training prop: a rollover simulator. Steele reached out to Lapaire, who lives in New Mexico, to ask how to build a similar prop for his crew, but after a two-hour phone conversation Lapaire’s simulator was his.
“He basically said he had had the simulator for over 12 years and was getting ready for retirement so we could come pick it up. … He wanted to donate it to us. We just had to pick it up from New Mexico,” Steele says.
By the next March, the three men had the rollover simulator from Lapaire and a cutaway simulator for extraction training they built themselves to use in teaching track safety.
“That’s where we (KTS) really took off. We really went from (training) our crew to (training) 50 people in a two-, three-year span,” Steele says.
In April, KTS hosted its fourth annual spring training: a two-day, 16-hour program that drew nearly 50 people, including track owners, track safety crew members and racing promoters from Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York to the Kalamazoo Speedway. The training featured four interactive stations: mass casualty incidents/triage, fuel burn, rollover extrication and wrecker rollover. Classroom topics ranged from EMS response to track safety regulations. Steele says the goal of the training KTS provides is to make all track safety teams better, including those in Kalamazoo.
“We’re not … the only way to do it. We’re just a way that works for us,” Steele says. “There’s a lot of good ideas, and I think every training weekend we’ve taken ideas from other crews and implemented them into our own.”
Overall, the KTS crew is in awe of how successful the training program has been.
“I don’t think we ever thought we’d be trailblazers in anything,” Steele says. “We’re amazed every day at how this program has developed and how this crew has developed. I don’t think there was ever an expectation of getting big — we honestly thought we would just do an open training at our speedway once a year and that would be our training program. I’m amazed that we’re still doing it and people are still listening to us.”
Kalamazoo’s track safety crew covers all Kalamazoo Speedway events, from April to September, ensuring the safety of roughly 110 drivers and 6,500 fans. Six crew members work the track at any given race, and races are typically held once a week, on Friday nights.
When the racing season ends in late September, the majority of the crew begins enjoying their off-season, but not Steele, Kizer and Corradini — they get right to work on improving track safety for the next spring.
“We’re good at what we do because what we do doesn’t stop in September and start in April,” Kizer says. “What we do started in April when we all met each other years ago, and it’s just continued.”
In 2016, these core KTS members began making an annual December trip to Indianapolis for the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show. The multi-day event showcases the latest advancements in racing products and race engineering. In 2017, KTS was asked to bring its rollover simulator and cutaway simulator to the show as teaching tools. It was there that the core KTS members met with members of the SFI Foundation, a nonprofit that tests and certifies racing equipment such as fire suits and safety belts.
Working with SFI representatives, KTS helped to develop the very first circle-track safety course, outlining what tracks need in terms of certified equipment, emergency plans and medical accommodations. Previously, SFI had a safety course and standards in place only for drag racing at tracks like Martin’s US 131 Motorsports Park. Steele, Kizer and Corradini taught the first SFI-certified circle-track course at their annual spring training in 2018, which Steele says was a significant step forward for the racing community in terms of unifying under one set of safety guidelines.
As KTS’ spring training program has grown, a greater emphasis has been placed on developing and discussing scenarios that are “outside the box,” according to Steele. During last year’s training, the crew led trainees in an open discussion on how to address and respond to an active shooter. This year they discussed an action plan for a mass casualty event such as a race car crashing into the crowd in the grandstands.
“Anything could happen,” Kizer says. “The day we as track safety personnel or we as human beings say that we’ve seen it all and quit trying to learn something new and quit trying to expand our horizons on what could happen … that’s when we’re going to get surprised … . We will look back and wish we took that next step, and we didn’t, you know. That’s why we do it.”
To that end, the core KTS members are building a new training prop to simulate engine fires, while continuing to teach the SFI circle-track course and redefine weekly roles at the speedway with fellow track safety crew members.
“It’s not in our blood to not try to expand,” Corradini says. “I mean you can’t just sit idle. You can always be learning something.”