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IndyCar drivers find comfort in having strong safety team

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Dario Franchitti doesn't remember the crash that ended his career three years ago in Houston.

What he does recall is that the first voice he heard afterward instantly put him at ease.

''Trammell is that you?'' Franchitti said, referring to IndyCar safety consultant Dr. Terry Trammell. ''You always feel very good when people you know and trust are around you, especially when you take a big hit and everything is so confusing.''

Having the Holmatro Safety Team behind them should be a comforting thought for all 33 drivers starting Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

How do they know? Because they've seen this team make the hard work look routine.

Take last May, when the usually anonymous team members became a sensation at Indianapolis after James Hinchcliffe sustained a life-threatening wound to his upper left thigh in a frightening wreck during practice for the Indy 500.

Like Franchitti, Hinchcliffe remembers nothing about the crash itself, partly because of the hard hit and partly because of medication administered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What he does know is that without the incredibly quick reactions from this 27-person crew, he wouldn't be on the pole for the 100th running of the race.

''They were the first step in getting me through what I had to get through,'' Hinchcliffe said Thursday. ''There were 100 things that had to happen for me to be here, and they got me from 1 to 10. If those 10 boxes aren't checked, I don't get to step 11.''

Series officials have spent more than three decades changing protocol and improving techniques only to discover that when real crashes happen at perilously high speeds, nothing falls neatly into place.

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When the crew pulled Hinchcliffe out of the car last year, it didn't know a broken suspension part had punctured the tub of the cockpit and impaled Hinchcliffe's leg - until he was out of the car - because the injury occurred underneath the seat. Once he was out, the team moved quickly.

''We got lucky in getting him out and once we got him on a cot, we realized he was bleeding pretty profusely,'' said Mike Yates, IndyCar's manager of track safety operations. ''Myself and Matt Stewart treated him in the ambulance with compression bandages to slow the bleeding and Dr. Andrew Stevens monitored everything on the way to Methodist Hospital. One we got to the emergency room, things started rolling. I think that allowed them (at the hospital) to have an action plan.''

Since then, Yates said, IndyCar has developed a new tool that allows safety workers to cut a driver out of the car in the situation with the broken piece still in the leg, which would prevent the bleeding from becoming life-threatening.

The Holmatro team travels to every IndyCar race. NASCAR relies on different staffs at each track, though some medical staff also travels for the stock car series. Following the Hinchcliffe wreck, Joey Logano and six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said having a group of emergency medical experts familiar with stock cars might help.

Yates counsels crew members, many of whom are trained firefighters and EMTs, on how to deal with the potentially difficult scenes they're likely to encounter on a race track - and the emotions that go with trying to help someone they know.

''You have to harness that adrenaline to the good and you can't let it control you,'' he said. ''You just need to be focused and do the things you're trained to do. The emotions can come later, but the adrenaline thing is something you have to get used to.''

The drivers have to trust these experts whose job is to bail them out of potentially dangerous situations. To help create that rapport, Franchitti asked Yates several years ago to introduce the safety team to the drivers.

The upside, as Yates explains, is that more information from healthy drivers allows his team to get a better sense of when something, such as a concussion, is truly wrong.

But ultimately, when it comes time to focus in the most difficult circumstances, there's nobody IndyCar drivers believe in more than this safety team .

''For me, that trust was there from Day 1,'' Hinchcliffe said. ''There's no doubt my relationship with some of those guys is stronger now than it was a year ago, and I give them all of the credit for what they did for me.''