The Rapid Response Documentary Transforms The Tragedy Of Death In IndyCar Into Romanticized Spectacle

Gif: A Mile A Way Productions (YouTube)

On September 6, Rapid Response will hit theaters. This film—based on the book of the same name, which has recently been re-released—is ostensibly about the vast safety improvements made by American open-wheel racing as a result of one doctor and his dedicated team. But if you’re looking for a serious and in-depth treatment of this topic, you’ll have to look somewhere else. Unlike the book, Rapid Response the film turns death into something more like gore porn.

Before I dive into the movie, let’s take a closer look at the book. Rapid Response in text form is a 300-odd page autobiography from Dr. Steve Olvey, who basically spent the entirety of his medical career serving to build and define the safety protocols currently in place in the American open wheel racing world.

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An Indiana native, Olvey had been attending the Indy 500 for years during one of the race’s most dangerous eras. After graduating from medical school in 1969, Olvey started volunteering as part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s medical team, which at the time was pretty laughable. There were people ready to respond to crashes, yes, but it was pretty rare that those people would know what they were doing or even have the equipment to attempt to do it.

Rapid Response, the book, does a great job blending Olvey’s passion for the sport with the brutal scenes he witnessed and the medical procedures he and other doctors implemented to save the lives of drivers throughout the years. I’d recommend it to any racing fan, honestly; you get a perspective of how safety innovations changed throughout motorsport generally, be it in NASCAR or the FIA. Olvey reminds us of how far we’ve come—and how far we have yet to go.

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Unfortunately, the film version falls desperately short of its mark.

I previewed Rapid Response with my husband, and I have to admit that I did go in with some preconceptions. Hazel Southwell, a freelance journalist who has contributed some great work to Jalopnik, previewed the film before I did and tweeted about how her impression was marred by the extreme frequency of grotesque scenes:

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I’m sure most motorsport fans have seen horrific wrecks. We know the dangers of motorsport. Initially, I didn’t see how Rapid Response could be any more grotesque than, say, 1, the documentary about F1's similar battle for safety. But after speaking to Southwell personally, I decided to count all of the tough-to-watch moments.

I opted to count crash scenes (including repeats, so long as they were from a different angle), deaths, drivers physically injured inside their cockpit, extraction scenes, drivers exhibiting painful physical injuries outside of the car, and even surgeries. In the span of the next 99 minutes, my count exceeded 150 such scenes.

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I thought I was going to be able to handle it with no problems—1 is a favorite film of mine, after all, and it contained its fair share of death—but less than a half hour in, I had to pause Rapid Response and seek out a stiff drink before I could settle down to watch the rest.

After we hit the credits, my husband (who’s also a big racing fan) and I had a long talk about the movie that lasted well into the night. For me, the sheer number of crashes took away from the storyline. I wasn’t able to follow what was happening. Olvey would be narrating his experience of a crash scene and the changes the sanctioning bodies were making, and I found myself unable to actually pay attention to the narrative because I was gawping at severed limbs and mangled aluminum. I didn’t leave the film knowing much more about the evolution of safety than I did going into it. Gore porn—that’s what I kept thinking of.

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My husband disagreed. While he was visibly upset during the movie itself, he later said that he thought the crashes could be instructive in the sense that it really drives home how dangerous American open wheel racing has been. You can’t look away. You have to witness what’s happening. Rapid Response forces you to.

I can see where he’s coming from, but I can’t bring myself to buy it. Being horrified isn’t necessarily instructive—I know I was certainly put off by the movie.

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There are crash photos and lengthy descriptions of brutal scenes in Olvey’s book, yes. But there, the purpose actually was instructive. The film felt like it was often showing you these scenes out of some macabre amusement, the kind of deadly romanticization we as a society associate with things like 1970s racing or even with war. The book actually described what Olvey was doing.

Most trackside safety and medical response was developed on the fly as an answer to something that was happening right there in front of you. Olvey describes trackside tracheotomies, brains splattered across the pavement, and feet smashed so badly they no longer resemble appendages. But he describes it with a critical and detached voice—he is a doctor, after all—following it up with what he learned and then how the sanctioning body responded.

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He includes the research he and fellow orthopedic doctor Terry Trammell were conducting in response to these extreme events. In short, there was a reason, a lesson, or a purpose included on the page for every drop of blood spilled. It wasn’t just body horror for its own sake.

The inherent problem with the film is that you don’t get all that. You only get crash footage. No one was sticking a camera in Olvey’s face while he was pulling a driver out of a car, or in the helicopter taking a driver to the hospital, so you could see what was going on—what I’d consider the real meat of the story. You don’t experience it from Olvey’s perspective. Instead, you’re inundated with impersonal crash footage that doesn’t convey any of the story Rapid Response is supposed to tell. And, as an added slap in the face, many of the crash scenes just serve as B-roll. Old crashes are repeated to create a deathly ambiance—they aren’t even mentioned in the film.

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I wish filmmakers had gone a different route. One of the high points of the documentary were the animations and illustrations depicting what actually happens to the human body when sustaining crashes at high G forces. These often included examples of the scientific research Olvey and Trammell were conducting at the time; some of the first of its kind.

I think it would have been a more illuminating experience if the film had cut down on the most brutal scenes. Instead of repeating an accident over and over while Olvey talks in the background there could be animations replicating the accident in slow motion as well as the treatment the driver underwent.

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The brutality wasn’t the only criticism I had regarding the film. As you might have noticed, I’ve used the phrase “American open wheel racing” in this review rather than IndyCar or something different. That’s because Olvey was operating in an era where USAC, IRL, CART, Champ Car, and the Championship Racing League all came and went as open wheel sanctioning bodies.

The constant splitting of series actually played a huge role in impacting how safety measures were developed. It’s one thing to be part of a successful series that’s able to fund a million-dollar mobile medical facility. It’s quite another to be suddenly stripped of all that cash flow, leaving progress to stagnate.

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Rapid Response never touches on this, often just referring to all American open-wheel as “IndyCar” (or, occasionally, by a different name with no explanation), which is objectively incorrect. Discussing The Split would have taken time, yes, and wasn’t the main point of the movie. But it was definitely connected to safety evolution. It needed to be mentioned. Even a quick image of a family tree would have been helpful.

That had me wondering who this movie is actually for. Hardcore American open-wheel fans who already know about The Split or safety advancements in racing probably aren’t going to learn anything new. People new to American open-wheel, or who are only familiar with modern IndyCar, aren’t going to get an adequate look at the history of safety. In my eyes, everyone considering watching the movie would do a lot better to just read the book instead.

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I was also frustrated by the ending of the movie. It leaves off on Alex Zanardi’s triumphant return to racing in Germany after the accident that saw him lose both his legs. It’s a positive ending, yes—but it misrepresents, well… a lot.

If the film is to be a visual biography of Olvey, that wasn’t his final event providing safety. If you also watched Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, you’ll see interviews with Dr. Trammell functioning as a medical specialist in this current iteration of IndyCar. As Olvey notes in the final chapter of the newly released 2019 version of his book, he left IndyCar during the Split negotiations only to return as an occasional advisor later. He offers insight into more recent crashes that Rapid Response doesn’t touch on: Greg Moore, Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson. Much of the last 20 years of American open-wheel is just… left out.

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The implication is that racing is still in the position it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with a flood of money pouring via partnerships with big automakers and safety exponentially improving. However, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Because the political situations are pretty much nixed from the film, viewers don’t see the decline in interest that occurred in American open-wheel, with funding subsequently drying up and more injuries still happening. The end of the film seems to imply that it was all just well and good.

And that was one of the most frustrating things about Rapid Response. The documentary shows the groundbreaking work that American open-wheel did in the realm of safety and on-track medical care, that’s undeniable. However, there is still a mindset a lot of race fans have that no one is allowed to critique current issues on the merits of the past achievements.

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American open-wheel racing implemented HANS devices and developed SAFER barriers before anyone else, they say, and so therefore we cannot critique the need for more cockpit head protection or updated catch fencing (after all, people have argued, no one has done more for safety than IndyCar).

The implication that things are mostly fine in the modern era and not really worth touching on perpetuates what I see as a frankly pretty dangerous mindset. Racing is still dangerous, and relying on the past to justify complacency in the present and future just seems silly. Even Olvey notes the areas of racing that need improvement at the end of his book—head injuries are still presenting problems, as is the lack of appropriate, updated catch fencing at most of the tracks IndyCar races at. None of this is mentioned in the film.

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There were parts that I enjoyed. The interviews with Parnelli Jones and Bobby Unser were actually incredible. You get to hear from the guys who survived the most dangerous era of racing and came out on the other side maintaining their devil-may-care attitude. Interviews with Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, too, were very interesting—especially regarding the events of the cancelled 2001 race at Texas Motor Speedway.

I was also really glad to see head injuries talked about in depth, given that these are currently one of the bigger problems plaguing motorsport. They did a great job illustrating the rapid rotation of the brain inside the skull, how you don’t necessarily need to whack into any walls to develop a concussion.

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A topic of this gravity justifies a better film and a deeper dive than viewers actually got here, which treats death as merely a spectacle to create shock factor. The book is worth your time—just watch the film at your own risk.

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About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.