Volunteer makes track safe for NASCAR drivers
Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 27, 2000
Randy Durbin was born to protect. He serves as a firefighter at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and a police officer in Fort Deposit and lately he has been using his skills to get one of the best views in the house during top-rated NASCAR events at Talladega Superspeedway.
A long-time racing fan, Durbin joined the pit firefighting crew at Talladega in 1992. Since then, he has not only met racers such as Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and others; he has also helped protect many of them from the dangers that can arise during races and the qualifying events prior to the main event.
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Durbin has been a firefighter for 20 years and when he moved to Alabama in 1992 he was already a NASCAR fan. When a friend asked if he wanted to work as a pit firefighter, he jumped at the opportunity.
"It's a combination of a love of the job and a love of the sport and the people who participate in it. When I first came to Alabama in 1992 I was interested in NASCAR and met a man who knew about Talladega and how to volunteer there. I thought it was a great way to enjoy the sport and do my job at the same time.
"It isn't an easy thing to become involved with. I was fortunate to have known someone who was already doing it. I had to take all my certificates and qualification papers to Talladega where they keep copies of them. They told me right away that I was qualified and wanted me to join the team," he said.
Usually the firefighters come from Alabama and Florida and are strictly supervised. They go through the drivers' pre-race meetings and know how to remove a car's safety net and steering wheel.
"We're about three feet from the car when it makes a pit stop. As soon as a car comes in, you're right behind the wall near the gas man," he said.
In his turnout gear, he gets to work side-by-side with famous racers. But, there isn't a lot of time of rubbing shoulders as there are many rules that he must follow while on the job.
"It has been a lot of fun and very rewarding," he said. "You take the opportunity as a privilege, but there are a lot of rules. You have to stay in tune with what is going on because you never know when something is going to happen."
One of those rules is that Durbin must stay beside the pit of the drivers that he has been assigned to. One of the perks of the being on the job of eight years is that Durbin usually can request which drivers he wants to work with and most of the time he has gotten to work with Earnhardt and Wallace.
Since his first time out, Durbin has learned that his responsibility as a firefighter is taken very seriously at Talladega.
"It's a lot more involved than I thought it would be. When you first start you have to be quick on your feet. There are a lot of things you have to know, especially when it comes to pulling a driver out of a car. You have to be able to do it quickly without harming him," he said.
Things are very fast-paced on the Superspeedway and Durbin always has to keep an eye out for anything. In one race his face shield was shattered by a flying lugnut from a car that had pulled into the pit for a tire change.
Working side-by-side with the pit crew has proved to be a fun experience as well.
"I thought the pit crews would think I was someone who would get in their way. But, the drivers and the crews are always complimentary and are very nice. I just go and tell them who I am and what I'm doing and they are always grateful to me and usually tell me to use their water whenever I get thirsty," he said.
With cars speeding around one of the fastest tracks in the country there are bound to be incidents that require Durban's skills to come into play.
"Almost every race has some type of incident that could be dangerous. A few years ago, Earnhardt
was going down the front stretch when he hit Terry LeBonte's car and he tumbled 17 times. His car was on fire and I had to get him out. He ended up being all right thanks to NASCAR having the best safety equipment available. This allows us to do our job better," he said.
While observing from the pits, Durbin has to deal with heat that most people would consider unbearable.
"We have to be ready for anything which means we have to keep our bunkers (turnout gear) on. In the stands it may be 90 degrees, on the track it will be about 120 degrees. With the bunkers on it can be as hot as 150 degrees. It is nothing for me to lose six pounds during the weekend of a race. I will take my helmet off from time to time to get air, but we have to be ready just in case there is a problem," he said.
"My scariest moment was in 1993 when a flash fire ignited the vapors and they traveled up to the gas man and around the car," Durbin said. "You alert the driver and begin putting the fire out. Within a ten-second period, everything's back to normal, you're cleaning up dry chemicals and checking on the gas man."
Durbin's next race at Talladega is in October when the Winston 500 rolls into the Superspeedway.
No one will be getting Durbin's place along the track as he plans to continue serving as a firefighter at the Superspeedway for years to come.
"As long as the good Lord will allow me to walk to the track I will be there. I have no intention of stopping and hopefully I can continue doing it for a long time," he said.