It’s hard to fathom how the contributions of a single person could fundamentally alter the sport of IndyCar racing, but that’s precisely what Carl Horton brought upon his arrival in the early 1980s.
The native of Flint, Michigan, who died earlier this month at the age of 87, might be a name of mystery to most of today’s NTT IndyCar Series drivers. Collectively, though, they have Horton to thank for the immense sense of security they feel whenever their lives are risked on the racetrack.
The founder of The Horton Safety Team, known today as the AMR Safety Team, revolutionized IndyCar during the CART era by introducing new concepts, vehicles, and mobile medical units that did not exist prior to Horton’s arrival. With his primary business in the manufacturing of ambulances, Horton applied his real-world knowledge to the comparatively primitive state of emergency and medical response vehicles, forever changing the sport.
In place of tow trucks, fire trucks, and crude hearses that acted as ambulances, Horton fashioned the first all-purpose response trucks for CART, combining driver extrication tools like the “Jaws of Life” to cut away the cockpit enclosure if needed, water tanks, hoses, and extinguishers capable of managing small fires, and more, all with a dedicated safety team staff onboard who were highly trained and adept at managing everything from harmless spins to major crashes and trauma.
And if the incidents meant the driver or crew member required medical attention, Horton ensured IndyCar had a state-of-the-art solution on wheels that, for the first time in its history, would travel to every event.
“Besides the emergency response trucks, we went through four iterations of his medical vehicles for our use,” said renowned IndyCar doctor Terry Trammel. “First, we had a one of Carl’s first box ambulances; it’s commonplace now, but it was really unusual then. Then we outgrew that because the crew was expanding, and Carl recognized that, so that’s when he put together a fifth-wheel trailer for us. That was one of the first mobile trauma centers really, like a mobile emergency room, and it had just one trauma bed in the back.
“Then we went to a new coach that was outfitted with two trauma beds in the back. And eventually we outgrew that and ended up with a 50-foot expandable trailer that wasn’t too far from what we have today. It had all kinds of tricked-out stuff. I thought that was the coolest thing. I never had anything that good in a hospital operating room. But that was Carl’s whole deal. As soon as we start to feel cramped in a scenario, he’d find something bigger, better. Built the trailer and everything else with his own money.
“Carl and I, Dr. Steve Olvey, we all worked together a lot. He’d give us a pencil and paper and say, ‘Draw me what you need or what you want.’ And that’s what we get. He was super dedicated to the delivery of the trauma services and track safety services, the trucks, and made sure we got all the latest and greatest stuff.”
In today’s world of racing, Martyn Thake is known as a circuit designer and safety consultant, with both areas of expertise developed while serving as a member riding within one of the yellow, orange, and red trucks on the Horton Safety Team.
“I joined the team in 1987; (the late) Lon Bromley and I started the very same day,” Thake said. “Carl was probably the most unassuming guy I ever met. There was a CART race in Michigan and he saw a crash happen and didn’t care for what he saw with the emergency reaction to it, so instead of sitting on the sidelines and bitching about it, the man opened his own checkbook and started the process of solving it and fixing it. If it hadn’t been for a combination of Carl Horton and (CART chief steward) Wally Dallenbach, who always had a plan and agreed to finance it, things would have been done in a half-assed way.
“Carl was really forward-thinking on some stuff, and he’d sit down and let his mind work in a way that was always searching for a better way to do this, and it wasn’t always going to be a cheaper way to do this. He and his wife Judy were totally dedicated to making racing safer. He was a visionary. If Wally had an idea for something, or one of us would have an idea, Carl would have the resources in the shop to knock out prototypes, and he’d come to the track with a new toy or a piece to try.
“The way he went from the building of the safety trucks and how they evolved from just regular pickups to the custom-built GMC Duallys with all the safety equipment on board for us to deploy when we got to the driver. What Carl came up with in the ’80s is effectively the same thing everyone is using today.”
Although Horton’s vast impact was initially made in CART, his core contributions with emergency vehicles, mobile medical facilities, and a travelling safety team have been replicated — in part, or in whole — by every major racing series on a domestic and international level.
“I spent about an hour one afternoon trying to get a driver out of a wrecked car in Toronto,” Trammel said. “And it would have taken 10 minutes today, because you just gotta go through one of the ports in the front of the car and cut the pedal stems off to get their feet clear. But we didn’t have anything to do that back then, and the jaws wouldn’t fit in there, and some of the other tools we had were just were too big, and the small stuff wasn’t powerful enough.
“So, Carl saw what we went through to get this poor driver out, went back to his shop after the race, and he came up with a hydraulic cutter that was small enough and powerful enough to slice right through the pedals for the next time it happened so we could get them out quicker and get to working on them. I always laugh because it was like I’d just hold my hand out, and if the tool didn’t exist, or we didn’t have the right tools, Carl would go and make it and the next time you got in that situation, you’d have the right tool put in your hand.
“Through all of those crashes and incidents, and all the things we learned, Carl kept coming up with all these little solutions, or big solutions, and when they’re combined, it’s a lot of the safety standards and equipment we’ve come to know in racing today that he and his team created. It was never a big deal for Carl; just about getting it done.”
Thake has a similar appreciation for Horton’s selfless approach to helping and saving the lives of countless drivers.
“I’ve worked in a few corporate structures, and you always come up against someone that says, ‘Well, what’s the cost-benefit ratio, and how much is the life worth, or a limb worth?’” he said. “And Carl was like, ‘****that. We’ve got to stop these guys from getting hurt. We can’t be having fires and not be able and prepared to put them out. We can’t be unprepared for any situation. We’ve got to stop this.’ And so, he changed everything about the safety side of racing that he didn’t like. Wouldn’t be stopped. Carl was a pioneer.”
Horton is survived by his wife Judy, four children, and numerous grandchildren.