Mike Yates was stationed in the south chute of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, between Turns 1 and 2, when Danny Sullivan spun in front of Mario Andretti in 1985.
Sullivan’s “Spin and Win” Indianapolis 500 was Yates’ first as a member of what is now known as the Holmatro Safety Team. He’s learned so much since from fellow firefighters, paramedics and doctors, the many unheralded heroes who have sped onto that track and reacted quickly to restore some semblance of control in a sport that at its dangerous peak – when there is a crash – can be utter chaos.
After responding to so many calls and experiencing so many euphoric highs and tragic lows, Yates realizes it’s time to stay home.
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma that completed the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule on Sept. 18 is expected to be Yates’ last race away from Indianapolis as INDYCAR’s manager of track safety operations. Although he still plans to be part of the Holmatro Safety Team at IMS each May, it signifies the beginning of semi-retirement.
“They say when you’re ready, you know you are,” said Yates, 66. “I think I’m ready now. I’m going to miss the guys, the safety team, because they’re the best bunch of guys around, not only professionally but their personal lives. They’ve all got it together. It’s a privilege to be a part of that group. I’ll still be around. We’ll have our meetings; we just won’t live together on the road anymore.”
Should the need arise for him to make another trip next year, Yates will be ready. He always has been. But he and his wife, Sally, INDYCAR’s manager of finance, would like to retire together in a couple years. They just celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary. They have two grown children and six grandchildren. Future race weekends can be spent more with family.
A Warren Township firefighter for 15 years, Yates jumped at the chance to have a full-time job in racing. He considers himself lucky to have been paid to make a living from his hobby.
“I can keep up with the guys, but they feel a whole lot better than I do the next day after a busy race,” he said of body soreness. “I worked with a guy years ago, Bob Nolan, who told me, ‘You never want to embarrass the boss.’ If I get out there and get hurt, the media is not going to say I slipped in some oil or got injured the same way a 30-year-old or 40-year-old gets injured. It’s going to be, ‘Why does INDYCAR have a 66-year-old man out there doing what they’re doing?’ I feel like it’s time to step back and let the younger guys take over.”
Drivers quickly learn to appreciate the men in the Holmatro Safety Team orange firesuits. Indy car racing was the first major racing series to travel its own safety team to all races. Some other major racing series still rely on local rescue personnel at each track who may be qualified in general but don’t have the familiarity with the intricacies of the cars they’re dealing with or the personal and comforting connection to the drivers in their time of need.
After a crash, Yates is often the first face drivers see. Those expressing gratitude for his three decades of safety team work included Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, the newly crowned series champion who referred to Yates as “a guardian angel.”
One of the most appreciative is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, who has been well documented crediting the Holmatro Safety Team for its quick efforts that helped save his life after an Indianapolis 500 practice crash in 2015.
“It’s so comforting for us to know that we’ve got such a good crew that travels with us and, for so many years, has been led by a guy like Mike,” Hinchcliffe said. “There’s not a single driver in the paddock who hasn’t had an accident where Mike is the first guy straddling the car, making sure you’re all right.
“It’s like a big family in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He’s like the big brother who kind of looks out for everyone. He’s done so much great work for all of us. It’s going to be weird not seeing him at the racetrack anymore. His efforts and his contributions in furthering safety, keeping us all safe and in one piece and being able to get back into our race cars, it can’t be understated.
“We’re definitely going to miss him.”
One of the many photos in Yates’ INDYCAR office is of Hinchcliffe driving in a race at St. Petersburg, Fla. The No. 5 car is perfectly framed with a background “Holmatro” banner on the inside of the track wall. It’s a reminder of memorable success. It’s also a reminder that, in a time of distress, the bond Yates has with drivers is a comfort.
“Every time there’s a problem, it’s the same guy coming to you and asking if everything is OK,” said Pagenaud. “He knows us; he knows if we’re OK right away. Timing at that point is so important.”
Unfortunately, there have been accidents when the driver couldn’t be saved. That’s when the job takes its most extreme toll. Yates mentioned the losses of Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson and Scott Brayton. He was particularly close to Wheldon and thought about leaving the safety team after the driver’s 2011 death at Las Vegas.
“I almost stopped that year,” Yates admitted. “Danny and I, we were good buddies. That one hurt really bad.
“I had talked to a couple of the drivers down at Sebring (Fla.) at a test the next couple of weeks. We went out to dinner. I told them, ‘I don’t think I can come back.’ They said, ‘Well, if you don’t, you’ll never have closure. We’re coming back. Dan would kick your butt if you didn’t.’”
Yates is glad he stuck around. And after years of closure, he can talk about Wheldon without being overcome by emotion. But a bad accident is a reality that safety team members never forget.
“You never get used to that at all,” he said. “At the fire department, you don’t know these people when you respond to a home or a traffic accident. It breaks your heart when you see people in trouble like that or hurting real bad, but then when you add the fact we know these guys pretty well, that’s even worse.”
That’s what made the safety team’s actions in the Hinchcliffe crash so reaffirming. And the team continues to evolve. When Yates started, the first responders consisted of a pair of trucks with six firefighters, and it wasn’t nearly as organized as today.
“We just jumped off a truck, you saw what needed to be done and you did it,” Yates said. “The back end of those trucks was an accident waiting to happen. We had brooms and shovels and stuff just on the floor of the truck. We were in the back of a pickup truck.
“Two of us would sit on the hydraulic motors that ran our tools. The other two guys, we had two 30-gallon trash containers of oil dry, and those guys would sit on those things. Then we had these rails we’d hold onto. We used to have bets going down the main straightaway, if we blew a tire, would we clear or hit the fence? It was pretty wild. It was fun, though. It was addictive. We would go flat out around the track. You could drive those trucks at 100 mph in the turns.”
Yates, Tim Baughman and Matt Stewart eventually devised a more organized system with three four-man trucks. When the team responds to an accident these days, there are three areas of focus and each member has a responsibility.
There’s the impact point, where the driver of that Holmatro Safety Team truck looks at the facility, the paramedic checks on the spectator side of the wall and the other two firefighters clean up debris. The second sector is where the car involved comes to rest. One firefighter is in charge of incident command, another checks on the driver, a third extinguishes any fire and the fourth deals with fluid on the track. The third truck drops off three crewmen, in case tools are needed. If not, they start walking back toward the impact point to clean up debris while the truck makes a reconnaissance lap around the track.
“We used different tools up until Holmatro hydraulic rescue tools came on board,” Yates said. “Their tools fit what we do really well, like the jaws of life, we have hydraulic cutters. They help us along the way if we have an issue where the tools we presently have won’t get us to where we need to go, and they’re right on top of helping us develop a tool that will.
“That happened with Hinch. We had an issue with getting to where we needed to get to (to extricate Hinchcliffe quickly and safely from the car). We worked with Holmatro in the offseason to develop a way to get into that area we would need to get to if it happened again and it was worse.”
He described today’s Holmatro Safety Team operation as “methodical” and is proud to have been able to provide input in developing protocols. That hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Mike has put in years and years of hard work, not just when we really need him when we’re in accidents, but he’s everywhere we go, looking out for us, working with local safety crews and EMTs,” said Ed Carpenter, two-time Indy 500 pole sitter. “For me personally, my biggest crash I ever had in INDYCAR, he was the first face I saw. Luckily, we were able to laugh about it later.”
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves added: “Mike has left a great team and support. He was able to show the right direction. It’s sad news (his semi-retirement). I wish him all the best for the future and hopefully we’ll be able to see each other in different occasions.”
That opportunity should present itself down the road. Yates will still be at IMS in May. Regardless of how many more races he works, it’s been one hell of a fulfilling ride.
“I’ve had a good time,” Yates said.