Injured IndyCar Crewman wants series to do more for safety
Dan Wheldon's death last October focused intense scrutiny on improved driver safety going into Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500.
But a pit-crew member from Lake Havasu who suffered permanent leg injuries when hit by an IndyCar two weeks before Wheldon perished hopes his story will compel officials to fix what he considers safety, medical and insurance issues for those who risk their lives on pit road.
Eric Scheumann said he's so concerned -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's two-lane pit road is a narrow 39 feet, 2 inches wide -- that he's OK with being called a whistleblower.
"With the amount of pain and suffering I went through, it's all for naught if no one stands up to make a difference," Scheumann said last week. "At Indianapolis, if somebody gets killed on pit lane, I guarantee you they'd make changes before the next race. … Maybe me, (possibly) losing my leg, isn't enough."
Scheumann, then 34, was changing J.R. Hildebrand's inside rear tire Oct.2 at Kentucky Speedway. A Las Vegas firefighter -- he commuted via a Piper Cherokee -- Scheumann had 10 years experience with multiple teams. It was his first time crewing for Hildebrand, who lost the 2011 Indy 500 when he crashed on the last lap's last turn.
Hildebrand was running well in a race that had four pit-road accidents when he pitted for his last scheduled stop. Video from Hildebrand's in-car camera is chilling: He struck Scheumann, who, as is standard, was kneeling next to the pit wall.
"J.R. came in too fast," Scheumann said. "I faintly remember the entry looking different. It was only about a half-second from (when) he turned in to when he made contact with me, so there was no time to get out of the way. He drove straight into me."
Scheumann's lower left leg was shattered.
"The pain was excruciating," he said. "I remember thinking: 'I've lost everything. My life will never be the same.'"
His problems were just beginning.
Pit medical personnel were busy treating another team's injured crewman. A communications problem meant available safety trucks didn't respond. Scheumann eventually was flown by helicopter to the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center for surgery. He was transported to an Indianapolis rehabilitation facility four days later. His anterior-cruciate ligament needed reconstruction.
Scheumann became dissatisfied with a doctor arranged by the IndyCar Series (he's considering legal action). His leg wasn't healing, so Indianapolis Colts and U.S. Ski team trainers recommended he go to the Steadman orthopedic clinic in Vail, Colo. In February, he had bone graft, ankle, and muscle and tissue surgery.
"There's still a 5 percent chance I could lose my leg from my knee down," Scheumann said. "Every doctor says, 'You will never be able to do some things you used to do.'"
He learned IndyCar's $1million medical insurance pays only the first $50,000, then requires other available insurance to be applied before "excess" coverage begins. Their weekly disability benefit is just $300. Panther Racing's team policy has covered most of the estimated $700,000 in bills, plus $900 weekly disability, but future payments aren't certain. Scheumann met with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard in February but said he's still awaiting answers.
NASCAR doesn't permit crews to go over the pit wall until its car is approaching the pit stall, but IndyCar allows them onto pit road a lap in advance.
"I don't think tradition is a good enough reason to kill somebody," Scheumann said. "A lot of these drivers don't have the talent we've had in the past. They're racing down pit lane and crashing, and (officials don't) do anything."
Beaux Barfield, IndyCar's new race director, didn't respond to The Republic's interview request. But last month he wrote Scheumann that a NASCAR-type rule "does not mitigate the risk."
CART/Champ Car, the previous sanctioning body, disqualified a driver when a crew member was struck and injured. Barfield wrote Scheumann that his philosophy is not to over-officiate: "Black flagging a car for touching a crewman … would certainly not allow us to achieve that."
Eight of Indy's 33 starters are rookies. The pit-lane speed limit is 60 mph. USA Today/AZ Republic