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The Flip Side of Racing

Until this past February, none of my own cars had ever been involved in a significant racing accident. Sure, I’ve seen a few bad mishaps in the three decades I’ve been doing this stuff. And yes, the magazine receives photos on a fairly regular basis from various events where something tragic has happened.

As you may have noticed, however, our editorial doesn’t dwell on this side of racing. The risks are made abundantly clear to all who participate, and we prefer to focus on the more positive aspects of the sport. That said, my experience last weekend is one I’d like to share.

Our Miata race car was involved in a crash–a bad one–during the LeMons season opener at beautiful Barber Motorsports Park. I wasn’t driving when it happened; my son had just gotten out, and I was still waiting my turn. Our other driver was running in fourth place, with a Porsche drafting him at a high rate of speed, when he came upon a parked car in a blind corner.

Our driver had nowhere to go, and neither did the Porsche. Our Miata was pushed into the back of a heavy old Nash and went underneath it, ripping out the Nash’s fuel cell and hitting its differential so hard that it cracked and flipped the car.

Our poor Miata was 100-percent demolished: The hood was crunched up into the windshield, and the trunk was pushed all the way up to the fuel tank. There was not much left.

Thankfully, our driver and the others involved came away with no more than a few bumps and bruises. Our safety gear did its job perfectly. Our cage, which we worked on for more than a month, appeared undamaged, and the Miata’s doors even opened despite the car being at least 3 feet shorter than when it started the race.

Honestly, I had been a little nervous about racing such a small, seemingly slow car against all the crazy big old cars you see at LeMons races. I now feel that my fears were unfounded, as our car had an amazingly bad shunt and we came out fine, except of course for the loss of the car.

I think a shout-out is in order–to Mazda in particular and modern cars in general. It is amazing how effectively this thing sacrificed itself so that the driver would not be injured.

Modern safety gear is quite impressive, too: From HANS devices to well-made cages, window nets and center nets, there is a reason to install it all. This stuff works, and works well.

The LeMons staff also deserves some credit here. They stepped up to the plate and are taking safety even more seriously, requiring better equipment and training from all of their competitors. I even saw them testing drivers to see how quickly they could get out of their race cars in the event of a mishap.

Still, this crash has affected me. I’m not so much worried about myself, but I am naturally concerned for my son, and for my young staff and friends who are racing with me. I’m not sure I could live with myself if something serious happened to one of them.

We can’t run a racing magazine without racing, though. Besides, you can get killed just crossing the street, and statistically, you’re more likely to be harmed driving to the race track than driving in the race.

Despite these facts, this was a scary day for me. The takeaway was to urge every racer to buy and install the best safety gear they can get. This is not the place to save money or time. We were cursing at how long it took to install that cage in our Miata; that time seems inconsequential now.

You’ll notice that what I’m not talking about here is the question of fault. When our car crashed, I instantly had people in my face asking if the corner workers had thrown a flag in time and if the driver we hit had done something wrong. My answer to them? “Racing’s racing. Stuff happens.”

Any time you go out on track, especially at an amateur event full of wacky older cars, you need to assume that someone is going to make a mistake. You might even be the one who screws up. So don’t enter a race with a car you can’t afford to lose. And never ever go out in a car that you have not thoroughly prepared for a crash. That’s the ultimate racing mistake.

As for our poor deceased Miata, we’ll just chalk it up to experience. No one got hurt, and $500 Miatas are still easy to come by. In fact, Team NSF, owner of that car-killing Nash, demonstrated the ultimate in racing classiness by dropping off another Miata at our office two days after the race. It was a gracious gesture that is as appreciated as it was unnecessary.

That’s the reason we love racing. Sure, it has its risks, but the rewards come in ways that can’t be counted–like the knowledge that there are damned good people involved, both on our team and in the cars racing next to us.

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Comments

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captdownshift
captdownshift UberDork
6/2/16 1:44 p.m.

I'll echo the sediments regarding the safety of modern cars and their safety equipment. I was the misfortune of the PASM on a 981 decide that the left rear brake needed to be engaged while I was setting up for entry to turn 1 at Road America, 141mph into the left STRAIGHT into the wall at 90 degrees I went. You couldnt turn the vehicle so crisply into a 90 degree turn at that speed if you had wanted to. In less then 15 seconds I was out of the car under my own power and was even cleared to go on track again by medical that afternoon (though I declined). 15 years ago I would've thought that such a shunt would've left a better than 50% change of life changing injury, or worse, in a vehicle that was delivered as anything less than a body in white level of preparation.

Be safe out there.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce UltimaDork
6/2/16 1:54 p.m.

Most of us also need to consider the potential medical costs and what level of medical insurance we have/don't have. An ambulance ride and an over night in a hospital can easily eclipse the cost of a racecar.
This crash and your willingness to talk about it has started some conversations with friends and I about what we want out of racing and when in our lives we should be doing it.

plance1
plance1 SuperDork
6/2/16 4:57 p.m.

Would you donate those wheels and other parts to my charity?

hhaase
hhaase Reader
6/2/16 10:15 p.m.

It's not just the safety gear, but also the safety mindset, that has also improved. I remember being 5-6 years old and sleeping on the back deck of mom's old caprice classic while driving. Only on the interstate did Dad tell us to belt up. Almost lost family members a couple times in rollovers, with other passengers in the vehicles getting ejected. Thank god I was never in one. Always ended up very badly back then.

My own 7 year old daughter? Still in the back seat, in a high back booster, strapped in to go anywhere the car is moving. Came across a real bad rollover a couple months back. End over end 4 times in a Ford Explorer at 80mph. The driver was belted in and had no obvious injuries.

So yeah, the safety gear has improved. Thankfully people have improved in how often they use it. Now if only bikers would start wearing helmets. Buried a few friends because of that.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/2/16 10:25 p.m.
plance1 wrote: Would you donate those wheels and other parts to my charity?

We'd love to, but they're headed to LeMons Miata v2.0.

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
6/3/16 9:13 a.m.

First off I'm really glad everyone involved walked away with no issues. Having said that I'm not sure I agree with this paragraph.

Tim Suddard wrote: I think a shout-out is in order–to Mazda in particular and modern cars in general. It is amazing how effectively this thing sacrificed itself so that the driver would not be injured.

I'm honestly not sure this has anything to do with it being a Miata or a modern car. If this was a road accident everyone walked away from I can see you saying 'Kudos Mazda, we'd have been dead in an MGB' But honestly from the look of the car it was pretty much pancked up to the cage area. I think any small open car would have done just as well with the same thorough safety equipment in it.

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
6/3/16 9:17 a.m.
mazdeuce wrote: Most of us also need to consider the potential medical costs and what level of medical insurance we have/don't have. An ambulance ride and an over night in a hospital can easily eclipse the cost of a racecar. This crash and your willingness to talk about it has started some conversations with friends and I about what we want out of racing and when in our lives we should be doing it.

That's an excellent point. When I used to race in the 90's I took out extra life and injury coverage. I read it very carefully and it excluded 'Drag racing' specifically along with things like sky diving, but it did not exclude track driving. I think back than on track activities were far less common, or at least less common knowledge so they weren't excluded. These days I think all track activity would be excluded.

I'd be interested to know what the outcome of your discussion was and how it may affect you activities, one lap? possible future W2W?

If I ever go W2W again (unlikely without a massive unforeseen infusion of cash) it would be historic with a 13/13 rule that really seems to keep people respectful, certainly not something like spec Pinata. This also links back to the concussion/head injury/Sarah Fisher thread.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce UltimaDork
6/3/16 9:47 a.m.
Adrian_Thompson wrote: I'd be interested to know what the outcome of your discussion was and how it may affect you activities, one lap? possible future W2W?

Two things that have come out of my One Lap and track driving over the last couple of years.
1. I'm not willing to instruct on track. The consequences of a mistake (either mechanical or driver) that I have no control over are too high for my family. The instructing I've been asked to do pays about $100 a day. There is no way that's worth it.
2. Street car safety gear should be kept close to street speeds. Modern cars (and maybe this has always been true) are too fast to drive on track with stock three point belts and no rollover protection. I have faith that Cadillac designed the V Wagon to go over at 80 and keep me pretty safe. I don't think they meant for it to do the same at 140+.
I'll still do track events, and I might even go against what I said by doing them in the Cadillac, but when I do you'll find me being the classic 80% driver. The One Lap truck discussion is drifting toward using an extended or even crew cab so that proper rollover protection can be more easily integrated. Still in the discussion phase but we're thinking about it.
I'll probably do W2W someday, but it will be when me getting hurt/killed will be an emotional tragedy and not an economic one. If something happens to me now my kids lose their day to day caregiver as well as their dad.

Harvey
Harvey Dork
6/3/16 9:50 a.m.

I'd have to agree with Adrian to some extent. I'm sure the car is better built than some 70s jalopy and doubtless helps connect things together better, but the majority of the credit has to go to your safety preparations and equipment.

Safety is paramount in racing and I'm glad that these series have no limit on safety prep for these cars.

atm92484
atm92484 Reader
6/3/16 6:49 p.m.

Care to post any detailed pictures of the cage?

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Associate Editor, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports
6/4/16 12:49 p.m.

No problem. All of the cage details are in the car's updates, which are here:

https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/project-cars/1992-yellow-mazda-miata/upgrading-bar-cage/

The cage looks exactly the same now as it did when I welded it in. No deformation at all.

atm92484
atm92484 Reader
6/5/16 5:32 p.m.

Thanks Tom. I just realized I read that page awhile ago and completely forgot that I did.

JBasham
JBasham Reader
6/8/16 10:05 a.m.

I occasionally see a bad crash at SCCA or NASA. Fortunately, for the ones I've seen, the driver has been ok afterwards. But there is that brief time before I know the driver's status, when I see the immense damage to the vehicle and the barriers, and I don't know how anybody could have gotten out of it okay, much less whole. That haunts me.

WAKman
WAKman
6/9/16 8:18 p.m.
mazdeuce wrote:
Adrian_Thompson wrote: I'd be interested to know what the outcome of your discussion was and how it may affect you activities, one lap? possible future W2W?

Two things that have come out of my One Lap and track driving over the last couple of years.
1. I'm not willing to instruct on track. The consequences of a mistake (either mechanical or driver) that I have no control over are too high for my family. The instructing I've been asked to do pays about $100 a day. There is no way that's worth it.
2. Street car safety gear should be kept close to street speeds. Modern cars (and maybe this has always been true) are too fast to drive on track with stock three point belts and no rollover protection. I have faith that Cadillac designed the V Wagon to go over at 80 and keep me pretty safe. I don't think they meant for it to do the same at 140+.
I'll still do track events, and I might even go against what I said by doing them in the Cadillac, but when I do you'll find me being the classic 80% driver. The One Lap truck discussion is drifting toward using an extended or even crew cab so that proper rollover protection can be more easily integrated. Still in the discussion phase but we're thinking about it.
I'll probably do W2W someday, but it will be when me getting hurt/killed will be an emotional tragedy and not an economic one. If something happens to me now my kids lose their day to day caregiver as well as their dad.

Interesting post, Adrian. Every year that I continue to instruct starts with a frank assessment of whether it's worth it. I'm still at it, but, over the 20 years I have been doing it, the speed capabilities of the cars has grown almost unbelievably. Student talent has remained the same--but the new cars cover up errors so well that even a total doofus can look pretty good with help from the nannies. I hope that little voice in my head will tell me to get out before something really bad happens.

Your point that "street car safety gear should be kept close to street speeds" is intriguing. My Cayman S, equipped with three point belts and airbag, will reportedly go 170 mph, and I routinely see 140 on track. A hard crash from those speeds would almost certainly overwhelm that safety gear. The solution, of course, would be to put in a cage or rollbar, race seats, and harnesses, but that would ruin or at least diminish the fun of the car in street use. I do not have the luxury of being able to afford a dedicated track car.

Terry

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