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Barnstormin’: Wrecks

Barnstormin’: Wrecks

In my time as a race track announcer, race director, and general racing facility nuisance, I’ve seen more than my fair share of carnage on the track. Each incident has its own file folder in my brain, especially those that happened under my watch as a race director when I was responsible for the investigation and paperwork for the insurance company.

While it’s true for the vast majority of us that we don’t go to the track “for the accidents” the occasional spectacular though non-life-threatening wreck sells tickets for track operators across the country on a weekly basis. It’s a fact of life, like it or not. My experience has been that no one is immune from mechanical failure, brain fade, or sheer bad luck.

Let’s take a walk down my twisted memory lane back to a few of the more memorable incidents I have witnessed first hand.

We’ll start back during my time in college road racing in the SCCA with a group of fellow nuts. We were the UMass Motorsports club, and competed in a class called ITC in an early 80’s VW Rabbit. The class was very budget minded and had a tight rulebook. That was good for us because we were perpetually broke. At the close of race weekends we’d literally walk the paddock (fancy pants road racing term for the pits) and pick up guys’ used, castoff tires. We’d get at least another weekend out of them.

As a reward for our diligence and complete lack of dignity we had a few sets of tires. There were different treads and different compounds for different situations. Obviously, one would assume that they would be used in complete sets, not mish-mashed with each other. That was the plan anyway.

Myself and the crew chief for the car, a fellow college kid (who had brains) named Pat, arrived late to the race due to a school commitment. We got there just as they were calling our class into the staging area. We rushed over to meet up with the car and the guys. We were horrified to see two different set of wheels on the car, denoting the fact that there were two completely different sets of tires on the front and back. Pat lost it immediately and pleaded with the driver, our friend (and his roommate) Adam, to take it easy, because with the two different tires, the car was going to act really strangely.

It took three laps for him to bury it into the wall. Disgusted, we loaded up the car that afternoon and instead of driving right back home, we drank just about every drop of the free beer the SCCA had at the pit party. It wasn’t a total loss. The car was not too badly jacked up, although the freshly installed windshield popped out and was wrecked. I think we had to replace some suspension components as well.

You could chalk that one up to a lack of experience and some creative thinking among the guys setting up the car. This next one, you can chalk up to hyper activity.

After school ended, I continued to work at the SCCA track announcer for the events at New Hampshire International Speedway. A close friend of mine, Sam, one of the founders of the above mentioned Motorsports Club had built himself a fine running later model VW Rabbit and was racing, I believe, in the ITA class. He was facing off with guys in RX7s and other machinery that would have waxed us in the club car.

Sam was a high-energy, high strung guy. That made for a great club president and organizer, but not a fun guy to be around at the race track. No matter the event, he’d find the heaviest object in the garage to drop onto his foot or otherwise injure himself. It was a given. It was also a given that at the hint of trouble, he’d freak out.

So out rolled the field and it made a pace lap or two with everyone scrubbing their tires and looking all race-driver like. The starter watched the field come around the last corner before throwing the flag, but at the last second he pulled it back as he thought the field was too spread. Everyone got on the binders and slowed as they came down the front straight (the SCCA course used part of the NASCAR oval). Guys went back into tire scrub mode, including Sam, and then disaster struck. Sam lost the handle on the car and in the course of entering into a sickeningly slow broadside slide, caused mass chaos behind him. He gathered up two or three other cars on his way toward the inside wall, while rows behind him, guys were trying to avoid the massive pileup ahead. It was one of the few times in my announcing career that I was at a loss for words.

I felt horrible for Sam because, let’s face it, wrecking on what was essentially a pace lap seems impossible. It’s the stuff we joke about around here. I also felt horrible because Sam was a good dude who really took this stuff seriously and I knew he was going to be called in front of a panel and may have had his racing license pulled. Luckily they put him on probation. The whole thing was pretty surreal.

Moving over to the dragstrip, I’ve got enough of these stories to share I could write a book, but here’s two that stick out.

The first occurred during an all-Ford day at New England Dragway. Earlier in the day a younger girl (let’s say under 20), and her boyfriend came up to the tower. They had a few questions, and being the race director, I was the guy with the answers. She told me that she was there with her Lightning truck and it was her first time at the track, typical stuff.
I answered her questions and sent her on her way.

I noticed the truck coming to the starting line while I was down on the track having a conversation with the starter. She pulled up with her helmet on, ready to make what would turn out to be her first and last lap. You see, when she asked her boyfriend what to do, he told her to floor it, and she did. The truck lit up the stock tires immediately and she never flinched. At 300 feet, with the tires still blazing, it all went wrong. The truck fishtailed slightly, she overcorrected, and the truck, tires still spinning, began to come across the track from right to left, as it did, it was rotating, basically doing a massive donut. It has accumulated a pretty good head of steam at this point and hit the wall very hard at a complete broadside, facing back up the dragstrip, toward the starting line.
I was the first to make it to the truck on my scooter and when I got there my blood ran cold. She was KO’d, the doors were locked, and the truck was in gear, bouncing off the rev limiter. Thank the heavens that when the thing hit the wall with the tires spinning the rear universal joint broke and rendered the truck helpless. Without that lucky break (literally) we would have had a come-backer with an unconscious driver. The only thing that would have stopped it would have been a stack of crumpled race cars at the starting line.

She was fine, aside from a mild concussion. That one still gives me the chills.

Lastly, (and I realize that this is way long, but hopefully you’re having fun) is one involving my dad and an errant, gorgeous ‘68 Olds.

It was a late-season bracket race and I was doubling as race director and track manager for the weekend as the actual manager was off at the IHRA bracket finals with racers from our track.

My dad happened to be up making laps in the Nova we’ve had for about 10 years now. Up he came in the left lane with this awesome looking Olds in the right. It was an all-steel car, Olds powered, full interior, and most importantly to note, had a brand new roll cage.

Just as the pair launched, the track manager called me to check in. I was looking out the window and watching the cars sail down the track and everything looked OK, until the radio crackled from the top end: “He’s not slowing down!” No one specified what lane, so I thought my dad was careening out of control with no brakes.

Crackle, “He’s going to hit the sand trap…..WAIT….OH MY GOD… HE JUST FLEW OVER THE POND….IT’S ON THE ROOF….ROLL EVERYTHING!”

I hung up on the track manager thinking my dad had just been through an awful ride and I’d be making a really crappy call to my mom. As I ran out to my scooter to get down the track, one of the guys yelled out, “It wasn’t your dad, it was the other guy.” It was a momentary relief, but my concern was that someone had just been through hell and probably was not feeling so great.

Getting to the top end revealed the site of a severely crumpled Olds, a bewildered dad, and a host of top-end safety workers sharing one hell of a good story.

The driver of the Olds had the brake pushrod fall out of the master cylinder. He panicked and instead of driving it into the sand he tried to drive around it, resulting in him hitting a large ramp-shaped rock and pulling an honest Dukes of Hazzard jump that saw him clear a distance of at least 60-70 feet, and according to track people, at a height of 15 or so feet. The car landed like a lawn dart and again, according to the people on the scene, stood straight up on its nose for a long enough time to count before flopping down onto its roof. Moral of the story? Use the sand.

I could tell you the one about the guy in an Altered I saw drive into a tree, not the Christmas tree, but a literal tree. Or the time….


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