We are constantly making decisions as we all hurtle through this life toward a destination unknown.
Sometimes these decisions turn out to be the “correct” decision, however “correct” is defined within the relevant context. Sometimes it’s the opposite.
The problem is that while the outcome of our decisions is sometimes obvious – I know when I order that one more beer that I’m kicking a payment of minor pain down the road to tomorrow – sometimes, the outcome isn’t foreseeable. Especially when you’re making a decision that feels correct at the moment (and defensible in hindsight), and yet a nasty surprise is just seconds away from smacking you in the face.
In other words, sometimes you make a decision that seems correct, seems low risk, one that others would agree with – and it still all goes to hell.
I didn’t have time to ponder this when I was sitting in a once pristine Lexus IS 500 that I had managed to turn into a work of deranged art, thanks to what happens when a moving car meets a stationary wall. My musings came later. I was too busy figuring out what comes next after you bin a car. I’d never done it before, so I was in foreign territory.
I was also hurting. Not physically – other than what felt like some scratches on my legs, I seemed to be in the same general physical condition I was in just a few seconds earlier. Overweight and out of shape, sure, but with all bones in correct working order, and nary a drop of blood to be seen. But even if I was physically fine, I was already feeling the type of shame and embarrassment and anger (directed at myself) that most of us live our lives trying to avoid.
We’ll get to more of that in a bit. First, let me set the scene.
I’m a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and the group puts together two drive events each year, including one that involves some track driving at the famed Road America racetrack in Wisconsin. I was at one such event, delayed 17 months, give or take, by COVID. Which is how I came to be in the Lexus in the first place.
The event allows journalists to drive a bunch of cars on the local roads, and a select few on the track. You get one lap at a time, untimed, with cars spaced to avoid passing. Because Road America is a very fast track and because production vehicles, even performance cars, sometimes lack the type of tires and/or brakes needed for such an environment, our group takes steps to slow the speeds down a bit.
We also do this because most of us aren’t pro drivers, or even close. And past incidents have caused us to adjust, as well.
It’s a fun event that allows drivers to get speed while hopefully not getting over their heads. But I am living proof that sometimes even with proper precautions set, something can go wrong.
I want to make clear a few things. While I have a decent amount of track-driving experience by now, and while I’ve also spent a lot of time getting instruction from pro drivers, I have no illusions of grandeur about my abilities. I’ve even said, publicly, on these digital pages, that I am probably mid-pack when it comes to my place in the pecking order of automotive journalists who track drive on a regular basis. I don’t pretend to be faster than I am.
I am also generally the sort to err on the side of caution. Some folks test the waters by braking as late as they can, while I sometimes brake too early, for example.
In other words, I consider myself competent but conservative, quick but not fast, aware of my flaws and my limits – and not willing to intentionally venture past said limits. Responsible instead of irresponsible. Not a braggart. In fact, in what now appears to be a jinx, I’d even said to a pro riding right-seat in a BMW M4 Competition that I’d rather be sitting at dinner lamenting about the speed I’d left on the table than how I’d gone too fast and cracked up a car.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I approached the famed Canada Corner (Turn 12) at Road America, though. What I was thinking about was my speed. I don’t typically look at the speedometer when on track – gotta keep the eyes up and looking ahead – but I’d driven a couple of cars earlier in the day that either had head-up displays or had a speedo that was at the bottom of my peripheral vision, meaning I could see the speed without risking looking away from the track. So I had a sense of about the speeds I was hitting while approaching the corner throughout the day.
I’d been entering the braking zone at 120 mph earlier in the day and getting them down to 40-45 for the corner without trouble. I noticed I was approaching 125 in the Lexus, thanks to its big ol’ honkin’ V8. I wondered if I could squeeze out a few MPH and hit 130. I was able to.
Now, again, I am the cautious sort. I wouldn’t have tried to gain speed shortly before a braking zone if I had, even for a second, any doubt about the safety of doing so. And I had previously hit 130 before the braking zone in other cars, though not on this day. So I felt like I was within both my limits and the cars’. But what would follow will show that either I was wrong and needed to slow down, or that I would’ve been fine if not for something I didn’t expect. Or both.
When I hit the brakes, they immediately went soft. Not completely, though, and the pedal didn’t go to the floor. There was some bite, but it wasn’t as immediate and stout as it had been earlier in the lap. Road America demands a lot of brakes, and they must’ve gotten too hot during the lap.
That led to me thinking “oh, shit! I am not going to slow down in time for turn-in and I am going off.”
Based on my admittedly fallible memory – everything from the moment I touched the brakes until I heard the sickening thunk that indicated I’d hit the wall is a blur – matched with the video evidence and a conversation with a friend/colleague that has more experience than I and who has done some track-driving instruction, I think I pieced together what happened.
What the video shows is that I hit the brakes on time, and that is followed by the car coming into the corner, eventually veering ever-so-slightly towards the center of the track, instead of the outside where it should’ve been, and then turning in early and clipping the last in a line of cones set out to make sure drivers didn’t turn in too early. Anyone who has driven Road America, or even just watched races there, knows that turning in to Canada Corner too early means you will likely shoot off into the wall.
Is it possible that I just goofed and turned in too early? Yes, but I’d been making that turn correctly all day to that point, and I’d managed that corner well enough in years past, even without cones as a guide. No, I think it was more complicated than that.
Here’s my guess: When I felt that the brakes were faded, I got flustered. Maybe even panicked a little. Instinctively turned the wheel to try to keep the car from plowing straight off. But I somehow scrubbed off enough speed to get the car to turn, and it turned in early, way offline. Thus catching the cone – something I don’t remember hearing or feeling in real-time – and sliding off track, over the smooth pavement to the corner’s left, eventually catching the wall at an angle.
To be VERY clear – I am not blaming the car. There was some paddock-area debate over whether it had the brakes to be out there, but even if it shouldn’t have been, the incident is, in my view, my fault. I should’ve probably been driving a little slower. Even if 130 was an acceptable speed, I should’ve lifted off the throttle a bit early instead of holding it until the beginning of the braking zone – this would’ve allowed the weight to transfer to the front, giving the front tires more grip.
Even if my speed wasn’t too fast, I should have enough experience, at this point, to better know how to control a car when the brakes go mushy. I should’ve just stood harder on the brakes and kept the wheel straight until I got a few feet deeper into the corner. Heck, even if I’d gone straight off, I might’ve managed to stop before hitting the wall. Instead, I reacted on instinct and turned the wheel, probably because, in terms of unthinking reaction, it seemed the best way to avoid the wall. Or going off at all. I was just reacting in the manner I thought was the best way to keep the car on track, even if it actually wasn’t.
But, again, turning too early in that corner all but guarantees you’ll be shaking hands with the tire barrier. Which, having driven the track on at least a dozen occasions, with countless laps, I should’ve remembered in the moment. Even if things were happening too fast for my brain to process.
The video also shows some things I can’t explain. The brake lights appear to turn off at one point between me leaving the track and hitting the wall, but it’s impossible to tell if my foot came off the pedal (if so, it was inadvertent, and in my memory, my foot was on the brake the whole time) or if the video’s lighting just tricked the eyes. There also were no tire marks, which tells me that even if I was on the brakes, maybe I wasn’t on them hard enough. That possibility sickens me – maybe if I’d had a cooler head, I could’ve gotten on ‘em harder and stayed out of the wall. Or maybe not, maybe I was just moving too fast for the tires to drag and shed rubber.
I should note, here, that a light drizzle was occurring, enough to turn the wipers on, but the pavement appeared to still be dry. There’s no way in hell I’d have entered the braking zone at well over triple digits if the roadway was wet. I have at least a modicum of common sense.
If you’ve never gone off a track or hit a wall, it’s not a pleasant experience. It was my first significant off and my first contact with a wall, and I’d like to not repeat it. My previous track indiscretions are limited to putting two wheels off at Thunderhill (the car was, to my knowledge, undamaged) and arguably putting one wheel off at Gingerman once (a friend/colleague says she saw me do it, but I never felt it and the car was fine. I don’t know if she was wrong about what she saw. She could also be trolling to get a rise out of me). I’d not recommend the experience to others.
As I said, my memory of the few seconds between me touching the brakes and the car thumping the wall are a blur. I do remember a few things, though. For one thing, the old cliché racers say about how you become a passenger at some point is certainly true – once I left the track, I felt like there was nothing I could do to control the car. I also remember that I wasn’t scared – not because I am some brave, tough guy but because I was so busy trying to avoid the wall that I didn’t have time to be scared.
The impact was certainly solid enough to be felt, but it could’ve been so much worse. I suspect I managed to scrub enough speed, somehow, to mitigate the impending disaster somewhat. I also hit at an angle. The airbags didn’t even deploy. Nor did my helmeted head appear to strike anything inside the car, such as the A-pillar.
The second-worst part of the incident, other than the crash itself, was the aftermath. It took me just seconds to reflexively do a quick self-assessment, with nothing seeming to be broken or bleeding. I felt only like I had some scratches on my legs from them hitting the bottom of the dash. But mentally, I was a bit of a mess.
I was in shock – not the medical kind, but the “I can’t believe that just happened, please tell me I am dreaming” kind. I was embarrassed, angry at myself, and ashamed. Especially because I help with the organization of the event – I put extra pressure on myself not to crash, since those of us who help run the event emphasize safety. I want to lead by example, and I felt like I failed.
Time moves slowly when you’re sitting in a wrecked, immobile car. The thought of getting out quickly to escape a possible fire didn’t cross my mind, probably because I was driving a production car and not a racecar. I just sat there in my shame, watching the corner worker wave the yellow flag, awaiting the tow truck.
When the safety workers arrived, they had me climb out the passenger side, since the driver’s door was wedged shut. This threatened injury of its own kind – limber, I ain’t. Then I got the true pro-driver treatment – an ambulance ride, complete with the standard medical questions.
Fun times. Not.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Long-time TTAC readers will remember that this site, along with rival blog Jalopnik, once outed journalists who crashed on events. We haven’t during my time here in part because I haven’t been made aware of incidents often, and when I have, I haven’t been able to confirm facts well enough in order to publish. But also, I feel it’s a kind of bullying that doesn’t serve readers. I understand the reasoning went along the lines of “well if a journalist crashes and then writes a review, isn’t he/she being dishonest with readers? Maybe he/she didn’t get enough miles to write a review!”
My retort has been that we don’t know if the writer got what he or she needed and it’s inside baseball that readers only care about as gossip and nothing more. I don’t see the point in pulling a Nelson Muntz and using these pages to “ha-ha” a good driver who had a bad day. Or an inexperienced driver who got in over their head. Maybe schadenfreude could be directed at the small but vocal band of assholes in this business who think that what they leave in the toilet doesn’t smell, the ones who overrate their abilities and show no shame when the inevitable happens, but that seems best saved for one-on-one conversations as opposed to rhetorical bombs tossed safely from behind my keyboard.
That said, I’m writing about what happened to take ownership. And to maybe hope you will learn from my crackup should you take to the track. Yes, it also shields me from accusations of hypocrisy, since I manage a site that once played tattletale with glee, but that’s not the primary reason I’ve been hacking away at this post.
It’s taken me over a week to write this. In part because of other projects, in part because of writer’s block, but mostly because I’ve been feeling sick about the incident and it’s just hard to write about without dredging up the guilt I feel. Even though some well-wishing colleagues tried to cheer me up over Spotted Cow ales later in the evening, I can’t quite shake the guilt.
I do have some lingering physical issues that manifested themselves once the adrenalin wore off. My right shoulder is sore, and my right wrist hurts a bit. Not bad – no worse than when I got mauled by some dude twice my size playing recreational flag football a few years back. Not so bad that I had to skip my next softball game. But just enough to remind me of what happened, at least until I heal fully.
I keep thinking about what I could’ve done differently. Slowed down to 120 when I saw I was doing 125, instead of shooting for 130. Or maybe 130 was fine, but I should’ve just lifted earlier than I did, in order to get more front-tire grip. Maybe I needed to keep the wheel straight when I realized the brakes were cooked. Maybe I needed to apply more brake-pedal pressure than I did – pro instructors will tell you that people often don’t apply max pressure, and they don’t even realize they aren’t doing so. I’ve had that bit of instruction myself, several years ago.
All these things are a part of the reason why I’m thinking of taking a car-control class soon. But not the usual pro-driver instruction I’ve had over the past decade-plus. That type of instruction, while very valuable, is all about going fast safely, and avoiding incidents in the first place. No, I want to take a class that will teach me what to do when shit goes sideways. How to react once things go pear-shaped.
I took a class like that many moons ago, and I think a revisit would be good. I crashed in part because I, for lack of a better word, panicked. Not the screaming, hysterical kind of panic, but rather because things were happening too quickly for my brain to process and I reacted on instinct – and reacted poorly. I faced a situation that’s common to track driving but had yet to happen to me, and I didn’t react in the proper way to handle it.
Had I stayed calm and kept cool, and had I mental muscle memory for what to do, the outcome may have been different. I may still have gone off, but perhaps without bending sheetmetal. A damaged ego is far less of a problem than a damaged car and/or a damaged human body.
At approximately 1:40 PM CST on an overcast fall Wednesday in October in Wisconsin, I made a decision that at the moment felt correct. A defensible decision, probably. But one that nonetheless resulted in an undesirable outcome. In part because of something I couldn’t foresee but should’ve been prepared for, just in case.
I’ll be feeling guilty about this for a while. Probably even after my next track day, whenever that will be. Even if I have a good, fast day with no further incidents. But I have two choices – stew about it and let it eat me up inside, or learn from it and use it to become an even better driver. That all sounds cliché, but it’s true.
I choose the latter.
Life is all about decisions. When a decision goes wrong, the best decision you can make next is to learn from it. Which is exactly what I plan to do.
[Image: © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]
*Editor’s note — There is only one picture of the damaged car because it’s the only one I took. I had no chance to get pics in the immediate aftermath of the crash, for reasons that should be obvious.
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