I used to have this shirt that I would wear sometimes when doing SCCA Solo II events in my Miata. I think the wording was, “Autocross: If it were any easier, they would call it Driver Education.” I know, real funny. I thought it was, at least. It was all part of the good-natured ribbing that takes place between parking lot racers and track guys. The lines of demarcation have always been blurry for some, though. If you look at many of our chiefs (Bill Gilbert and Scott Studer immediately come to mind), instructors like Keith Peare, Rick Newman, and Robert Ida, and advanced drivers like Tom Iervolino, Joe Aiovoli, Lou Hudyman, and Iskender Catto, the multi-discipline guys are represented in good numbers.
I count myself among the “ambidriverous” (I just made that up). And so, when the SCCA Northeast Autocross Championship was up on the calendar for May 12-13, I was really excited. Finally! A national-level event locally at the Meadowlands! What would I drive? Who would I co-drive with? The excitement lasted a couple of hours, when Tom Iervolino reminded me that the 13th was Mothers Day. There are some things in life that that you just do not mess with, and Moms are one of them. Rats. I had to cancel. Intrepid Lou Hudyman, with his teammate and wife, Kelly, were driving their Lotus in the big event, though. I decided to live vicariously through them, and follow the live results online as they drove in the competition over the two days.
I was surprised on Sunday, when no results were being posted. I figured something was wrong with the online results system. A text message from Lou late in the day, informed me that the event had actually been cancelled due to a fatality that took place at the Meadowlands early in the day involving a motorcyclist and a traffic investigation. Being a part-time motorcyclist myself, it always touches a special chord in me when I hear about a fallen biker. Naturally, your thoughts turn to their lives, their families, and the general sadness of it all.
The article the next day on the accident made it even more profoundly tragic, as if that were possible. Apparently, the accident that took this man’s life was not a solo incident; he had been struck, head-on, by a Ferrari, while traveling on the access roads of the Meadowlands Complex. The Ferrari was actually one of two Ferraris involved in the incident, and they were part of another event that was to be held at the facility that day. Returning to the complex from a gasoline run, the first driver (a 19 year old employee of the group) lost control of his gray F430 Coupe in a turn. He spun the car 180 degrees and struck the inside curbing of the road. The second Ferrari, which I believe was a 360 Modena Convertible, was being driven by another employee. When the gray F430 lost control right in front of him, he apparently attempted to go around his co-worker. He swerved into the oncoming lane, and into the path of the oncoming Triumph Motorcycle. The pictures were gruesome. The red Ferrari had more damage that you can believe possible from a collision with a two-wheeled vehicle. The gray Ferrari had both wheels pushed in at the bottom, looking like a James Bond Lotus about to enter the water. The motorcycle images were the most disturbing. Essentially, there was no motorcycle left, but only a collection of mangled parts. There was a frame. An engine. A set of handle bars. A wheel. A tire. That’s it. Godspeed, dear man.
Normally my thoughts in the wake of such a tragedy also include a good amount of anger towards the responsible party. While we certainly do not know all of the details of this particular morning, and I am not about to make any assumptions about speed or other contributing factors, we do know that it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day outside. These were two high performance cars certainly capable of navigating the road at the posted 25 mph speed limit. Combined with the drivers’ own accounts of what happened, there is little left to the imagination. Another story ran in the papers when the drivers were being arraigned, this time with a photo of the two drivers in court. Both drivers were charged with “Death by Auto,” obviously a very serious charge. The look on their faces in the picture was especially revealing though. There was no malice, no anger, not even sorrow… it was a look of stunned bewilderment. You could almost see the thoughts in their head of, “What just happened?”
About a week later, I am looking a YouTube video, to which a friend had emailed a link. There was a yellow Lamborghini at a stop light, filmed by three young people in a car behind them. They are talking about the Lamborghini, and hoping to catch a good shot of the car launching from the intersection. The driver playfully blips the throttle a couple of times. A blonde passenger puts her arm lazily out the passenger window and settles her arm on the sill. The light turns green, and the Lambo starts into the intersection to make a left turn. Surprisingly, the car at this point is being driven very responsibly… hardly the stuff of a viral video. Wait for it, though. He is maybe three-quarters of the way through the turn when, inexplicably, he audibly jumps into the throttle and immediately loses control of the car. The Lambo fishtails a little before be goes head-on into traffic which is stopped at the opposite light, and ends up literally wedged door-to-door between a Honda and a Mercury. (Turns out those scissor doors are actually useful for something.) At the very end of the video, drivers from other cars stopped at the light are getting out of their cars, all with the same look of confusion.
I guess it is confusing when something completely unintended happens in a very short period of time. How short? Well, consider in that YouTube video that this beautiful car was in perfect control (and perfect condition) one moment, and less than three seconds later it was stopped, dented up between a pair of shocked motorists. Even shorter though, was the time it took from the driver’s brain to go from “reasonable,” that is driving through an intersection safely at part throttle, to “unreasonable,” that is punching the gas pedal with the steering wheel slightly turned. That small but significant misstep took all of a few milliseconds. That’s it. The remainder of that three second accident was spent just holding on and waiting for the inevitable impact. Thinking back to that fateful Mothers Day morning in the Meadowlands, it makes you wonder how just how short that first misstep was. The stunned bewilderment from the court room picture now makes a lot of sense.
You are probably waiting for that point in this article where I try to say that driver education, or autocross, or the car control clinic, or any combination of them, could have prevented these accidents. I won’t go quite that far. Honestly, I do not want to discount fate, karma, or just plain bad luck in life. Bad stuff sometimes does happen no matter what you do to try to prevent it. What I can say fairly confidently though, is that in neither of these accidents did any of these drivers involved have any intention whatsoever of putting themselves, their cars, and most importantly, the lives of others in jeopardy when they got behind the wheel. More than likely, they would have described themselves as above-average drivers, with solid control of their automobiles. The intent of their exploits were innocent enough – who can resist enjoying all of the sights, sounds, and speed that a Ferrari or Lamborghini deliver? As with anything we do in life, there is a risk versus reward spectrum that is weighed out. The reward of driving a supercar fast certainly would not be worth it if we knew that there was a strong degree of risk that could threaten another’s life. The thing is, most people do not have the training, the experience, the feel, or the perspective to be able to recognize where the reward ends and the risk begins when driving a car close to its limits. That is where I see driver education and autocross playing a vital role.
I hear from a lot of Porsche owners about how they really do not want to learn to drive their cars fast, or they do not want to expose their car to some sort of undue neglect. They somehow feel that they are being safer to themselves and their cars by not participating in driving events. Ironically, I would wager that the opposite is true. Let us look at the hard numbers for new Porsches. Most of the lineup is capable of accelerating from 0-60 is less than 5 seconds flat, with half of that group at 4 seconds or under. This includes two of the four-door sedans and two SUVs. This is some serious speed. They are light, they are agile, and did I mention that they are fast? Even with all of the electronic gadgetry these cars have aboard, it is still possible to get in trouble with one if you do not drive it properly. (Both of those Ferraris and the Lamborghini have similar systems.) Even the most basic of things you will learn at your first driver education event could possibly prevent accidents like those I mentioned earlier. Smooth inputs on the controls – the brakes, the steering wheel, and the accelerator – help prevent loss of control from occurring in the first place. Using your eyes to look far down the roadway ahead of your car (something we call “ocular driving”) helps identify hazards early enough to avoid them. Knowing the performance capabilities of your particular car, and more importantly, its limitations, helps to develop a feel even on the street of the proper pace. It becomes almost hardwired to your senses, giving you a sense of confidence no matter what conditions you are driving in. And quiet confidence is a whole lot better than shocked bewilderment. So, if you have not had the opportunity to drive at one of our club-sponsored driving events, I highly recommend giving it a try.
So speaking of our events, we are having a terrific season so far! By the time you read this, we will be through our Pocono event, and looking forward our annual trek to Mosport in Canada. This will be followed in early August by our three-day weekend at Watkins Glen. The two-day event at NJMP Lightning is on the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend this year (you will be home in time to flip ‘dogs on Monday), followed later in the month by our second trip to Watkins Glen. Our season concludes on the first weekend of November, when we make our triumphant return to VIR.
For those new drivers planning to try your first event with us, let me stress once again how important it is to register early for those events that you want to get into. They fill up fast! Honestly, the best way is to go into the registration site (Motorsportreg.com) the night that our event opens right after midnight. Don’t get stuck on the waiting list!
Enjoy your summer, everyone, and I’ll see you at the track!