Almost Crashing: Is “Good Enough” Safety Really Good Enough?
“Why do you even wear a helmet in that car?”
I get that all the time. I have what is probably the slowest car in regular Pacific Street Car Association competition, a 2004 V6 Mustang with a little shot of nitrous that will run mid-15’s on a good day. The class I compete in uses an Open Comp format, where you’re racing against an index based on your best time in qualifying, minus a tenth. That means that consistency, not speed, is the key, and a 15-second street-driven car can be a winner against 9 and 10-second Mustangs, if I do my part.
Technically, the rules don’t require me to wear a helmet when I race, though there are a lot of tracks that go beyond the NHRA minimum standard and make everybody wear one. I also don’t technically have to wear a 3.2A/1 jacket but I do anyway. Something that happened this weekend is making me rethink my level of safety equipment, though. While the rules are based on the ET of the car you’re driving, the wild card here is that there is Open Comp and bracket-style formats of mix cars that run radically different speeds on the same track, and the point where they come closest together is also the point where both cars are moving the fastest – the finish line.
What happened to me this weekend is a perfect example. In the first round of Mustang Maddness competition, I was paired up with Kyle Thorpe and his Fox notchback. I was dialed at 15.67, and he had 10.49 on his window. My side of the tree came down, I left, and kept an eye on my rearview as I headed down-track. At the top end, Kyle was bearing down fast, and we were both on breakout passes. I stayed in it, and as he caught me in the traps, he was on the brakes to keep from overshooting.
As Kyle’s car transitioned from the sprayed-and-prepped part of the racetrack to the bare asphalt past the finish line, still on the brakes, you can probably guess what happened. Both front skinnies locked up, and his car began to move toward the center line. He steered away, let off pressure on the brakes, and when the fronts grabbed again, they took him away from me but hard into the wall on the other side.
I got to watch it all happen in slow motion, just a few feet ahead of me. He slipped past at the line, there was smoke, and then the car darted into the wall. After the initial impact, the car bounced back toward the center line and I was as hard on the brakes as I could be without locking them up myself, but Kyle’s Fox was still right there 20 feet ahead of me and drifting towards me. It seemed like it took 30 seconds to unfold even though it was just moments, but my car finally slowed and the gap widened, and Kyle’s Mustang drifted back next to the wall and came to a stop.
I pulled up on the other side of the track next to the wall, had my belt off and the door open before I was stopped, and ran over to hit his kill switch and see if he was hurt. By the time I got to Kyle’s door, he had forced it open and the first thing out of his mouth was, “I think I broke my foot.” I helped him squeeze out between the car and the wall, got him sitting down, and by then the safety safari and ambulance had arrived.
Kyle’s car is probably a total writeoff. The entire front clip was pushed about a foot to the right by the impact, and the firewall on the left side got hit hard enough to crush in on his foot. The door bar for his 6-point rollbar probably saved him from more serious injury by keeping the side of the car from coming any farther in on him. The motor stayed oil-tight and didn’t seem to be visibly damaged, though, so that might be salvageable.
We were both very lucky. It would have taken nothing at all for both cars to come together, and as hard as he hit the wall, it was fortunate that Kyle’s car didn’t roll. I didn’t have to be wearing a helmet, but I was damn glad I was, and after the fact I thought about what I would have done if I had to pull him (or myself) out of a burning car with bare hands and just a 3.2A/1 jacket for protection.
I’m also thinking about how high the closing speeds are between my car and the competition. It makes it very hard to judge things at the stripe – as a matter of fact the two top guys in the class (both close friends of mine) have said how much they hate running against me because it’s impossible to fender race when there is only a split second to decide whether you’re carrying too much speed.
I like the fact that my daily driver is also my race car, and it’s very satisfying when I win a round against a trailered 10-second Mustang with a car that has a trailer hitch on the back. But this was too close to disaster for me, and I think the solution might be to speed things up, ironically. Closing speed is the key – a blown tire could send a car into the back of mine at 140 miles an hour while I am only doing 90, and that’s what I would really like to avoid.
But in the meantime, when people ask me why I wear a helmet in a 15-second car, I can show them the pictures of the crash I got to watch up close and personal, and maybe they will understand.