Not IF but WHEN - Miata Crash at Infineon Raceway

They say it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” a race car driver has a crash.  In a game of calculated risk, high speed, and mechanical chunks of metal in a whirl of momentous velocity, one has to expect disarray to occur at some point in time.  Being on the edge is certainly an exhilarating experience, but when things go wrong they go wrong very quickly.

I’ve seen a lot of crashes in my relatively short history of driving and working in motorsports.  It’s a painful thing to watch, whether it’s a professional race or a club-level event.  Crushed cars may draw a spectacle, but it also draws someone’s bank account.  The racing community is largely a tightly woven network of people where, if you stay involved long enough, it’s hard for others not to know who you are.  Likewise, when things go wrong it doesn’t take long for the news to travel.  In a lot of instances, racers come together in support of each other during the challenging times.  The story I’m about to share with you is another example of how helpful the racing community can be, and how imperative car preparation is in this sport.

It was the last race of the season, excluding the 25-hour and 6-hour races at Thunderhill in the NASA Northern California region, and was scheduled to take place at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.  I had just moved to the area four months prior and since then had only raced a few events. In comparison to Arizona, my connections in NorCal were merely in their early stages of development.  Luckily my professional work in motorsports this past season, including Grand-AM and World Challenge, essentially brought everything full-circle and had allowed me to reconnect with drivers and crew I’ve met a long the way.

Despite being new to the area I was fortunate to have pitted with a great group of Spec Miata drivers, including the NASA NorCal Spec Miata Championship Series Director—Dean Thomas, his wife Laura, as well as Jaime Florence and Aaron Braverman.  They were some of the first Spec Miata drivers I had the pleasure of meeting, aside from professional driver Ken Dobson—who not only has extensive experience with Spec Miata, but had become instrumental in my progress this past year.

With the recent rains in Sonoma, first session out was a grab-bag of grip, slip, and eminent slide.  Following sessions were qualifying for Spec Miata, then Performance Touring (PT) races.  With the Spec races moved to Sunday, I was more or less focused on sorting the car (and the driver) per the track conditions, with plans to run the PT race for extra seat time.

I should have taken a hint from my luck that weekend when my steering wheel came off on the exit of Turn 6 during my PT practice session.  Fortunately, my trajectory was more or less straight and I was able to resolve the issue without consequence.  Strangely enough, I had briskly tugged the wheel before I had driven away from grid—a habit I’ve long since developed after the first time a wheel came off at Hallett entering the infamous turn called “The Bitch.” Indeed it was.  Needless to say I called the session early.  It’s amazing how disabled a driver becomes for that split second when all you have to control the car are the gas and brake pedals—directional inputs are rendered null and void!

With my pre-race sessions more or less wasted for the day, all I had left was the race to focus on.  There were only a few comparable SM cars running in PT, but I figured it would be a useful warm-up for Sunday.  My mother brought me drinks and snacks as always then found a place to observe on the hill at Turn 9 overlooking most of the track.  Next to her was Grand-Am driver Andrew Novich, who has been kind enough to join me at the track and spot my sessions via radio.

The race was off to a decent start.  I made a few initial passes all while sorting myself in the field. I soon spotted a familiar white Miata and began to slowly close my distance after a few laps.  When racing in a mixed class environment I’m often negotiating space with higher powered cars.  In my days driving on Arizona tracks I had grown accustom to traffic with high differentials in speed, so interpreting their approach became something more or less commonplace.

On the exit of Turn 6 I had spotted a small cluster of muscle cars, and it was clear that they had their own race in full effect.  Referencing their position from the hill I anticipated they would greet me somewhere at Turn 7 or shortly thereafter.  My timing was about right and soon enough a yellow Camaro was looming large with his opponent a few car lengths back in my rear-view mirror.  A part of my instinct had hinted that something may be coming up, leaving me two choices—do I give up everything exiting Turn 7 because of fast traffic approaching, or hold my line and leave responsibility for the other driver to complete a clean pass?  At this rate I had already entered the beginnings of what is known as the “esses”, or Turns 8 and 8a.  Anyone familiar with Infineon also knows this is a place where little mistakes can cause big problems.  This snake-like section of the track has very unforgiving characteristics.  Incorrect driver inputs or unfavorable circumstances that imbalance the car can add up here.

[ In-Car Video - #34 Miata “Clifford” at Infineon Raceway ]

The decision to hold my line was already made as I touched the first curb at Turn 8.  I saw the Camaro disappear from view where he clearly went to pass on the outside.  Thinking for a moment that he had slowed and fell in-line with me, my car was struck with a sizable force that instantly turned me around 180-degrees.  My brakes did nothing to slow my speed and I was simply along for the ride.  Sliding along side the tire wall I was thinking that I would eventually slow down and stop in the grass. That wasn’t to be.  As my car skimmed the tire wall I began to gain air turning upside down and nearly reaching the other side of the wall.  It was at this time that my car was launched into the air backwards, with the tire wall acting more like a trampoline and less like a shock absorber.

image
[ Video Capture By danconnortown ]

Holding onto what became a useless steering wheel, the ground began to pull away from me, coupled with a split-second of silence in the air.  The car took flight, performing a roll or pirouette that you only see in Die Hard movies.  I braced myself into the seat as much as I could, waiting for the commotion to end. It was an all-out game of pong between my helmet and the halo of my seat with an e-ticket ride of “sky-ground-sky-ground”.  The car dived to the ground nose-first, and then landed on all for wheels with a tremendous bang.  If that’s not a cat landing on its feet I don’t know what is!

While my heart was certainly doing a lot of work, I felt fairly calm.  I was dizzy for a moment, then observed slivers of light obstructing my vision as I peered out of my helmet.  To validate my own awareness fearing I might pass out or had become unknowingly injured somewhere, I kept talking to myself between breaths “…Holy crap” and “…I’m good.  I’m doing good.  I’m good.”

Suddenly, on the radio, I heard a familiar voice.  “Geri, are you okay?”  With the air pressed out of me from the secure embrace of the harnesses I replied, “Yes, I’m ok.  But the car is done.”  I soon heard Laura’s voice on the radio too, where between Andrew and her it felt like I already had company sitting next to me to help deal with the situation.  In my rear-view mirror I could see cars were still on track, a few passing by slowly in the yellow-flag zone as officials rushed to red-flag the course.  At this rate, the stars in my sight had disappeared.  Likewise, the relief of seeing a big red truck driven by emergency crew was immense.

They approached the car and asked if I was alright, and my replies were instant and clear.  In-fact I was a bit on the talkative side.  “I’m okay.  Do I look okay?  Okay, I’m going to keep talking, so if I stop talking that’s bad.  Okay?” I said excitedly.  I think they found me good entertainment for the day… either that or they thought I hit my head too hard.  In any case, I had them all smiling at one point.  Geri on an adrenaline rush, how comical.

I collected my helmet and gloves as they helped me climb into the truck.  Through the window I got a glimpse of the destruction that had been inflicted on my car.  It wasn’t pretty, but the realization of what just took place began to sink in.  I was a lucky girl.  When the emergency crew explained to me what had happened, how high in the air I had gone, and how dramatic the crash was, they were surprised that I was in such great shape—alert, talkative, and positive.

The crew kept checking on me, as they sorted what to do next.  I didn’t stop rambling, so I must have been okay, right?

I was eventually transferred to an ambulance, where I was further evaluated.  They checked my blood pressure, examined areas that hurt such as my head and my ribs.  They said I looked good with no noticeable injuries but advised I see a doctor if pain persists.  I was shuttled over to the paddock where I was greeted by a large crowd of people, including the NASA NorCal Regional Director Jerry Kunzman, fellow racers, and of course my mother who was carefully guarded by the Spec Miata crowd.  My mom was clearly more upset than I was, as her eyes welled with tears.  I think it’s safe to say I hugged almost everyone around me, including the officials monitoring the situation.

[Spectator Video Captured the Crash - By danconnortown ]

Word spread fast across the track.  Apparently, you can’t pull a stunt like that and get away with only a few people knowing about it.  Turns out quite a few spectators witnessed the crash.  Luckily, in this unlucky situation, a local photographer and video-hobbyist happened to be recording the esses during the race and captured the last segment of my crash on video.  Watching after the fact definitely brought the realization of how rough the tumble was for good ol “Clifford” the Miata and his driver.  Despite the loss of my car, I was in high spirits, and reviewed the crash video right away.  “Whoa!!!  That is f***ing awesome!!  Let me see it again!” Was all I could say.  Since I was able to walk away to tell the tale, I think I can safely say that it was indeed a pretty cool crash.  4-thousand views on YouTube in less than a week? Apparently Miata’s are cool cars… but only when they fly.

Once the adrenaline began to wear off, I started experiencing all sorts of emotions at once.  Reviewing Clifford’s injuries spelled the level of the impact and made me wonder how I got away so clean.  It was almost enough to make me cry, which I never like to do because it’s kind of a girl thing.  Girl racers don’t cry, right?  Were tough as acrylic nails!  Well I did, but only for a second, so that doesn’t count.

It wasn’t long before I saw an unfamiliar man enter our pit area.  He stopped next to me and scanned all of our faces, “I’m looking for the number-34 Miata driver.  Is he here?”

I looked up at him and replied, “I’m right here.”

If he wasn’t clearly shaken enough, I think my reply just made the situation more complicated—I was the girl who flew, not the guy who flew.  It was then he asked if I was okay, and apologized for the situation he had caused.  In his explanations he noted that he was racing for a championship, and that his driving record previous to the incident had been clean for 7-years.  Of course, when someone tells you this shortly after performing a very specialized FAA airspace violation, it was hard to be convinced.  I didn’t have much to say, but I was very much willing to listen.  But, each time I looked at the car—the car I spent two years working with—I had even less to say.  What I did know was this crash would put me out of the game for quite some time, placing an abrupt halt to my goals and ambitions to progress in my racing.  As the driver hunted for words to express his apology, all I could draw upon were the impressions made by my driver coaches, as well as my colleagues at the Jim Russell School—ways of the wise if you will, and a clear realization that I have been a very attentive driver.

In a calm tone of voice, I reminded the driver that racing is clearly a dangerous sport and we come into this game knowing there are inherit risks.  “In the future you need to carefully consider how you make decisions, and which decisions you make, because obviously they can have very high prices,” I said.  “To be a good race car driver requires a careful blend of aggression and patience, and you lacked one of those today.”

The driver nodded, and proceeded to offer some assistance to correct the damage.  Graciously accepting to it, our conversation slowly came to a close.  As difficult as the conversation was, it was amenable that the Camaro driver came to my pit area to find me, and even more so with his offer to help resolve what had happened. Turning to a rattled group of drivers, we began to sort out what just took place and what I will have to do next.  Clifford was a great learning tool, and he did his job.  It was clear that he also protected me from serious injury.  He was a great little car indeed.  I will never forget the car nor the experiences I’ve had driving it.

While some people would have started a fist fight if they were in the situation like mine, I saw no need to aggravate an already intensified circumstance.  I’ve learned very early from some well-known and respected racers that being professional regardless of the level of racing is not only paramount for your reputation but raises the bar in terms of off-track driver etiquette.  It’s no secret that I want to race in a professional series in the future, so I find it no less important to be as professional in a club race as I would be driving in Grand-Am.

Being so new to the region I couldn’t be more grateful to have found such a wonderful group of racers.  With them only knowing me from a few of races, they quickly came to my rescue and provided incredible support.  I think it’s safe to say that without them around that weekend, I would have been in far worse shape.  Between Andrew and the Spec Miata racers, my mother was taken care of as well.  I can only imagine what it’s like to watch from the grandstands and see your own flesh and blood go flying through the air encapsulated in a metal box on wheels.  Probably not the most comforting feeling I’m sure.

I’m currently in the process of healing up and while the physical pain is not great, it’s definitely present.  Since the crash, I’ve suffered from nagging persistent headaches and a lot of chest/rib pain.  Fellow drivers told me that it would be worse days following the accident.  I didn’t believe them, but unfortunately they were spot on.  It’s not that the pain is worse with each day, it’s that the pain had multiplied in location with subsequent days following the impact.  I was crazy enough to run 6-miles two days after the accident, but the gym the day after that was enough to do me in.  I certainly did a great job aggravating my injuries.  As tough as I think I am and have been in my life, I have to force myself to sustain an indefinite “rest mode” until pains subside.  Orders from Doctor Mom!

In my short racing career I’ve had very few incidents, taking care to be as clean of a racer as possible.  This was only my second crash, but I suppose if you are going to do it, make it big.  Even in the early days of my driving, I invested in the best safety gear I could afford should something like this happen.  I cannot stress this enough; never ever skimp on your safety gear!  It is everything in racing, and can save your life and keep you from suffering serious injuries.  I may sound like a broken record, or maybe I’m telling you something you already know or have heard a million times over, but I’ve seen many new drivers jump into this sport and spend more money on a carbon fiber wing rather than on a quality helmet or race seat.  You don’t get style points lying on a hospital bed.

The equipment in my car worked exactly as intended.  The Racetech halo seat did an excellent job holding me in place and prevented my head from moving too far laterally.  While a seat like this is an expensive piece of equipment, it is often taken for granted for that same reason.  Drivers must realize that a seat is not about price-points or style, but is truly a part of the car’s restrain system.  As a religious user of a HANS device, it no doubt played a role in sparing my neck from the forward-lunging forces caused by the car’s nose-drive into the ground.  Meanwhile, the 6-point harness was tested of its effectiveness.  I’m a big fan of Schroth and they are a quality harness for not a lot of money.  If properly installed, they will hold you snugly into the seat, even in crashes like this. 

SafeRacer is a great resource in selecting safety gear.  They’ve always guided me in my selection for various items such as suits, gloves, shoes, and most recently, a quality lightweight helmet.  I ultimately went with the Bell GP2 along with a spare shield.  I’m a visor-down driver, a habit that I forced myself to develop and I have no regrets in doing so.  I’ve seen countless drivers, from SCCA to Grand-AM drive visor-up… why?!  Do you like hot tire debris in your eye?  With the rear window in my car completely blown out in the crash, I was showered with a lot of glass as the car rolled.  My eyes were free from injury, and I need not explain why.

Another critical part of my safety kit was the roll-cage.  I spared no expense on it, which made for a very fine piece of safety equipment and was often admired by passers by in the paddock.  It was admired especially after the crash!  The custom cage was fabricated by Kent Porter of Precision Chassis Works in Gilbert, Arizona; a true talent in the industry.  The cage sheltered me from the rear impact and as the car rolled onto and above the tire wall.  While the roof of the car had evidence of crush and stress, the cage was spared of any noticeable damage.

Last but not least, the NASA NorCal officials and emergency crew deserve some recognition here, as their response to the crash was immediate.  From the flaggers, race directors, tow truck crew, to the EMTs, they all did a wonderful job responding to the incident; collecting me and my car and ensuring the driver was well enough to head back to the paddock.

As a reflective person, I began to think about the what-if’s after the crash that could have made that particular race day end on a different note. Per the rulebook I clearly owned the corner, but me simply being there I had some degree of fault in the crash. While some people disagree with me on this point, I think it’s important to realize that outcomes are collaborative. In one hand, it’s the responsibility of the passing car to make a safe pass.  On the other, I could have just as easily listened to that feeling I felt at Turn 7 and lost a few tenths off my lap-time versus my entire car.  Arguments could go either way all day long.

I have been in regular communication with the Camaro driver since the crash, with several quality conversations that have been leading us towards a very positive outcome. I did express that while this is an unfortunate set of circumstances, I hope that we both get to see each other back on track again in the very near future. Perhaps next season we both will be able to start things off on much better footing.

It’s imperative that drivers listen to their core instincts versus reacting to what is seen and felt, simply because thinking takes too long.  With a solid foundation in car control meshed with common sense, your chances of making good decisions are greatly increased.  While this crash has become a great loss for me personally, it has also become a tremendous gain.  It has forever changed my perception of risk—you never know when things will go wrong, and when it does go wrong it happens incredibly fast.  If you stay ready, you never have to get ready.  Exemplified by the level of preparation in my car before it even touched the racing surface, being safe was my number-one priority.  After that, stepping out of the race car as a ‘professional’ was all I had to focus on.

Special thanks to SafeRacer, Precision Chassis Works, Racetech, Schroth, ChaseCam, Bell Racing, Alpinestars, and Mazdaspeed Motorsports.

 

Posted on 11/27

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