A recent survey showed that teen drivers don’t think that texting while driving is dangerous, at least not on the level of drinking and driving. A big reason for this, in my opinion, is lack of experience behind the wheel. Until you’ve been in a situation where the fertilizer-hits-the-roatary-oscillator behind the wheel, you really don’t have a concept of how quickly things can go bad. Get distracted at speed, even for a second or two, and you may not have the time, distance or driving skills necessary to avoid a major accident.
So here’s the deal: I’ll kick this off by giving you my biggest “oh shit” moment behind the wheel, then you spill yours. I suspect the common theme will be that things went from just fine to not fine at all before you really had a chance to react. Prove me right or prove me wrong, but I’d love to hear your story.
Years ago I was club racing in the SCCA, specifically in Improved Touring. My job had me on the road for about 3 weeks out of the month, and what little free time I did have was spent working with a local driving school. I’d started out doing marketing and promotion for them, but worked my way up into assisting at track days and showing clients the line around the track we used. It didn’t pay, but it did give me free track time.
Fast forward to a particular race at an old Army airfield, The track was high-speed, primarily because it consisted of long runways linked by blind, constant radius corners. The first few laps were a bit puckering, since Turn One was a blind entry and you took it flat out. After the end of the morning practice, I’d worked out my line and was ready for qualifying.
After I was waved onto the track, I used the first lap to get some heat in the tires and fine tune my line around the track. For lap two I went hammer down, and was having a great drive until I accelerated down the back straight. Maximum velocity in my ITB prepped, 2.0 liter Ford Pinto was around 110 miles per hour, and I was somewhere in that neighborhood when I realized that I was catching one of our clients on the track. Odd, because he was driving a Mazda RX-7 Turbo and I was driving a Pinto.
That fraction-of-a-second distraction was all it took for me to miss my braking marker. No problem I thought, I’ll just go a bit deeper in the corner and brake a little harder. My strategy probably would have worked fine if there were less marbles (gravel, bits of rubber, etc.) on the track; instead, my car swapped ends at about 85 mph. Opposite lock did nothing but increase the severity of the spin, and I realized I wasn’t going to save it. I pulled my hands from the wheel, floored the clutch and mashed the brakes. As the car slid off the track and into the loose dirt of the infield, I was fine until the outside wheels dug into the soil. When they did, the car went up on the outside two wheels and slid though the dirt, scrubbing off speed and throwing an enormous roostertail of dirt into the sky. I waited for the pending rollover as I shut down the car and covered the release mechanism of the harness with my free hand. The car never flipped, but I did enjoy a 45 degree view of the horizon for longer than I care to think about. In the driver’s meeting, several competitors told me, “Dude, I saw the entire underside of your car”. Good times.
I walked away without injury and a quick trip to the pits put the car back to right, but the outcome could have been much different. My ITB car had a stout roll cage, I was wearing a five point harness and a Nomex suit, and the car was equipped with a fire extinguisher. In a street car, with no added safety gear, a rollover isn’t something I’d care to participate in.
So what did I learn? At those speeds, even an experienced driver has very little chance of recovery from a mistake, unless you’ve got a lot of room to work things out. That’s my “oh shit” moment, so now let’s hear yours.