Category Archives: motorsport

Racing Safety

Once upon a time, motor racing was one of the most dangerous activities you could voluntarily participate in. If you were a racing driver between about 1950 and 1970, you stood a pretty good chance of dying in an accident. Case in point – out of the 43 drivers that participated in the 1969 Formula 1 World Championship, 10 (yes, 10!) would die in accidents before the end of the season.

In an accident, you would have likely been killed after suffering, say, blunt-force trauma, a skull fracture, broken neck or burns from fire. Racing cars during this era were designed to be as strong as possible. However, the safety of its driver was not highly considered in the design. The extreme forces that are imparted during a high-speed accident could not be absorbed by the car, meaning that the driver was subjected to them. And, with the lack of safety equipment in these cars, drivers were being severely injured or killed at alarming rates.

Today, racing cars are designed to intentionally disintegrate when involved in an accident. This disintegration allows energy from the accident to be dissipated. Meanwhile, the driver is protected by a survival cell, be it a full roll cage or carbon fibre “tub” that is prevalent in single-seaters. The driver also has much more advanced and effective safety equipment at his or her disposal. With this progress, a racing driver has a high probability of walking away from an accident that would have been fatal in previous decades.

One specific type of device that I outline here probably has made a bigger impact to racing safety than anything else before it, active or passive – devices which protect the head and neck from injury.

In a racing car, your upper body is strapped tightly to the seat with a 5 or 6-point harness. However, with few exceptions, most drivers in the 20th century did not adequately protect their head and neck. In accidents where the rate of deceleration is abrupt, the head whips forward. This force are magnified even more due to the driver’s helmet increasing the weight of the head. Meanwhile, the rest of the body is restrained by the safety harness. The neck muscles, even in the strongest athletes, aren’t designed to absorb the forces that sudden deceleration can impart in a high-speed accident. Cervical injuries, skull fractures or death were highly likely to occur as a result.

The basilar skull fracture would become well-known as a nearly 100% guaranteed cause of death in a racing accident in the 1990s and early 2000s. With the sudden forward motion of the unrestrained head and neck, blood supply to the brain would be cut along with fractures to the base of the skull occurring. With very, very few exceptions (Ernie Irvan in a Michigan NASCAR race in 1994 and Stan Smith in a NASCAR race in 1993), it was curtains you suffered this type of injury.

Here’s an example of a driver killed by a basilar skull fracture. This video was taken from the 1994 Formula 1 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. This race is well known for the death of Ayrton Senna on May 1st, but the previous day, Roland Ratzenberger of Austria was killed during a practice session. His front wing became lodged under the front wheels of his car, sending him off track at almost 190mph, head-on into a concrete wall. It is very clear that he suffered severe injuries and was killed on impact with the wall (WARNING: POTENTIALLY GRAPHIC VIDEO).

Later, NASCAR drivers Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt would be killed by the same injury. The death of Earnhardt, especially, started the movement for the use of head and neck restraints in racing cars.

Today’s head and neck restraint devices work in a simple manner. The device is attached to the helmet with tethers, then secured to the body of the driver, most likely with the shoulder straps of the car’s safety harnesses. When involved in an accident, instead of the head and neck whipping forward uncontrollably, the device limits this movement. More importantly, the head is kept in line with the neck, which reduces the chance of a skull fracture or neck injury, while not restricting its movement as the car decelerates. As a result, the majority of energy that would have been absorbed by the driver’s neck muscles is transferred to the device itself and the rest of the body.

The most well-known head and neck restraint among racing drivers, both professional and amateur, is the HANS device. Either made of molded polymers or carbon fibre, I’m fairly certain in stating that it has saved the lives of many a racing driver when put to use.

This first video illustrates a crash test dummy hitting a “wall” at only 42mph. If the movement of the dummy’s head and neck is that extreme at such a “slow” speed, it can only be worse at the triple-digit speeds racing accidents can occur at:

This next video illustrates the same crash test dummy hitting the “wall” also at 42mph, but now using a HANS. The lack of movement of the head and neck compared to above is eye-opening:

A third example of the effectiveness comes from a Rally event in Europe. The co-driver in this car is wearing a HANS, while the driver, inexplicably, isn’t. The forces even in this “low-speed” crash into a ditch are shocking.

Other head and neck restraints besides the HANS are available from from companies like Simpson Racing Products and NecksGen, and offer similar protection.

Like wearing a helmet, fire suit, gloves and shoes, I could never imagine myself getting into a racing car without using a neck restraint. While somewhat uncomfortable initially, it becomes second nature to use. For something relatively “simple” compared to other safety equipment for the driver and car, a neck restraint has the greatest potential benefit; put succinctly, it can save your life.

However, we must realize that racing, even with advances in car design and driver protection, will never be 100% safe. It’s, I guess, part of the reason why some folks, including myself, are drawn to it. Injuries can still occur even when a driver is protected by the best equipment available. Racing drivers, teams and tracks must continue to be vigilant on safety and make the necessary improvements wherever required to ensure the well-being of drivers when going for the win.

There Goes the Neighborhood 2014 Recap

The proliferation of “crapcan” racing series like the Chump Car World Series and the 24 Hours of LeMons has opened up endurance road racing to a wider audience. Is it really true that you don’t need a multi-million dollar budget and the fanciest or fastest car available to go endurance racing? Sort of. Even though the door has been opened to a wider audience, at its core, this is still racing. And, as we know, going racing with any car, brand-spanking new or a shitbox, can get very expensive.

Two weekends ago, I joined up with Maximum Attack Motorsports to do the second 24 Hours of LeMons race of the 2014 season held at New Jersey Motorsports Park on August 9 and 10. The name of this event was “There Goes the Neighborhood.” We entered a familiar car, a Mk3 Volkswagen Golf 8V ABA. While slow on straights compared to the other cars in the field, it was still competitive enough that a decent finish was not out of the question.

The first LeMons race of the season, The Real Hoopties of New Jersey in May, was an interesting one. Our team ended up getting too many black flags for on-track penalties such as contact, going off track, etc. In LeMons racing, after a certain amount of black flags, your car is parked and not permitted to return to the track at all. This happened to us in May. And, worse, we got parked MINUTES from the final checkered flag. Needless to say, we were looking to avoid the same fate this time around.

The driving team was again composed of familiar faces – myself, Brandon, Ed and Dave. We would have had a 5th driver available, but that did not materalise. Because of this, the team asked me if I would start the racing on both days. Despite the series name, a large majority of LeMons races are two-day events (Saturday-Sunday) and up to 15 combined hours in length.  Additionally, because only 4 drivers were available, each of us would have a longer stint on-track. Secretly, I was scared out of my mind. But, wanting to project confidence, I instantly agreed to be the starting driver.

This go-around, I felt more relaxed and comfortable in the car. I guess that comes with experience and seat time. On the Saturday of the event, getting suited up, belted in and performing final car and radio checks was almost routine. I knew what to expect and could focus on the task at hand. Then, I pulled out onto the track. Heart rate and breathing rose, but I still maintained a calm and cool head…

Until about 30 minutes into my stint. On the Thunderbolt course the race used, turn 1 is after a long straightaway and, in our car, can be taken at 60+ mph. Prior to reaching this turn, a Chevy Camaro was barreling up the front straightaway, catching me at a fast rate. Knowing that he was faster and not wanting to ruin both our races, I left him a lane on the inside of the turn to allow him to pass. He did not use that lane, and hit me twice, punting me into the runoff area. Thankfully, I got the car slowed down before I would have hit the tire wall. Almost instantly, I thought of two things:

  1. The car was badly damaged.
  2. What were the LeMons judges going to penalise us with because of the contact? (we did not get a penalty after all)

I limped the car back to the paddock for the team to try to repair the damage.  It was agnoising to sit in the car and wait, completely unable to help my teammates. But, it was also fascinating to watch the team work quickly, methodically and in unison to affect repairs. It was also highly amusing to watch the tools chosen for the job put to use – a sledgehammer, breaker bar and tin snips. It turned out that the car was not affected from a drivability perspective, but only suffered minor body damage. After a 10 minute repair, I was back on track. Luckily, the accident was followed by a Red flag and race stoppage due to a BMW experiencing an oil fire and runaway engine; crapcan racing for sure.

So, we ended up not losing much track position.

2014-08-09 19.11.40
The right-front fender after repairs. Note the orange paint – the Camaro that hit me was painted orange.

By the end of the 1st day, we were classified in 25th place overall out of 126 cars. However, the car was battered and bruised by additional incidents of  contact with other competitors. At least 3 additional colors were now on the car on top of the regular gray/black/red motif. Seeing the body damage afterward further reinforced what the car had been through.

2014-08-10 07.17.35
Damage to the left-front fender and bumper after day 1. Note the yellow paint on the tire sidewall…

On day 2, I jump back in the car to start. Being in 25th place, our goal was to not only reach the checkered flag, but improve our standing as much as possible. As my stint progressed, everything felt normal. We had a long green-flag period which let the field string out, allowing open track to drive at (or in my case, close to) 100%. Towards the end of the stint, I gained 6 spots to 19th. Then, I started hearing a scraping noise from the right-front wheel area. I thought it was a tire rubbing the already damaged fender, so I kept going. It got progressively worse and worse, however. Suddenly, my steering went awry – I had to turn the wheel almost 45 degrees left to keep the car going straight. Additionally, the scraping noise got louder and louder.

Diagnosis – cracked and split right-front lower control arm.

I was absolutely heartbroken. We did not have a spare available, either. What happened next was a miracle, of sorts. Using some bolts and a metal plate, my teammate Ed pulls the control arm off the car, finds another team in the paddock with a welder, and somehow welds the control arm back together. When it was re-installed on the car, the alignment was almost identical to before. Unbelievable.  I then help Dave buckle in and he goes out after about an hour in the paddock.

He literally marvels at how amazing the car is handling. I’m in disbelief, thinking that this patched up control arm stood no chance of making it to the end. But, this being a car that somehow cannot be broken, it soldered on.

Mid-way through Dave’s stint, we got a radio call that 5th gear broke while going down the front straightaway. Crap. Even in a slow car like ours, we still got enough speed that 5th was regularly used. Now, not only did we have to run the engine basically at or above the redline for that fast part of the course, all of those metal fragments from 5th gear were floating around the transmission. If the fragments hit any of the other gears, it was basically curtains for it and our race.

We get to the final driver change, and the car is still running. It does not sound healthy, but we decide to go for it all. Ed jumps in for the final hour or so of the race. Nearing the finish, I finally start thinking “we’re actually going to finish!” Not so fast. We get a black flag with less than 5 minutes to go until the checkered flag. I believe it was for going off course and putting four wheels in the grass. Ed pulls the car into the penalty box, but we expect him to be back on track quickly. But, all that we hear is radio silence. The checkered flag falls, but I did not see our car on track. We had been parked.

Gutted. This was now the 2nd race in a row where we did not take the checkered flag because of a penalty. However, despite all that happened to us during the weekend, we still finished 38th overall out of 126. It was surprising and almost unbelievable that we finished that high up in the order.

Teamwork and cooperation play a major role in any sort of endurance racing, amateur or professional. Instead of one person handling the duties of driving the car, there are multiple. This changes your perspective when driving and how you drive, because when something happens, everyone on the team is affected by it. It alters driving strategies and responses to on-track incidents. It was a joy to go racing with Maximum Attack Motorsports, because of not only the encouragement and enthusiasm for racing, but for how well everyone worked together to achieve the common goals of keeping our car on track and finishing as high as possible. I’m already itching for next season’s races. Word from over the grapevine is that a new car is in the works…

The Track Day

For those of us with high performance cars, being able to use all of it safely is quite difficult on a public road. With other road users, traffic and those drivers who are less attentive, it frankly is a death wish if you put your foot down for long periods of time. However, one avenue that is available can alleviate this need for speed – track days.

The premise of a track day (or weekend) is very simple – take your own car onto road courses that many of today’s professional drivers have driven and go as fast as you possibly can. It is not racing in the traditional sense; in fact, it is STRONGLY discouraged and frowned upon. It is an exercise to push the limits of your car and, more importantly, your own driving skills, in a controlled environment.

One event that has been hosted, now, for the past four years has been Dub Deliverance. Organized by TrackDaze and sponsored by Volkswagen of America (VWoA), APR and New German Performance, it allows Volkswagen and Audi vehicles to participate in a track day event for DIRT CHEAP prices. Normally, most track days/weekends are between $200-400 JUST TO ENTER.

This does not include ancillaries like hotels, fuel, tires, brakes, and, unfortunately, the occasional broken part(s). Because VWoA heavily subsidizes the event to get the brand out to its target audience – enthusiasts, the price for the day is in the double digits. In 2014, the entry fee was $55. THAT’S IT. For that sort of money, who wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity?

In August 2013, I first heard of the event, and decided, without hesitation, to bring my Mk5 GTI. Heavily turbocharged and modified with all sorts of upgrades, it was made for the track. And, frankly, I wanted to wring its neck out. Unfortunately, the car did not make it through the event,  because a fuel injector became stuck open during the 3rd track session. The end result was that NGP Racing had to tow the car back to Maryland, I had to hitch a ride to get back home, and replace all the fuel injectors out-of-pocket. It was not a good day.

This year, I decided to bring my Scirocco to the 2014 event, held on August 16th. Like 2013, we would be driving at Summit Point Motorsports Park. Leading up to this, I had SERIOUS reservations about bringing the Scirocco. First, it was down OVER 200hp compared to my Mk5 GTI. While it was nimble in corners, it basically had no hope keeping up on straightaways. I thought my saving grace was that, a few days before the event, the road course changed from what would have been a fast and flowing one to one more technical.  This gave me hope that the Scirocco would be able to keep up with the faster cars. So, I decided to drive it down to West Virginia.

On arriving at the track Saturday morning, I was surprised at the amount of comments and questions I received about the car. I can say without hesitation that all of them were positive. I sort of expected this, given that a majority of the cars in the event were new (late 90s to this model year) and I was only one of a handful that drove an older car. But, I didn’t expect so much positive reaction to the car. Maybe it’s because it looks different, or is just “cool.” Whatever the reason, seeing this reaction validated my reason for driving it.

We were on the Shenandoah Circuit, 2.2 miles in length. It is one of the most technical road courses I’ve driven, with decent elevation changes, slow to fast corners and a perfect replica of the Karussell corner from the Nurburgring. Most importantly, the straightaways, I felt, were short enough that I would be able to keep up with everyone else for a good portion. WRONG.

During a track day, unless you’re an Advanced/Expert driver, passing is only permitted on specific areas and with a point by, to the left or right.  I spent a good bit of my track time pointing people by because I was, frankly, holding them up.  I guess light and nimble is not enough on a majority of North American road courses – you need power as well. With a car that probably has, at best, 130hp, I felt like I was a rolling chicane on the straightaways, even as “short” as they were. In the corners, I could keep up with most cars, but even I started to wonder, “did I make the right decision?”

Hell yes. For someone like me who appreciates and embraces not only high performance driving but also improving driving skill, the day was worth the frustration and slight embarrassment. It has spurred me on to improve some of my driving habits. For example, this was the first time I’d driven a car of my own that had a manual gearbox. My Mk5 GTI has a DSG/double-clutch automated gearbox, where manual shifting is done by paddles. Transitioning to a true manual with a clutch pedal was an adventure. Granted, I’d driven a manual car in real race conditions (24 Hours of LeMons) but still had bad habits. The one I really hate and want to work on is heel-toe downshifting. This was on display for sure here. My poor clutch must hate me for shifting from 4th to 3rd without rev-matching.

For those of you looking to improve your driving and go fast in a controlled environment, a track day/weekend is the best place to do it. Instructors are available to provide you with driving tips and pointers as well as give you the encouragement to push yourself and your car farther than you thought possible. But, the camaraderie and shared enthusiasm for high performance driving is what keeps drawing me back to these types of events. It’s cool when you can meet people who share your passion, share knowledge and stories and just have fun with like-minded individuals.

Here is a video of one of the sessions from the weekend: