Watching Crashes, From the Cockpit - Part I Sitting trackside earlier this season, three drivers casually chatted about the upcoming race, and the kinds of things only drivers think about, like different driving lines and track surfaces.
Watching Crashes, From the Cockpit - Part I
Sitting trackside earlier this season, three drivers casually chatted about the upcoming race, and the kinds of things only drivers think about, like different driving lines and track surfaces. Meanwhile, the track was live with support series cars practicing. Then it happened. An accident.
Under braking one car spun and slowly backed into the tire wall. The next car by slowed amidst the flutter of yellow flags. A third car, not seeing the yellows, came flying along at full tilt. Crash, a second accident ensued. Everyone walked away fine.
But, like so many fans, one of the drivers mused, "I don't want crashes to happen and don't want anyone getting hurt, but when racing accidents do happen, I'm among the first to want to make sure I get to see them."
People have long watched sporting events for the drama, part of which is created by the big hits in football, tape-measure home runs, knockdowns in boxing and racing accidents. After all, jousting would have been a bore without gladiators getting knocked off horses.
The fascination with the most dramatic moments in sports has spawned "highlight reels" and "plays of the day." What you rarely hear about, though, is what it's like to be part of the drama. What's a crash feel like from the cockpit? What goes through a driver's mind as it happens? And how do drivers avoid thinking about the eventuality of accidents?
The Driver's Perspective
"You just can't think about it. It's kind of like thinking you will fail in business. If you think about it too much, it's probably going to happen," says Team Bucknum driver Pierre Ehret. "Besides, if you think about it, you're probably going to be slow, and that by itself is dangerous. You become a hazard to others who are going race speed."
"The few times it has happened to me, I've always been surprised by how time slows down and how much information your mind can process in a short period of time," says Team Bucknum driver Chris McMurry.
"Once you're off the track, it seems the first thought is, 'can I avoid hitting something and avoid damaging the car?' Not because you're afraid of getting hurt, but because you want to finish the race. If hitting something seems inevitable, then in a brief instance my attention turns to safety; relaxing and letting go of the steering wheel before impact."
As strange as letting go of the steering wheel sounds, doing so decreases hand and arm injuries. Often the front wheels jerk violently upon impact, and so then does the steering wheel. The sudden movement can cause injuries if a driver is still gripping the steering wheel.
Driver Jeff Bucknum has experienced the worst accident of Team Bucknum drivers, when three years ago his Formula Mazda flipped multiple times and landed upside down about 200 yards from where it went off the track at Heartland Park Raceway in Kansas.
"To be fast, you're going to be riding the edge fairly consistently. But, you get used to being there, become skilled at controlling the car while it's on the edge and become confident that you always have the car under control," says Bucknum.
"When that accident happened, I just remember thinking, as silly as it sounds,'Uh-oh.' From there it was just a rapid sequence of seeing the sky, then the ground, then the sky, then the ground. There was nothing I could do except wait. When the car finally came to rest, I remember thinking, 'Hmm, I guess I'm okay."
Remarkably, Bucknum was uninjured and raced the same weekend, finishing an impressive third in the nationally-televised Star Mazda Series race that featured 26 entries.
Next issue the editors of Team Bucknum Racing News will present part two of this three-part story with a look at how track design differs from street design, and how the difference impacts safety.