Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Writing About the Crashes

by Tammy

I've felt a bit ghoulish the last few days. You see, I've gotten back to my work on the second book in the Kate Reilly Racing Mystery series, and it starts with a bang. Literally. It starts with a wreck. So I've been searching for videos of crashes and trying to understand what each driver involved was thinking and trying to do, what went wrong with their plans, and what went wrong with other conditions, such as weather, surface, traffic, etc.

In some ways, it's a fascinating abstract problem. It's all too easy sometimes to watch something like NASCAR and think of the cars as easily regenerated items. I mean, that's not too farfetched, right? We see them, good as new, week after week, no matter what kind of crumpled mess they end up in the week before. And since NASCAR drivers are so rarely hurt badly these days, crashes seem almost fun.

I won't go into the terrible reminders we've had this year that crashes are often very serious, and can be deadly. I'll just say that safety has come a long way.

I haven't found a video of exactly what I want to happen in Kate's crash (suffice to say this accident needs to result in specific outcomes), but I've watched a couple others to get a feel for how an out-of-control car moves in the location I've chosen, as well as around the rest of the track.

Those of you who know racing have already figured out the track I'm working with: Road America (track map above). And I'm betting you've all also figured out what turn I'm talking about. Yes, the Kink, where GT2 Corvettes reach more than 145 m.p.h. and pull up to 2.6Gs. Through a turn. As Jan Magnussen said of it, “If you’re willing to take a risk, you can gain a lot – or lose a lot. That makes it really exciting.”

Exciting is one word for it. Just ask Katherine Legge, who walked away only mildly bruised from a spectacular wreck in the 2006 CART race.

Though I feel like I'm protesting too much, I'm really not someone who enjoys the wrecks, except for what they tell me about what a driver is thinking and trying to do ... and getting wrong. I guess I'll have to live with a bit of ghoulishness, in pursuit of the story I want to tell.


  1. Man, the sheer volume of calculations--many of them erroneous--that go through a driver's head in the instant between losing traction and smacking something unyielding boggles the imagination.

    My worst crash was in 1979 at Road Atlanta, in the right hand uphill corner at the end of the esses. It had been raining all morning, but it stopped around 9:00 and the staff tried to dry the track. They let us out for practice around 10:30, but didn't tell us that the track was only half dry in spots.

    I was young and stupid and convinced that I was going to live forever, so I just banged around the first lap determined to put as much heat in the tires as possible. Came out of the esses and arced out of the apex toward the right side of the track, at the limits of adhesion, just in time to see that the track was still wet six feet from the edge--way too late to slow down or change course. Power drifted off the course into the Georgia red clay and wet grass, picked up about ten miles per hour, and headed straight for the tire barrier.

    Now, this was in lay-down enduro karts. I was in the Stock Appearing class, which was easily capable of triple digit speeds. I was probably doing between 100 and 110 at the end of the esses.

    As I left the asphalt, I naturally tried to put the car into a dirt-track slide (I started my racing career driving dirt-track stock cars in 1971, so I had a fair amount of experience at this), in an attempt to avoid the wall and perhaps make a wide sliding arc back in the direction of the track. Nothing doing. I was carrying way too much speed, and the slick tires just wouldn't grab. Not only that, but on the wet clay and grass it seemed that I actually sped up!

    My last thought--more an image than actual words--before hitting the tire wall was, "Holy shit, this is really going to hurt!"

    It did. The kart hit the tires ass-first at something around 100mph. The momentum snapped me around and the front end hit next, dug in, and the kart started to flip, tossing me out, and blowing me out of my sneakers. The next thing I knew, I was lying on top of the tire barrier, shoeless, disoriented, and wondering if all my vital parts were still attached. My kart was upside down below me, revving like an SOB. A corner worker muffled the carb and killed the engine, but had to scramble back up the tires just as the next poor bastard slid off the track in the same place.

    We piled fifteen karts up in that corner over the first three laps of practice before someone in race control finally woke up and red flagged the session. It took me ten minutes to find one of my shoes.

    Seems like a full day, right?

    Wrong. Miraculously, there was very little structural damage to the kart. We got a tow back to the garage, where we made repairs just in time for the race that afternoon.

    What I didn't know was that I was in much worse shape than the kart was, but I was running on adrenalin and didn't feel it. I had torn a lot of muscles in my back, just under my left shoulder blade. I raced that day, and finished sixth, but when I woke up the next day back at home I couldn't even get out of bed for the pain. Spent two nights in the infirmary (I was in college at the time)because I couldn't even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. This was early November, and I actually healed in time to run the World Enduro Karting Championships at Daytona the next month.

    Racers are crazy. They have the most amazing ability to screen out fear and avoid imagining what could happen to them in the worst case scenario. Even in retrospect, unless you get really hurt, you tend to look at the wreck as having been kind of fun.

  2. Wow, Rick! That's a heck of a story. (I'm going to think of you as Shoeless Rick from now on.) I can't believe you raced that day with torn muscles. Then again, Doug Fehan tells a story about Oliver Gavin giving himself CO poisoning because they couldn't *see* flame and Doug told him to keep going. It's that concentration, I think. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Pain + time = funny, I guess.

  3. Tammy: If you ever want to know how it feels to go into a 4th-gear corner at New Jersey Motorsports Park with no brakes, I'm your man. (SPOILER: It's scary.)

    It was the first race in my Honda S2000. In the Lap 1 scrum, I'd driven hard over some "alligator teeth" (the rough curbs at track-out). This rattled my brake pads back in their calipers, so half a mile later, when I hit the pedal ... nothing.

    I'd never run into this problem in my previous race car, an RX-7. Lesson learned: Now, anytime I even suspect I ran over some curbing, I pump the brakes with my left foot before I next need them.

  4. Um, yikes, Steve? You'll never not check them again, I bet. Tough way to learn the lesson!

  5. I think Rick and Steve and I could share some tales. I've had the throttle cable jam open, been airborne, and almost flipping. Hardest shunt was into a tire wall. I felt as though someone smashed me across the heart with a 4 x 2. I seemed to have lost the ability to breathe for a minute. I just sat with my mouth opening and closing.

    All good stuff.