The helicopter floated by gently and circled, looking for a place to alight right near turn one. I watched it from my folding chair, and squeezed my hands together. This one was bad.
Fifteen minutes ago I was holding a blue flag, looking for a fast Porsche closing in on a Chevy Cobalt, warning the small fry to check their mirrors for the big fish behind. Then our communicator yelled 'Black Flag All". I drop the blue and reach for the black. At every corner station someone is doing the same thing, waiving it furiously, warning the drivers that we have a serious problem and they need to clear the track.
Black flags are not that uncommon at professional racing events. During practice and qualifying sessions they are used to clear the track so a car can be extracted from a place where it is likely to be hit and the extraction cannot be safely done with cars out running. A road racing course like Mid-Ohio isn't a NASCAR oval. We do full course yellows, but most spins are cleared under a local yellow, with full speed ahead elsewhere. Few thought this black would be different from the last one, when a car needed to be winched out of a gravel trap.
Our communicator turned to us. A BMW spun at one and was t-boned in the driver's door.
The driver's door. All roll cages contain at least two horizontal bars between driver and door, in part to protect the driver. Years ago NASCAR drivers' started installing door bars, a separate set of tubes that arch out and into the space where the guts of street car's doors normally resides. The bars give strength and bit of crumple space where the driver needs it most. But One is the fastest corner at Mid Ohio. In my old ITB car it was a 90 MPH corner. I'd just give a quick tap of the brakes to upset the rear end then turn in. But I raced a bottom-feeder car in a bottom-feeder class. The Grand Am Cup is a professional racing series. The cars involved are far faster than mine.
A BMW Z-3 sedan entering turn one came it just a touch too fast. His rear tires broke loose and he began to rotate, his view an involuntary panorama. Normally nothing happens when you spin. But this time he had a Big Fish behind, a Grand Sport Porsche 911; bigger, heavier and way faster. The impact practically tore the front end off the Porsche.
And so we sit there listening to a spectator's scanner as Helga tells someone to 'Stand up 76". The spectator, who has been coming here for decades tells us that '76' is the medevac chopper. Our net announces that the driver has to be cut out of the car. That's bad.
A good racing seat isn't like the seat in your car. Most are built from aluminum, and they are sized to fit the driver. His hips are held tight for the simple reason that a race car regularly undergoes violent accelerations. It's hard to accurately control the car, much less feel what it is doing, if you are sliding around. In a race car, your bottom is your guide.
And today's race cars are very safe indeed. An SCCA legal roll cage must be able to endure 7.5 vertical gees, 2.5 lateral and 5 forward simultaneously without deflection. Anything that can bend a cage will first destroy the car around it. The proof came last weekend when an American Sedan lost his brakes on the back straight. The curbing at the inside of seven launched the Camaro into a one-hundred foot flight before he touched the gravel trap. He flew another ten yards before the second touch. The next touch was the tire wal. I saw that car. Everything had moved. The rear axle was jacked, the roof and B pillars folded around the bars of the cage, fenders crushed. But the cage didn't move. And the driver was out of the car within two minutes of impact. He felt 'sore'.
Time went on. No word on the driver. The helicopter shut off his engine. Just the sound of two cycle engines as the safety people cut at the car. There was talk of canceling the next race session. Our lunch period would be shortened. Big deal when you consider the person sitting in that car while men sliced steel around him. The life-flight crew was called in for an assessment.
Another life flight helicopter came in from the northeast, replacement for the one that sat on the track waiting for its passenger. The sound of the rotors beating gives us no comfort, nor does the sight of it spiraling in for a landing. Eventually we hear the sound of the helicopter on the track starting up. The driver had been extracted from his cage and was being carried to the chopper. They were taking him to Grant Hospital in Columbus, not to the closer Mansfield General. The car is towed by us, the cockpit wrapped in a tarp.
We didn't hear anything more until the end of the day. The news was good; a broken pelvis and femur. No apparent spinal injuries. They took extra care partly because a broken pelvis can cut off a critical artery if cit shifts the wrong way. They were doing their job, taking their time. It seem likely that the driver will make a full recovery.
Racing is dangerous. We who participate know that well. My friend Glenn Miller was killed in May by an out-of-control race car. I have seen many men drive who died in their race cars. Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue. Bruce McLaren, Swede Savage, Trans-Am champion Jerry Titus, F1 vets Peter Revson and Francois Cevert. Indianapolis used to kill a driver every year. In 1973 it took three people, including Savage who burned to death. F1 used to lose at least one driver ever year. the Carrera Panamerica and Mille Migglia were cancelled during danger. People used to die all the time. Eighty-three died in single accident at LeMans in 1954, mostly spectators.
Over the years proceedures have improved and so has the equipment. The tracks are also safer. Racers like Phil Walters and Jackie Stewart led the way. Fuel cells made fires rare, and roll cages protect drivers from all angles. Energy absorbing zones are built into race cars and street cars. All this effort has made racing safer but nothing will ever make it totally safe. It may be that the very real danger is part of the appeal.
I imagine that when he wakes up the driver will meet his wife. She'll be teary-eyed, hug him, tell him he'll love him. Then she'll raise herself up to her full height, glare at him and inform him that he's never, ever getting in that car again.
A real racer would reply. "Don't worry Honey, I'll never get in that car again."
He'll build a new one. That's the way we are.
according to the Grand Am web site the driver's surgery went well, and he's going to make a full recovery although he may have trouble getting through airport security checks. Good news for sure!