Fun, Fast, Safe

Last weekend was a good one for race fans in the United States.  From the Moto GP race at the beautiful Circuit of the Americas in Texas, to the Long Beach Grand Prix through the streets of downtown Long Beach, CA, there was plenty of great, professional racing to watch in person or on TV.  For me, though, this last weekend was Time Attack events #5 and #6 at Willow Springs Raceway with the Porsche Owners Club. As per usual, the POC event at Willow was an absolute blast, and the Cup races on Saturday and Sunday provided some of the best racing action I’ve seen in a long time.  However, this weekend also served as a stark reminder that, while fun, motorsports can also be very, very dangerous.  And while all involved walked away with only minor injuries, both incidents highlight the importance of safety devices and proper vehicle preparation. The first incident took place on the exit to T9, a notoriously ruthless corner on a notoriously fast racetrack.  Turn 9 is legendary for its trickery – a decreasing radius turn with high entry and exit speeds and very little runout, Turn 9 at Willow is one that commands respect.  Last weekend’s incident in T9 was, however, not the fault of the driver but, rather, a failure of the equipment.  The driver experienced a blow-out of the LR tire in mid-corner which led to the back of the car coming around and the car sliding sideways into the dirt.  The car eventually came to a stop on its roof, and the emergency teams were able to extricate the driver (with some difficulty) and tend to his slight abrasions on his left arm.  The importance of these details will become evident in a moment. The second incident of the weekend happened on the entrance to Turn 8, a VERY high speed right-hand sweeper with a corner entry speed of around 100mph.  Similarly – but not surprisingly – the vehicle involved in the incident in T8 had a blow-out of the LR tire which sent the car off course and into the dirt sideways and, unfortunately, end over end through the fence and into the pits at the Streets of Willow.  Luckily no bystanders were injured, and the driver and passenger of the car received what appears to be only minor injuries. Both incidents have a few things in common: 1) both cars lost the LR tire which led to the incident  2) both cars were equipped with a roll cage and proper safety devices 3) both drivers (and passenger) received only minor injuries and will live to race again (hopefully soon).  So, what can we learn from these events, and what can we do to mitigate the chances that they happen again (and to us)?  Well, let’s start with the failures that led to the incidents… Big Willow is a VERY high speed racetrack with mostly right hand turns.  It’s a desert racetrack, which means that it gets HOT, windy, and dry out there in Spring and Summer months.  As such, it’s extremely important to keep an eye on things like track temperatures, tire temperatures, and tire life.  On a track like Big Willow, the LR tire is under load through T2, T4, T6, T7, T8, and T9 with the highest loads being T2 and T8.  Extensive monitoring of tire temps and condition before and after each run session is imperative to the prevention of tire failures.  Consequently, this was the reason for my shortened weekend – going into the weekend the tires on the TLG 74 911 looked like they were about finished.  With consistent monitoring I noticed that the LR tire started showing the beginning signs of tread separation after the fourth session on Saturday.  Since no suitable replacement could be found at the track, the weekend was over and the car was sidelined in the interests of safety … the safety of myself, the driver, and that of my fellow drivers.  In the case of the car the exited the track in T9, I suspect that the failure was due to a missed clue that the tire was going away; these things happen – we’re only human – but it reinforces the need for vigilance when inspecting one’s tires.  In the case of the car that exited in T8 and bounced over The Streets of Willow, it has been stated that the driver/car experienced not one but THREE failures of the LR tire during the course of the weekend.  This goes beyond a simple human error or slight oversight and borders on negligence.  Repeated failures of the same part should serve as a red flag, and in the interests of driver, passenger, fellow competitor, and spectator safety the car should be immediately sidelined until the cause of the failures is/are found and repaired.  So, while both cars lost the LR tire, the difference is that one of the cars was poorly prepared and needed closer scrutinizing after the first tire failure. Moving on, it should be noted that both cars rolled over multiple times and that all involved sustained only minor injuries. The reason for this is that both cars were equipped with roll cages, but the nature of the injuries points to the differences in roll cage construction and the cages’ ability to protect the drivers in an accident. The first car that rolled was an 80s 911, and the driver ended up getting an abrasion on his elbow from the halo on his racing seat.  That’s it.  A scraped elbow.  He rolled his car in T9 at Big Willow and scraped his elbow.  Unfortunately, both the driver and passenger of the car that went off in T8 sustained slight leg injuries due to poor construction of the lower part of the roll cage. The lesson to be learned here is that roll cage design and fabrication is not about just keeping the car intact during a crash but, more importantly, it’s about keeping the driver (and passenger) safe. Proper tubing materials, diameters, bend radii, weld quality, number of tubes, etc. are all elements that conspire to keep the occupants safe in a crash. In the case of the car that went off in T8 yes, the cage helped (because something is better than nothing), but better roll cage construction may have prevented even the minor injuries that occupants sustained.

And, with that, I want to remind everyone that racing cars is all about having fun, and everything is fun and games until someone gets hurt.  So play nice and play safe, and we’ll see you out at the track again on May 2-4 with the POC