For utmost safety and preparedness, optimize your driver and your equipment
When I started racing karts more than 50 years ago, serious and fatal injuries from racing crashes were common. Over the years, many heroes and friends have perished in crashes. Many others suffered serious injuries. By the late 1960s, when I was racing at higher levels in faster cars, I was pretty sure I would not make it to the turn of the century, and the odds were pretty good that any given driver would die in a crash before turning 40. It was just the reality of the sport in those days — and injuries were usually more serious, often with lifelong consequences.
Fatalities and serious injuries are still possible, but the odds and the consequences are greatly reduced if — and it’s a big if — you use the latest safety equipment and prepare yourself physically and mentally for the possibility of a crash.
So who is responsible for a driver’s safety on the racetrack? At first glance, one would put the onus on the sanctioning bodies. NASCAR learned the hard way that regulations for driver safety were important, and it took the death of a superstar to drive home that important concept. I was lucky enough to know Dale Earnhardt, but Dale paid little to no attention to safety. He had a fatalistic attitude about it. Many people, like Bill Simpson practically begged Earnhardt to use modern safety gear. But he was stubborn, believed that it would never happen to him, and he paid dearly.
Regardless of the rules, at the end of the day, it’s the driver’s neck at risk, so each driver needs to be responsible for his or her own safety.
When I was first interested in cars and racing in the late 1950s, one of the all-time great ads appeared in Hot Rod and Car Craft magazines. Bell-Toptex was the first helmet design using expanded-bead Styrofoam as a hard-shell inner liner. Until then, helmets had an outer hard shell and a cloth or leather inner liner that offered no impact protection and did little more than deflect stones. Bell made a giant leap forward in head protection, which is still the basis for helmet design today. The traditional helmets of the day cost about $10. The Bell was two to five times more expensive. The headline on Bell’s ad said, “If you have a $10 head, wear a $10 helmet!” This applies even more so today. If you value your head, the rest of your body and ultimately your life, then take advantage of the latest safety gear that can really protect you.
If you race in wheel-to-wheel competition, NASA rules require a certain amount of safety gear. Obtain the best equipment you can afford. And it should be a priority to purchase better than you can afford.
Fire is not the threat it was even 20 years ago, but it is still possible. Good fire protection — driver suit, Nomex underwear, balaclava, shoes, and gloves — make a big difference in personal protection.
We are not going to go into the benefits of safety gear, because so much has been written about it. As long as safety equipment has a current SFI rating, you know you are getting quality products — and I have always believed it is impossible to have too much protection.
Overall health and physical fitness are key elements of crash survival. Professional drivers are generally in top physical condition. On the surface, it appears that being in shape is necessary to handle the rigors of high temperatures in the cockpit, high g forces and long stints behind the wheel. This is true, but another reason is a healthy driver in top physical condition is better able to handle crashes and is more likely to recover quickly. For that reason, being in decent condition and in a relatively healthy state will minimize injuries in a crash, improve the chance of surviving a crash, reduce recovery time if injuries occur and even reduce the chance of crashing in the first place.
Mental preparation falls into two categories. First is what you can do to minimize the risk of injuries if you find yourself in an “Oh, s**t!” moment. Second is how you prepare mentally to reduce the chance of getting into a situation where crashing is a possible outcome, and we’ll touch on each of those categories in the sections below.
When I was working for a racing school in Southern California in the 1980s, a fellow instructor who was — and still is — a very talented driver, wanted some mentoring. This worked well for some time, but then we started to discuss crashes. I suggested that he use visualization rehearsal as means to minimize injuries in a crash. He became upset, saying he didn’t want to rehearse crashing in his head. The goal is to visualize how you will react when you realize a crash is inevitable.
You need to know where all the critical controls, switches and buttons are located. Can you reach them when strapped-in? Can you find them with your eyes closed? Keep in mind, a crash can be disorienting. Finding a switch or handle can be more difficult than you might think.
The most important is the kill switch. If the car is going to impact another car, wall or barrier, then getting the ignition shut off is a good thing. If the internal forces are too great to move a hand to the switch, then shut off the switch as soon after impact as possible. Fire is not as likely as it once was, but it is still a good idea to shut down the engine and associated fuel flow.
It is a good idea to practice removing your hands from the steering wheel so that in a crash, if the front end is jarred, you will be protecting your wrists and arms from a sudden rotation of the steering wheel. Grabbing your shoulder restraints with your hands is a good move to practice. But remember that once there is an impact, it may be impossible to control movements of your arms, so anticipating an impact is a key to minimizing injuries.
There is some debate over what to do with your feet relative to the pedals. One school of thought suggests pulling your legs away from the pedals before an impact. This can reduce the chance of leg and foot injury if the foot box is crushed. This is more likely in a frontal impact. Counter to this, as with arms in a heavy impact, it is unlikely that a driver can control legs and feet from moving forward and suffering injuries as the feet and legs impact the pedals and firewall.
One of the most important tools in a race driver’s bag of tricks is anticipation. By carefully analyzing your surroundings, watching the moves of others and understanding when a mechanical problem may be looming, crashes often can be avoided or at least minimized. An element of anticipation is good situational awareness. Know what is going on around you. Check your mirrors, study the actions of other drivers, look for fluid on the track from other cars, watch the handling characteristics of other cars and keep an open mind about what may occur.
You can make use of situational awareness to anticipate what other drivers will do or how their cars behave. But anticipation goes a few steps farther. If you study the actions of other drivers, you can more accurately anticipate their actions on the track. This helps avoid crashes, but it also helps in competitive situations. And it can help a driver save the car when wear and track conditions change. For example, if, from past experience, you know your tires will lose grip due to wear after 10 laps, you can anticipate that and alter driving styles to compensate. Or if black clouds begin to roll toward the track you can anticipate what to do when the skies open.
Some drivers have good natural instincts for anticipation, but it is more of a learned skill. It takes practice, and a great place to do that is in daily driving. Just think about all the scenarios on the street, roads and highways. Is that car going to pull out in front of me? Is the car in front going to make an abrupt turn with no signal? How about lane changes on the freeway? Is that line of traffic following each other too closely? There are hundreds of scenarios. The key is to look for signs that the driver of another car is going to do something. This could be as simple as watching recent maneuvers. If they did something once, they likely will do it again.
Another element of anticipation is how and when you use the controls of your car. You should anticipate your own action. It is nice to have lightning-quick reflexes, but it is more effective to anticipate what you will do at any given point on the track. All of this helps you go faster, be more competitive and better avoid crashes.
Spatial orientation, or the opposite, spatial disorientation, is a crucial element of crash survival. When Gilles Villeneuve died in a crash during qualifying for the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix in his Ferrari, speculation about the crash and cause of death covered several scenarios. One concept was that, while airborne, Gilles unfastened his harness, which caused fatal injuries. Speculation was that he thought he was stopped after the crash due to the silence, but he was still airborne. This turned out to be untrue. He was found still strapped in but without his helmet on. He died several hours later from a broken neck injury. In either case, it is possible that he became disoriented in the crash and may have unbuckled his helmet. The point is spatial disorientation can lead to serious problems.
There are several highly sophisticated three-axis devices to train pilots how to maintain orientation to the ground and the controls during wild spins, rolls and tumbles. There are similar, and or much simpler devices often found at amusement parks and carnivals. And roller coasters can create spatial disorientation. Any of these devices can provide a driver with a sense of how he or she reacts to disorientation.
One trick to help you maintain orientation is to pick a visual reference point that you can easily return to and compare with the horizon. It also is important to keep your eyes open, which is more difficult that you can imagine, but it does give you important information for decision making.
In racing, NASA requires you to use extensive safety gear and make many safety modifications. In competition, drivers have more training, are ensconced in safety equipment and are there to drive to the limits in an effort to win a race.
Here are some priorities that can greatly reduce the risk of a crash on the track:
— Slow in, fast out. Many spins occur from trying to late-brake in a turn. For most drivers, late braking translates into a slow exit and slower lap times.
— Leave a safety cushion where a spin or off-course excursion can lead to a crash into a wall, bank or other solid obstacle. This can mean driving a line that leaves an extra foot at the entry, apex and exit of a turn. The faster the turn, the more useful this is. Or, drive under the limits of cornering traction so you have addition wiggle room.
— Focus on using the controls smoothly.
— Work on your visual field by keeping your eyes moving.
— Check tire condition and pressures often.
— Make sure all components, especially suspension, are in good and safe working order.
— Use good safety equipment even when not required by rules.
EMOTIONS AND SAFETY
Many people believe that race drivers are fearless. When students have expressed to me that nothing scares them, I become afraid for them. Fear is a natural emotion and it is a good thing. Facing fear and proceeding in spite of it is much more beneficial than burying fear, pretending it is not there and having it cause you to mentally lock up at a crucial moment. I’ve always believed that making fear my friend was a good thing. By that I mean when fear comes along, analyze it for its validity, then choose whether or not you should proceed. Fear should be used like an internal checklist. To ignore it or any other emotion is never a productive path to follow.
Visualization has long been used to practice driving techniques and drive laps in your head before an event. You can do the same to assure the best actions to take if you are in a situation where a crash is imminent. Here are a few examples:
— Pick a reference point on your car, likely something solid on the dash, that allows you to create an easy to reference point that will help you stay spatially oriented.
— Practice reaching for the fire bottle release if you have one.
— Practice where you will put your hands in a crash. The steering wheel is not a good place since a crash can jar the steering and cause injuries. Most drivers will attempt to grab shoulder restraints and hang on. Arm restraints are a good idea.
— Practice shutting off the ignition and/or master switch.
— Decide where you want your feet. If a frontal impact is likely, taking your feet off the pedals is likely the safest course of action in case the foot box is severely distorted in a crash.
You also can use visualization to avoid getting into situations that can lead to a crash. For example, a prime cause of crashes is off-course excursions at turn exit when a driver tries to force the car back onto the track surface. This almost always leads to a spin, often going across traffic where the spinning car is vulnerable to impact with other cars. Visualization can help you react properly by slowing, driving easily off the track surface when room allows and then easing back onto the track surface at reduced speed when traffic is clear. Visualizing late apex lines and early, smooth throttle applications also will reduce the risk of a spin or off-course trip. You also can physically practice smooth and precise use of the controls in your daily driving routine. Every second you spend focused on driving will pay dividends on and off the track.
Another important skill is the ability to stay focused on the job at hand. Losing focus can lead to major problems. Staying in the present is critical. The most common loss of focus occurs when drivers linger on mistakes. Everyone makes driving mistakes. But for the millisecond you spend beating yourself up over that missed apex in the last corner opens the door for compounding the mistake into a bigger one and even to make more mistakes. File the incident away in the recesses of your memory for analysis when you get off the track. Don’t linger on it on the track or you will be constantly setting yourself up for more and more errors.
This article only scratches the surface of crash-survival, but the most important point to remember is this: Ultimately, safety on the racetrack is your responsibility. Ignore that responsibility and you may suffer the consequences. Others also might suffer, so take that responsibility seriously.