If you have been racing long enough, eventually you will join a special group. Some call them “flippers,” but for those of us who have “flipped the whip,” it is not a club we are particularly fond of joining. In early August of 2014 I had an IMSA GT3 USA race at Road America. It is one of my best tracks since I am pretty fearless in the breaking zone and this track plays well to that strength. On the last lap of my final race, I was punted at the apex of Turn 1. What happened next took my breath away.
I saw sky, then pavement, then sky, then pavement…over and over again. The sound of crunching metal was deafening. I was not surprised by the initial impact since the series is quite aggressive and I usually get hit every race. However, this time, due to the high speeds and angle of impact, my car was sent into a tumble. The first thought through my head was, “wow, I’m rolling.” Next, “when will this be over?” And last, “my head really hurts!” In the time that it took me to think these three separate thoughts, my 2012 Porsche Cup Car had tumbled end over end, and side over side at least 5 times. At first I kept my hands on the steering wheel (which was the smart thing to do). After roll 3, I took them off the wheel to cushion the side to side blows to my head. The attempt to cushion my head did not work; the G-Forces sent my arms flailing uncontrollably. The car flipped with such intensity; my legs were beating against the lower roll cage after every revolution. Although my 5 point harness was firmly tightened, I still moved about as my body shifted left to right and up and down. If I had one word to describe the forces exerted on me, I would choose “violent.” The car finally came to a halt, resting driver’s side down in the gravel pit of Turn 1. It is funny, I was not scared while the car was tumbling. I never screamed. I never shouted out. However, once the movement stopped, all I wanted to do was get out of the car. Immediately. I felt trapped. My driver’s side door was buried in the gravel pit to my left and my cooling system had dislodged itself and was now resting on my head. In a panic, I alerted my crew chief over the radio “the car just rolled!” He radioed back, “are you ok?” I responded, “yeah, I think so, get me out of here!” He replied, “help is on the way.” I then turned off the power to the vehicle. By that time, which felt like an eternity, the Road America safety crew had surrounded my race car. I kept yelling to them, “get me out of here!” They pried open the passenger side door so they could communicate with me. One worker picked up the cooling system ice chest and accidently dumped the entire contents of water and ice on me. Now I am panicking and soaking wet. The ambulance also arrived and the paramedic asked me if I could wiggle my toes. Thankfully I could. They asked if I was hurting anywhere. Well of course, I just took a 5+ roll in a race car! My back and neck hurt. Those were the magic words to initiate a medical check. While all this was happening, the car and I are still laying on our side; my belts held me in my seat as my feet and head fell to the side. One of the corner workers reached down and grabbed my hand to comfort me. He was very reassuring; I wish I knew his name so I could thank him. The safety crew informed me they had to turn the car over before they could get me out. They pushed the car over. I knew it was bad news when there were no longer four corners for the car to rest upon. The workers pulled open the driver’s side door and helped me get out. As I turned around to lay down on the backboard, I could not help but assess the damage that was done to the car.
Every piece of metal and every surface was dented and compressed. Right then and there, I knew my season was over. The medical crew removed my helmet and replaced it with a hard neck brace. They asked me again what was hurting. I replied with “my back, my neck, and my shins are burning.” They informed me that my neck could still be broken even though I could move my legs. That is one of the scariest things you can ever hear from a medical professional. I was transported to the Road America medical building. A building I had walked by several times in the past, but a place that I never thought I would need. Race car drivers operate under an “it will never happen to me” mentality. The IMSA doctor agreed with the paramedics; I had to be transported to the local ER for x-rays. Thankfully everything was fine! I had no broken bones, only a few bumps and bruises. It is inevitable, if you are in this sport for long enough, and racing in a highly competitive series, the same thing will happen to you. Thankfully we race in a day and age where roll cages are at their strongest and safety equipment is lifesaving. I owe being able to walk out of the hospital that night to the structural integrity of Porsche’s factory built roll cages. When your race car takes a tumble, you are no longer a driver, but a passenger. But with a little luck and a lot of engineering, my hope is that, like me, you will be just fine.