Speed Secrets: Crash Course -- Avoiding and Coming Back from the Abyss

By Ross Bentley

April 11, 2017

Spend enough time circling a race track at speed and you'll fall into one of two groups: Those who have crashed, or those who will.

Okay, it's not that bad. Not quite. There are some sport drivers who spend decades driving around a track without crashing. But there are others who do. And it's for them that this week's issue looks at how to recover from an "incident."

Jim Kearney has crashed. He's also coached drivers who have crashed. And he's really, really good at coaching, and writing. Put all that together and you get this week's feature. Even if you haven't had a crash - and I hope you haven't - you might want to file Jim's advice away for a rainy day (not that a rainy day increases your chances of crashing, right?). Enjoy Jim's advice. It's great stuff - Ross

“We’ll be singing, when we’re winning; We’ll be singing: I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down.” – Tubthumping, by Chumbawamba

I’m Jim Kearney and I have crashed (see images below). Racers don’t like to talk about crashes. It is our version of George Carlin’s seven dirty words. Crash, wreck, shunt, accident, incident, mistake, crack-up, etc. The words are a lot less funny than the blue words banned on TV, particularly if you are the one who had the off.

I raced for thirty-two years, mostly in Formula Vee. In a competitive racing environment, the fertilizer is going to strike the ventilator from time to time. Thinking back, on some occasions I was clearly trying “too hard” and it was completely my fault. But sometimes something breaks and you are off plowing things down, hoping it will stop soon. Or someone screws up right in front of you and you have nowhere to go. On other occasions, it is like a boxer experiencing a flash knockdown and you find yourself wondering what really happened.

They say you are to get right back on the horse, but the club racer has to both pay for the damage and do the rebuild. It might be a season before they get back out. The situation is not a breeding ground for confidence.

Deep down in their bones all racers are optimists. We tell ourselves we won’t crash. We vow to be safe and we pay attention to all things involving safety equipment and car safety. But in the heat of battle, things can get edgy. Spend enough time on the edge and you are likely to fall off. I was incredibly fortunate to never be injured outside of a bell-ringing here and there. I can’t speak to the daunting dynamic of overcoming physical pain or enduring a lengthy medical process. But even without injury, a violent crash can go a long way toward breaking down that artifice that it won’t happen to you. It just did, now what?

In reviewing the incident, you need to be both level headed and fair to yourself. If you have video, check it closely and ask the opinion of crew and other racers who you trust to be straight with you. It is important to accurately assess your contribution to the incident, not for self-flagellation, but to learn. Is there a pattern to your snafus? Are you taking too many risks? How does your spatial awareness rate? Were you driving the car or just hanging on? Does your focus wander? Do you get tired at the end of a race?

Send your helmet back to be checked, replace your belts and go over the car with a fine-tooth comb. It makes good sense and it is reassuring to know that you have done all you can to be ready next time out. Yes, things went awry, but your safety system performed well and you want to drive that home to your subconscious. It is also good to share that point with significant others, parents, and crew members. They want to believe in you and it helps them to know that you are processing things in a thoughtful manner. You weren’t the only one affected by the accident. Almost always, it could have been worse but you don’t want to spend a lot of time going down that road. Whether you care to admit it or not, part of your mind was frightened by the experience. Unlike some other sports, the racing accident is often such a quick experience that you can validly claim that you didn’t have time to be scared. Ah, but afterward there is time and you may find yourself mentally revisiting the scene of the crime. Unless you were knocked out, you will recall enough to know that you were in deep trouble. I know that being pinned upside down in a formula car, for example, makes you think. Thanking God or your lucky stars and all your equipment manufacturers is a good thing. Next you need a plan for just how you are going to get back in the game.

You don’t want to invent additional threats. Look at what went wrong and look at everything that went right. You can control a certain number of things and there are many things that you can’t. Conclude your analysis and get on with it. Be aware that it may be a while before you are full bore again. It only makes sense.

A good comeback plan involves a number of steps. Even if the rebuild was professionally handled, it is possible that not all crash damage was addressed. The last thing you need is another surprise. Bring both the car and you back up to speed gradually.

Step 1: The Test Day – Getting Reacquainted

Run a test day at a familiar and uncrowded track and come up to speed in small steps. Run decent rubber. Have a plan and stick to it. You didn’t forget how to drive, but some neurons down deep in your brain may need reassurance. As the lap times come down, the sense of being on top of things will begin to re-emerge. You may lock a brake but recover quickly. You may catch the small slide on entry or exit. You will be smooth, then rough, as the speeds increase, then smooth again as you work out the kinks, a sort of accelerated course of relearning the dynamics of high speed driving. It can be a big help to have someone you trust do some laps in your car. They can alert you to a problem in your set up.

Step 2: The Practice Day – Getting Your Groove Back

Run a practice day with other race cars on track. At first you may feel tentative running in close proximity. You have the option of running close to other cars, or not. Pay attention to your level of anxiety. Do you have a death grip on the steering wheel? Are your movements stiff and abrupt? The only thing on the line on a practice day is to address your level of comfort. Take your time and let things come back to you. You didn’t forget how to drive but you need to keep your expectations in line. It is important to have reasonable goals. Do a track map just as you should every time you get out of the car. Download your brain and follow your progress.

Step 3: A Practice Event – No Pressure

Rejoin the battle and run an event at or close to your prior normal level of competition. You may not feel ready for a full bore commitment at first and that’s OK. As you go through the weekend, you will gradually rebuild your confidence platform. Don’t force it, let it come back as it will. Your competitive instincts will try to hasten the process, so keep a firm grip on the reins. If it feels like things are happening quickly, you aren’t all the way back yet. Run laps, do the work. You are on the way back and it may take a few events to get back to where you once belonged.

Step 4: Reengage the Battle

Everyone is different, as is every situation. You may not need a long comeback trail. But why not give yourself the benefit of the doubt? You know you are making headway when you are back to complaining about everything else. The other drivers have way too much power. So and so drives like an idiot. And what is with this schedule?

Welcome back.

Bonus - What They Didn’t Tell You at Driving School: Ways to Avoid the Big Wreck

Don't be a zombie. Look in their eyes - a lot of club racers are the walking dead on any given weekend. They just got the parts on Tuesday and they were up late every night and struggled with their day job, etc. Arriving exhausted is almost a way of life for club racers trying hard, mismanaging their time, or both. Those with graying hair will testify to their increasing inability to function in this manner. The worst wrecks that I had were when I was trying to pull off some miracle rebuild with not enough time and not enough sleep. There is no effective warning light for excessive desire.

Don’t drive angry. Anger is a lousy energy source. Drive your car, do your best, don’t key off other competitors. If an issue comes up on track and you can pull off a low-key conversation with the other driver, by all means share your view of what happened in a respectful manner. Odds are great that there is a differing view of events. A racetrack is a chaotic environment already, you don’t need to add additional drama.

Don’t set an inflexible goal. Whether it is matching or exceeding a prior best lap time, qualifying up front, or winning, remember that other people have designs on these things as well. Getting in the zone or achieving a flow state is much more likely to occur when your focus is on the feel of the car, the tires and the track, not keying off the dashboard readout. As you try “hard,” your inputs become rough and you become insensitive to what the car needs to perform best. Remain calm and carry on. Feel is everything.

Don’t have unreasonable expectations. In virtually all racing, the quality of the equipment factors heavily. Fresh rubber beats dead rubber. Fresh motors beat worn motors. Your goal should be to do the best you can with what you have and build on your experience.

Don't try to drive around a problem. My spectacular wreck at Watkins Glen was my fault, but it was not a cloud on my self-confidence because it was not a mystery. I had tried to drive around a problem and it caught me out. A broken spindle had required a hasty repair and I reported to the false grid for a Valvoline Pro Vee heat race without having properly adjusted the left front brakes. I thought I could just hold my position and not drop to the back of a thirty-six-car field. When a competitor suddenly checked up in front of me, I flew over the back of him and wrote off my Citation. Lesson learned. One door closes, another opens. Dave Green asked me to drive his new Protoform. Within two months, I won the Valvoline Pro Vee race at Road Atlanta and set a new track record for the original course that remains to this day. I got knocked down but I got up again.

- Jim Kearney

Web: kearneykdd.com