Panic is contagious. You can catch it via telephone, telegram, voice, a glimpse of something barely seen or totally unseen. Somewhere in my basement there’s a musty set of government documents just a few years older than I am, detailing a rather unpleasant day in Vietnam where a Marine captain got shot during an advance and the enlisted men around him caught that panic in a single sweeping wave, broke and ran in any direction but forward.
The company’s first lieutenant saw the captain get shot and I am certain he, too, felt the roller-coaster drop of incipient panic in his stomach. Perhaps he stopped for a moment and fought with the demands of a body that wanted nothing more than to run in any direction but forward. Then he started running—but he was running to catch the fleeing Marines, to turn them in the direction of the enemy, sprinting helter-skelter to herd them like panicked sheep, one at a time, leading first by word then by deed, at the head of a ragged formation.
Imagine this scene in an old-school Hollywood movie. The enemy would put up a fierce resistance at first, then start to falter. The young lieutenant would charge forward as the bodies dropped around him, friend and foe separated by allegiance but joined in death. Then, after about 15 minutes or so of theater-rumbling bang-and-boom screen time, he would take the hill. And the audience would sigh in relief, even though they knew what would happen when they bought the tickets. You can’t have a movie where the lieutenant also gets shot in the face and the Marines all run away. For one thing, it would be too short for anyone to buy a second round of popcorn.
Not only that, you couldn’t have the appropriate closing credits, which would show the lieutenant returning home, fathering a deeply sullen and frequently ungrateful son who would go on to work for Hagerty’s media division, and then buying a 1986 Jaguar XJ6, which would require towing out of his suburban garage not once but three times in three short years—at which point our hero would do the smart thing and become one of the first people in central Ohio to buy a Lexus.
In the sequel to our film, tentatively titled Khe Sanh II: Critical Failure, the Lexus turns out to need a new short block right after the warranty expires. Guess Dad used up all his luck in Vietnam.
Where were we, other than watching our hero furiously thumbing through the seven pages of a repair order to find out which part was made from gold-plated platinum? Oh yes, panic is contagious. Which perhaps explains why my stomach started to roller-coaster drop when I heard through my ridiculous Mickey-Mouse-ear crew-chief headphones the telltale stutter-step of a driver pushing the radio button in his race car over and over again while at the same time emitting the proverbial barbaric yawp of terror.
Make that her race car. Our team spotter called in with a bit of, ahem, additional information: My second (and current) wife, yclept “Danger Girl” for reasons too complex to share here, had just looped out at the exit of Mid-Ohio’s carousel. There was a line of cars heading straight for her exposed driver’s door at freeway speeds. This explained the klaxon scream in my headphones, and then some.
After seconds that seemed like minutes, she managed to get the button held down. “I LOST A WHEEL! IT’S GONE! THE CAR WON’T MOVE! AND…” after a deep, panicky breath, “THEY ARE COMING RIGHT AT ME!”
I estimate that I only inherited about 10 percent of my father’s legendary composure, but it was enough for me to temporarily tamp my own rising sense of panic. “CALM DOWN!” I snapped. “Put it in reverse and try to get off the surface. If it doesn’t work (and I said this knowing that it wouldn’t work—that a car with a suspension upright dug into the asphalt doesn’t move easily, particularly not when one of the drive wheels has departed for the next ZIP code) try again, and again!”
Anything to distract her from what my spotter was telling me—that there were racers blowing the yellow flag and making moves for position just inches away from Danger Girl’s crippled MX-5 Cup car.
Thirty seconds after the incident began, the Mid-Ohio safety crew was rolling. Another 45 seconds later, they had her covered and were helping her out of the cockpit. A minute-fifteen is just half of an early Beatles song, barely enough to get the wink-nudge message out about wanting to hold someone’s hand, but it’s an eternity when you expect to be critically injured at any moment.
This is what happened: For reasons we don’t understand and will likely never understand, the recently-replaced left rear hub simply snapped in half as Danger Girl hit the bump marking the transition between Carousel and front straight. She was doing 52 miles per hour, which was a blessing because she can see 85 in Turn 1 and 118 on the back straight. The wheel, which was still bolted to the hub, bounced around inside the wheel well for a fraction of a second before fighting its way out through the rear bumper, bending the unibody as it did so and throwing the little Mazda’s rump about two feet in the air.
To my wife’s credit, she started the countersteer motion less than a quarter of a second after the back end started to move on its own and she went hand-over-hand to get it all the way to the “lock” where there’s no more steering to do. Because the car was off the ground at the time, this otherwise commendable response accomplished very little. The Mazda touched back down 180 degrees into its spin, smoking the tires like an arriving airliner before performing another 540 degrees of rotation in a cloud of vaporized rubber. Danger Girl then promptly unwound the wheel and released the brakes to get a critical five or so feet of backwards roll off the racing line. Good reflexes and good instincts; I’ve watched IMSA prototype drivers do far worse and cause big pile ups as a result.
It was a rough ride, with the potential to gravely injure her even without a second strike from another car. We’d made a few smart decisions before the fact. Her seat was a brand new Sparco Ergo with “halo” protection. The in-car video shows her helmet striking the halo bars five separate and distinct times. She was wearing a USA-made Impact helmet with a HANS device recommended and selected by Jim at Downing Atlanta. Her belts were brand-new and properly installed, although I didn’t like their reluctance to keep the HANS in place, so in the future we will use the same Safecraft belts that I have in my Pirelli World Challenge Accord. Had she been struck, she would have been at least partially protected by a proper MX-5 Cup spec cage from Racing Cages (now AWR), cut and welded on a fixture away from the car rather than tube-by-tube in the cockpit. So she is hurting, and miserable, but very much alive and ambulatory.
With help from four strong friends, we literally lifted the crippled car onto the trailer and headed home. We hadn’t made it 10 miles before Danger Girl started making plans to have the MX-5 rebuilt in time for the next race. I didn’t share her level of confidence, or interest, regarding these plans. “I’d rather you took some time off,” I suggested. Then I laughed, ’cause that suggestion was ironic enough to make Alanis Morrissette release another remastered edition of her debut album.
I’ve been making my family members sick with worry for more than 30 years. I’ve been hospitalized again and again, breaking dozens of bones on bikes and motorcycles, spending enough nights in the ICU to earn loyalty rewards. I’ve put other racers on a LifeFlight in horrible, temperamental incidents and I’ve been behind the wheel of a race car on two separate occasions while fellow competitors died in my immediate vicinity. Four years ago, during a rain-soaked enduro at the Glen, I looped the car going up the Esses and went off backwards down the surface road, avoiding a likely fatal hit by a matter of 36 inches.
Three years ago I got spun in Laguna Seca’s Turn Nine, then received a center punch from the same car that spun me. The in-car video shows my shoulders popping out of my belts while my head bounces off the roll cage crossbar. From her unsteady perch in pit lane, Danger Girl saw the red flag. Then she saw everybody come in but me. “Get over yourself,” I said, laughing at her agitation during our dinner later that evening. “I have life insurance, you know, and there’s nothing quite as replaceable as a 45-year-old American man with high cholesterol and fading career ambitions.”
The shoe is well and truly on the other foot now. For the first time I have a genuine sense of what the MBA set would call the externalities of racing. Now I sit on the hill at Mid-Ohio or stand along the main straight at NCM and I realize that I am surrounded by dozens or hundreds of other people who are simply terrified that their driver might not come back.
That little argument you have with your spouse about the camera not being turned on, or the radio being too loud? That might be the last argument you ever have. Might be the last words you ever have. Your children might ask you, “What did you say to Mom right before she died?” and your answer might have to be, “Let me think… It was… ‘Try to keep the heat out of the God-damned brakes so I don’t have to bleed them before tomorrow’s warmup, why dontcha? There is absolutely no reason for you to trail that far into Thunder Valley, and furthermore it’s costing you a half-second per lap.’”
The blue Miata sits in our driveway with a tarp over it right now. For a long day and a half I pleaded my case with Danger Girl: Let’s take a few months off and make sure the car is absolutely perfect before you race again. I’d assembled a battalion’s worth of strategies to deny and delay: body work, laser alignment, vinyl wrap, new 5-volt wiring for the cameras. I could drag it out until August with no problem. And then I could make another pitch: You missed most of the season, you’re rusty. How about you crew for me and I’ll run the last few. It would restore the balance of externalities. I would race, and she would worry, the way God and Garth Stein intended it to be.
Across a wobbly restaurant table on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon, my wife red-flagged my strategy with a gentle but firm wave of the hand. “I want to complete the season. No excuses. I don’t want to miss another race. I don’t care what it costs. Just get it done.” They say that couples eventually come to look like each other. Danger Girl and I are just past our third anniversary and she is already repeating the same stupid stuff I said after bending the unibody of my race car at Mid-Ohio in 2008. I took a deep breath before responding.
“Fine.” Which always means: Not fine. But I had to laugh afterwards. Panic might be contagious. So is courage, I suppose. If she is willing to take the risk, I should at least be willing to endure the worry. Think of me as the last Marine in that line of stragglers following my dad up the hill in 1968. It’s better than my previous supporting role, which you can catch in the upcoming straight-to-Netflix release, Khe Sanh III: The Cost Of C.O.B.R.A., in which our hero finds out that his son was too lazy to find his own health insurance after getting off his plan at the age of 26. Riveting stuff. How’s the old saying go? First as tragedy, then as farce!