Avoidable Contact #108: When is it OK to hit a girl?

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Jack Baruth

There might be three views of a secret, but there were just two video angles of this incident—the rear-facing camera of the car being struck, and the forward-facing camera of the car doing the striking—and they are both utterly damning. The scene is this: Second race of a three-race mixed-class regional weekend at Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway. The leader of a Spec 944 race is working through the pack when he comes up to a pair of Miatas. The car on the outside of the turn is from a higher class and should be faster. It’s also running on three cylinders at the moment, since one of the coil packs has decided to take a vacation, but the 944 driver has no way to know that, of course.

In a situation like this, when the whole track ahead of you is blocked by two or three cars running side-by-side, you have to make a choice of Pied Piper to follow and hope that “your” car pulls ahead of the other ones. So the 944 chooses the Miata on the outside, which fails to accelerate out of the corner as desired. (See previous note regarding running on three cylinders.) Most seasoned racers have been in this situation a hundred or a thousand times; the best Plan B is to either pass with two wheels in the grass around the slow car or see if you can bully your way back into the line behind the faster car.

Instead, this fellow decides to start repeatedly ramming the slower Miata. Which then loses traction, because it’s in the middle of a turn, and starts to oscillate back and forth as the Miata driver attempts to prevent a spinout. This would be a good time for our intrepid 944 driver to stop the bumping, but instead he keeps at it until he loses control, at which point the second-place 944 passes him and becomes the first-place 944. Well, that’s what happens when you don’t know how to race. My son, who was 11 years old the last time he raced 206cc karts, handles those situations in a much more deft and skilled fashion—but let’s face it: the average 11-year-old kart racer is a much savvier competitor than the average middle-aged spec-class driver, so that’s not really fair.

It’s generally accepted in NASA racing that:

0) With the exception of the Spec Miata class, which relies on bump drafting, you’re not supposed to bump the car ahead of you.
1) If the car ahead of you is not in your class, that goes double.
2) If the car ahead of you is in the middle of a corner, that goes triple.
3) And if the car ahead of you is trying not to spin as a result of your actions, that goes … I mean, how much more plain can we make it?

Therefore, I personally encouraged this driver to report to impound afterwards, where he and the Miata driver had an unpleasant conversation. At no point did the 944 driver admit fault, even though the fault was obvious. He was aggressive and confrontational. Afterwards, he reportedly made a joke in the paddock about punching the Miata driver.

Well, the Miata driver was my wife.

To her credit, she did a better job of handling her car during the contact than the fellow hitting her did. Her primary concern after the race wasn’t finding fault for the contact. She was more concerned with diagnosing the misfire and getting another coil pack in the engine before the third race. As far as I can tell, she’s forgotten all about it, just 48 hours after the fact. When the idea of him punching her came up, she noted the fact that she is probably two inches taller than the 944 driver and physically stronger to boot. “He can try it, I guess,” she shrugged. Her focus is already on the next race.

Her crew chief and I, on the other hand, are not as cheerful about this, nor as forgiving. It’s not because we disapprove of on-track contact; your humble author has smacked fellow competitors from Grand-Am to LeMons and everywhere in-between. Sometimes I was in the right and sometimes I was in the wrong. It’s not even because we disapprove of post-race antics. Seven years ago I got into a bit of a near-donnybrook with a whole race team from New Jersey, right in the pitlane entrance of Laguna Seca, because their driver kept exiting the track and re-entering across my bow, to the point that I lost patience and bopped him a bit after the checkered flag. Amazingly enough, we’re all pals now. I love those guys and hope to be on their side in the next squabble, because they were all bigger and scarier than I am by a long shot.

No, I’m afraid that our objection to this mook and his fumbling incompetence both on and off track boils down to something very simple and not very 21st Century, namely: You shouldn’t hit a girl. Or woman. Or whatever. With your car, or with your fists. Not that I expected our 944 driver to somehow recognize that the Miata ahead of him had a female driver—but after the fact, shouldn’t common decency indicate an apology and some sort of conciliatory behavior? Is it really a great idea to make a joke in the paddock about punching out a woman?

These are not rhetorical questions, particularly as they apply to my spouse. While there are many female drivers who make their gender a part of their public presentation and sponsor pitch, like our great friends and partners at Shift Up Now, Mrs. Baruth has no wish nor desire to be treated any differently from her male competitors. You’ll search in vain for any pink stickers or cursive script on her car or driver’s suit. She’s also close to 5-foot-10, and I’ve seen her knock 50 pushups out without sweating. She loads the truck for a race without my help and carries mounted tire/wheel combinations out to said truck two at a time, the same way I do. Should Mr. 944 ever get his wish for a paddock scrap with her, I think the Vegas bookies would have her at about the same odds they gave Tyson against Spinks.

And yet. The traditional word for people who pay their own racing bills rather than getting paid to drive is … well, it’s actually “spank,” but in the contracts it is “gentleman driver” and that’s how I have long thought of my friends and adversaries on track. As gentlemen. Anybody with a few years of solid wheel-to-wheel experience under his belt knows how to end the season, career, or possibly even the life of a fellow competitor during a race. There are a dozen ways to make it look accidental. Most of us run cars without anti-lock braking, so if you let your big toe put just a tiny bit more pressure on the middle pedal on the entrance to “Madness” at Mid-Ohio, you can lock the front wheels and “accidentally” kick the fellow in front of you into orbit. Similarly, a touch of left-foot braking in the middle of a turn will slide your back end out and boot the driver next to you off-track. It’s impossible to tell what’s accidental and what’s deliberate.

Part of being a gentleman is that you don’t do sneaky stuff in a race. Another part is that you don’t lie to the stewards or Race Control about what you were doing. Yet another part is that you conduct yourself in a manner that doesn’t terrify everyone around you. I think I probably have a reputation for driving a “wide car” and being aggressive on starts—but that’s where it ends. I don’t tap people in corners, and I don’t bump out-of-class cars for no reason other than temper or the “narrow eyes” you get when you get too agitated to focus anywhere but on your own front bumper.

Oh, and I also don’t threaten women. Call me crazy, it’s just who I am.

Last month, during an SCCA race, I had the pleasure of running for the better part of 20 minutes against a driver named Eddy Eckhart. It was an out-of-class contest, but our pace was matched to the tenth of a second. For ten laps Eckhart and I ran side by side and nose to tail at full speed, often with fewer than six inches between our cars. We didn’t slow each other down and we didn’t cause any drama. At any point I could have tapped him to get by; my Neon pushes a lot harder than his Miata. But that’s a punk move and I’m not here for punk moves. Sadly, our race-within-a-race came to an end when a wealthier gentleman in a new M3 unceremoniously booted Eckhart out of the way in Mid-Ohio’s Turn Seven, allowing me to follow through in the Bimmer’s slipstream. Afterwards, we laughed about the whole thing. (Easy for me to laugh; I didn’t have to go back to the paddock and bang out a fender.)

In a perfect world, every race would be just like that one—but in the real world, there will always be a certain amount of drama, anger, conflict, and contact. Which leads to another question. If you look at today’s 11-year-old kart racers, you will see a lot of girls in the pack with my son. It seems reasonable, therefore, that the club-racing fields of 10 or 20 years from now will be a lot more gender-balanced than last weekend’s NASA event in which my wife was the only woman on the entry sheet. It’s going to be difficult to be properly chivalrous to half the field, you know. Will the rules change? Some of the newer race series, like GLTC, expressly prohibit all kinds of aggressive driving. That would go a long way to reducing tension—but what about those of us who want a bit of conflict on the weekends, for the same reason that people like to spar or wrestle?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. If you do, I’d like to hear them in the comments. We’re all in this together. Many years ago, while chiding me for my part in an incident in which two cars were totaled and one driver ended up getting a less-than-free helicopter ride to the nearest hospital, a race official wrote me a letter asking me to consider that I, and the other driver, and the rest of the region, were all part of what he called “the brotherhood of speed.” At the time I crumpled up the letter and went back to surreptitiously reinforcing my Neon’s front bumper the way the Hanson Brothers used to put foil in their gloves before a hockey match, but over time I’ve come to have more and more respect for that man and his comments to me. He was right. We really are in a brotherhood of speed. And, increasingly, a sisterhood.

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