Saturday, I stood in the paddock at Road Atlanta as a medical helicopter landed to tend to an HPDE 2 driver who had crashed on the back straight. We all hoped for the best, but assumed the worst. When the last race and final two DE sessions of the day were cancelled, that told me everything I needed to know.
As I understand it, 56 year old Glenn Dick, Jr.’s SN95 Mustang sustained driver’s side damage and Mr. Dick succumbed to his injuries.
This hits home for me for several reasons:
1. I was instructing an HPDE 1 student in a similar car last weekend. We hadn’t received word on the result of Saturday’s accident, but I had to get in the right seat with a student who was beginning to show some speed protected only by a helmet, a three point retractable seat belt, and some two-decade old stamped sheet metal.
2. A good friend of mine had an identical car to the one involved in the accident. Same engine even the same color. Everyone in our core group from the track had driven that car at Road Atlanta at 130+. We’ve placed ourselves in the same danger countless times.
The difference? The race driver in me wants to say that we are better. We have more skill. More talent. We would have reacted quicker. We would have done something different.
That, of course, is just so much macho bullshit we tell ourselves so we can keep going out there. The truth? We are more fortunate. Nothing more.
3. I lost my two best friends in January 2014 in a car accident. We owned a shop together prepping, building, and repairing track and race cars. They were test driving a customer’s TTU C6 Z06 after replacing the clutch.
The short story is: they lost control about 1/8 mile from the shop, struck a tree, and were killed instantly. The part of the story that is relevant here is that this TTU car had over 600hp, would lap Road Atlanta in 1:29, and had a race seat and a harness bar as its only safety upgrades.
The entire concept of the tiered HPDE structure that most competent track organizations employ is spectacular and is quite unique in the motorsports world. We give classroom training to new drivers then put trained instructors in the car with students to reinforce and build upon that knowledge. We build drivers. We instill good habits. We reprogram drivers to react based on the unfailing physics that will control their situation rather than allow them to react in the typical way that people do when things feel uncomfortable: by hitting the brake.
Most people think that instructors are there to make them fast. In our world, that just isn’t so. We teach them to be safe. They learn the line, the flags, how to pass, and be passed, then we move them on. There are people who specialize in race instruction, car setup, data acquisition and analysis. We are not them.
I’ve been instructing for 9 years with various organizations. I’ve sat shotgun in everything from Camrys to 640hp 911s. My students have included teenagers, stubborn middle-aged gold chainers, and geriatrics and aside from one young soldier just back from being shot at for a year in Iraq and thoroughly convinced of his immortality, I’ve never been anything close to scared in the right seat.
Typically the students are so nervous and overwhelmed that, even in the fastest of cars, they are so far from the limit early on that it is difficult to stay awake. As they build good habits, the speed builds. As a rule, by the time they are fast enough to worry you, they are ready to find more speed on their own... then there is a gap.
This is the part of the story where I become much less confident in my own analysis of things and far less capable of offering an ideal solution, but I can state a problem that I see with the HPDE model.
Once drivers pass from instructed driving to solo driving they are still monitored by the sanctioning body. There are still classroom sessions and on-track drills are common. Side-by-side sessions and passing drills allow for some guidance, but for the most part, each driver takes control of his own development. By now drivers are hooked. They are addicted to achieving the next goal and bolting on the next mod. Brakes fade, so they buy better brakes, the new brakes overpower the old tires so they go next. The new tires tax the old sway bars and bushings so they go too and suddenly lap times have plummeted. What safety upgrades are required to accompany this newfound speed? Nothing. Until the jump to wheel to wheel racing where a roll cage and full safety gear are compulsory, factory belts and a recent helmet are still good enough. In this gap between novice and racer there are incremental increases in speed but not in required safety equipment.
Maybe this is good enough. Everyone involved knows that motorsports is inherently dangerous and it is the responsibility of each individual to ensure that they are as safe as they feel they need to be. Even for wheel to wheel racing, minimum safety requirements are just minimums. You can buy better suits, lighter helmets, and thicker roll cage tubing. I don’t think that we should be setting maximum lap times before requiring cages or harnesses or anything else and I’m sure the promoters aren’t at all excited about the thought of adding costs that might be prohibitive for their customers but maybe we can focus more on safety. Maybe we can include crash test videos, explanations of the function and operation of each piece of safety gear, and case studies of fatal accidents as part of higher level HPDE classroom instruction. I don’t want to frighten any new drivers away from this sport. It is difficult to promote track events as it is, but if we are as instructors meant to build safe drivers, perhaps we should look beyond the end of our last session on Sunday afternoon and give our students the knowledge to keep themselves safe and maybe even a little dose of fear of what can happen in the worst case scenario.
We can do better and I’m sure we will. We owe that to the sport, and more importantly, we owe it to the next driver who will have that unexpected accident but who will walk away from it.
Godspeed, Glenn Dick Jr.
Update: A safety gear supplier does offer classes on the purpose and use of safety gear for DE students for the group that hosted this event. My remarks on training needs were meant to be broader in scope and inclusive of all track day organizations.