History repeats itself. Yesterday, there was a completely preventable death on a racetrack. The fatal crash was the result of a series of mistakes and bad decisions that compounded into tragedy.
Gary Terry, a stock car racer and driving instructor at the Disney Exotic Driving Experience in Orlando, Florida was pronounced dead at the scene. The Lamborghini that he was instructing in struck the end of an unprotected guardrail on the passenger side. Imagine a game of a football or basketball where the sidelines are constructed of spears and the players (amateurs, paying for the opportunity to play) are able run 100mph, forced to carry their coach. Sound insane and ridiculous? Is is, and it's exactly what happened yesterday at the Richard Petty owned Exotic Car Driving Experience.
Gary was a friend of a friend. But he was also a racer, a stock car driver, part of the close knit motorsports brotherhood. He was one of us. His death and the circumstance hits close to home because we do the same work - people pay us for our knowledge and expertise to make them better, faster drivers. I know a colleague of Gary's. He put me in touch with their company manager in 2010 because they were looking for qualified instructors. After a brief phone interview, I realized that they were looking for anyone with a pulse to sit shotgun and babysit untrained strangers, in supercars, on a racetrack. The pay offered was only slightly above minimum wage, with no benefits or healthcare. It was insulting and a huge red flag.
The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating and will piece together the second-by-second details of the crash. What caused the crash is almost irrelevant - mistakes happen, especially by inexperienced drivers in powerful cars. From reports I've read, the driver is fully cooperating and for all we know, there was a mechanical failure that caused the loss of control. What is clear, from the facts that have been released is that this was a preventable, *predictable* death. The biggest issue at play is track safety conditions that were tolerated (or likely worse, ignored) by management and staff. It's difficult to tell for sure, but I can't find any evidence or photo that clearly shows any SAFER barriers installed on the outer wall of the track. Not a good sign, but also not directly in play.
This is what makes me so angry: They were driving the track in the opposite direction (clockwise) that it was designed to be driven. The car hit a guardrail that was placed to protect workers on an access road. A safety barrier designed to deflect a spinning race car coming in a counter-clockwise direction became a weapon when hit from the other direction. This is "racing 101": Don't ever drive counter-course because the racetrack wasn't designed to work that way. Some racetracks *are* designed to work that way, however this one was not.
The green arrow shows the direction that the track was designed to run. The orange is the direction that they were driving when the fatal crash occurred. The Google Earth satellite even took a picture right when a car (Audi R8?) was passing the point where they lost control. You don't need to be a brain surgeon to see that this is a potential trouble
The previous corner is also home to an unprotected guardrail when traveling clockwise.
On the highway, when your exit peels off into another direction, a triangular point is created a where the two roads diverge. That area is called the gore. I wish I was making that up. When there is a solid object, like a guardrail, at the gore point, the DOT will plop a plastic barrier filled with sand in-front of it. The device is called a Fitch Barrier, for it's inventor, race car driver John Fitch. It costs about $300 and has been credited with saving over 17,000 lives since it was invented in the 1960s. Even cheaper than $300, a few stacks of used tires. Better than nothing, nearly free, but never considered. Are you mad yet?
Driving cars fast is incredibly fun and challenging. Driving FAST cars fast, on a racetrack is the stuff that dreams are made of. This is not a minor oversight or a simple mistake. It's negligence. The operators of this business have an obligation to their staff and customers to do more than the bare minimum to protect their well being.
As coaches, instructors, mentors and professionals, we have an obligation to be part of the solution. We have to hold our own safety in higher regard. We have to be proactive and we have to speak up when what's "normal" doesn't look right.
I don't coach from the right seat anymore. I'm working on a post about that. Too many close calls over the years, and one client who did crash with me in the car (by doing the opposite of what I was telling him) was enough for me to finally listen to the nagging voice in my head. The loss of Sean Edwards in a right-seat accident was a huge blow, not long after I made that decision for myself. Many friends and colleagues have adopted the same policy and that has only solidified my decision.
The Walt Disney World Speedway is closing this summer, forever. It will be demolished and turned into a parking lot. Normally I'm sad to hear about a track closing, but I'm happy to see this one go. I only wish it had gone sooner. Rest in peace, Gary.
About @JonLeeMiller (not the Jonny Lee Miller who was married to Angelina Jolie): Jon is a racing driver and coach who has competed in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge since 2006. He collects Hot Wheels and action figures and hopes to race at LeMans or appear as an extra in the new JJ Abrams Star Wars films. A University of Central Florida graduate, he now lives in California with his wife, Denise and Bob Barker, their adopted pet Boxer.