It was the kind of photograph that commands immediate attention, even when you’re just scrolling through Instagram at lunch: a nearly new entry-luxury sedan, parked in what was obviously the paddock of a NASCAR roval, with its front end more or less disintegrated from a serious impact to the wall. “I hope that isn’t who I think it is,” was my first thought, but a check of the name above the photo confirmed my fears. A young man, with a lovely wife and a brand-new baby, who had just bought the car and who had decided to celebrate by taking it out for his very first trackday. I didn’t know him personally but we’ve followed each other on Instagram for a while and it’s been nice to see him making a home and a life for himself and his family.
My second thought was: I wish I’d been there. After a decade and a half of coaching and several hundred students, I’ve had just a single damage incident, and that was due to a mechanical issue. I believe that it is within my power to keep students from hurting themselves or crashing their cars–particularly when the car in question is a brand-new daily driver with a serious loan on it.
A quick conversation with the young man reassured me that he was in a solid financial and emotional position to deal with the incident. However, it got me thinking. The automotive press, self included, spends a lot of time encouraging people to go on track–but we never really talk about what to do it everything goes wrong. Maybe now’s the time to do that.
I’ve never crashed a street-legal car at a racetrack, but I’ve been involved in several major incidents during races and I can tell you that the first moments after that big hit are a real exercise in mental gymnastics. First you check to make sure if you’re hurt–but sometimes you don’t know whether that pain in your neck or leg is minor or major. One time I got smacked so hard that my helmet went into the rollcage behind the seat and I spent the next two minutes yelling at a trackside photographer whom I believed, wrongly, to be a member of the Laguna Seca safety crew. Concussion is a hell of a drug, kids.
Let’s say for the sake of discussion that you’ve just had the most common trackday crash–a single-vehicle strike to a concrete or steel barrier. And let’s also assume that you haven’t been injured. Most trackday crashes do not result in a hospital trip. You’re sitting there, in the car, dazed. There’s talcum powder in the air from the bags deploying all around you. Most likely there’s a new ringing in your ear from the steel-drum noise of the impact and the explosive inflators that put that powder in the air. What do you do next?
The first thing to do, and this is counter-intuitive so pay attention: stay in the car unless it’s on fire. It’s not that uncommon for other drivers to fixate on your incident and drive off the track themselves. You want to be inside a steel cage, not out on the grass, when one of them goes skidding by.
Next: look for the nearest trackside safety personnel. If you’re lucky enough to be at an event where there are multiple flaggers per station, one of them may be on the way to you. If you aren’t, then your local flagger will need to hold the appropriate flag until all the cars on course have come to a halt or have come back to pits. If you’re driving a car with a window net, put it down: that’s a universal signal to flaggers that you are conscious and making your own decisions. If you’re in a street car, consider waving a thumbs-up at the flagger.
Before long, the recovery crew will be there. They may tow you back in. If that happens, keep a light foot on the brakes, which will keep the tow rope taut while they pull you. Or they may winch you out. If you want to get out of the car, you should ask them; they’ll know the situation best.
Once you get back to the pits, seek medical attention. Even if you feel fine. Have the EMT check you for signs of a concussion. Report your symptoms honestly. This is not the time to be a hero. At the very least, you want to know if you are at risk for “second strike,” which is when an already-concussed person takes another hit to the head. That can be fatal. Listen to the EMT. If they tell you to go to the doctor, GO.
Do not drink alcohol or use sedatives in the day after your hit. Even if you think you’re fine. I know a racer whose obvious concussion was missed by EMTs at the scene. Her friends took her out drinking that night to “get her mind off things.” Weeks later, she was still having trouble reading and concentrating. Stay sober and alert for a while. If you have any doubts about how you are feeling, go to the emergency room instead of going to sleep.
That was the easy part. Now you have to figure out what to do about the car. You’ll want to get the information for track management BEFORE you leave that day. Chances are that you won’t be able to take your car home with you, unless you trailered it there and you have a winch. So you’ll need to know how to reach the people who can release the car from storage to a towing agency.
If your vehicle is NOT totaled, I’d recommend that you fix it at your own expense at a locally-owned body shop and skip the claim entirely. But what if it is totaled? Back in the day, before the insurance companies even knew what a “trackday” was, it used to be common for people to have their cars towed down the street from the racetrack and tossed in a ditch, at which point the driver would call the cops and report an accident. I’ve even seen this done at an autocross; a driver rolled a “hot hatch” during a ProSolo, crushing the roof, and somehow it wound up against a bridge abutment in the dead of night later on that evening.
My advice to you: Don’t do it. The financial trauma of losing your daily driver or even defaulting on the loan might seem utterly crushing, but compared to the pain of being prosecuted for insurance fraud it’s a walk in the park. You can lose everything you have in that situation. The insurance companies love to make examples of people who do that sort of stuff. You might think you can get away with it, but ask yourself: How many people saw your car out there in the wall? How many GoPros recorded it? How many cellphone snaps made it up to Facebook? Are all of those people your very best friends who will obligingly help you commit a major crime? You know the answer to that.
Instead, I’d recommend that you call an attorney who specializes in auto insurance. Have him read your policy and tell you what to do. Even in 2018, there are still companies out there who will cover your trackday wreck if you were not “competing” and if you… listen for a minute… were not timing your lap. That’s one of the reasons I encourage my students to avoid using cellphone laptimers. Chasing laptimes makes you crash, and documenting laptimes makes you liable. You might think deleting the app after the fact solves all your problems, but insurance companies are perfectly aware of “the cloud” and the data that can be stored there.
Once you’ve spoken to your attorney and taken his or her advice, you will know what your liability is. More pertinently, you’ll know whether you are going to walk away from this with a new car or crawl away with seventy-one payments left on a totaled vehicle. Then you can call your insurance company and start making arrangements.
With your medical risks handled and the future of your car squared away, it’s time to ask yourself the toughest questions of all: Is this the right time for me to walk away? And if I do, will I ever come back? I would suggest that you avoid making any carved-in-stone permanent pronouncements right away. Give yourself a few weeks, or a few months, to make the next move. In the case of my Instagram friend, he’s going to concentrate on rental karting and online racing for a while until he feels ready to return. I’ve seen other people walk away and choose something else entirely. Last but not least, I once ran into a guy who crashed his Corvette in a morning session and returned three hours later with a rented Mustang to finished out the weekend.
Most people, however, will go through the five stages of grief over their totaled street car. Give yourself time to do it. Most importantly, sit down with your coach or by yourself to have a serious, no-illusions root-cause analysis as to why you crashed. Did you hit fluids on the track? Did you “pinch” the wheel too hard on corner exit, spinning the car? Were you simply overwhelmed by the sensory data coming your way? Figure it out. I don’t care what you tell your friends; you should admit to yourself what really happened. Then figure out whether you can prevent it from happening again.
I’m always saddened when a promising trackday student crashes his car and decides to give up entirely. I’ve seen it happen a half-dozen times. Sometimes there are serious reasons. One of the most talented novice drivers I’ve ever seen crashed his car while running within a few seconds of a pro driver’s pace. I encouraged him to buy another car and come back. Unfortunately, he was a surgeon and he was worried that another crash might affect his ability to make a living for his family. I can respect that. It was still a shame to lose him.
In the hours and days after your crash, you may feel like an idiot, or a fool, or a joke. That’s normal. The Internet may say nasty things about the wreck. Your non-driving friends will have ridiculous opinions on the subject. All of that is just smoke. It’s just noise. Take your time. Look at the facts. Then decide whether or not you’ll come back. If you do, you will be in solid company. You’ll be among the men and women who have hit the wall and come back to try again. I’m a member of that group. So is my wife. So are many of my friends. In a way, it’s liberating. You learn something about yourself in the process. So take heart. It can be expensive to crash a car at a trackday. But it’s priceless to find out what you’re really made of.