What are you thankful for? Friends? Family? Perhaps health? Any of these are valid and very reasonable answers. Now lets perform a thought experiment and think about your answer from the perspective of an automotive enthusiast.
As I write this I am caring for a family member that recently underwent knee surgery, so my immediate response was situated somewhere between family and health. Tapping deep into my automotive persona yielded an immediate and very different response: Safety. Where did the response “Safety” come from? Four dates.
May 1, 1994
Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash
Most Formula 1 fans will instantly recognize this date. It’s special to me because the previous night I celebrated my 18th birthday, and in Alberta, Canada, it also meant that I was now 100% legal to drink and do everything else that adults were meant to do. Despite my birthday festivities I awoke early on the 1st to attend an autocross in my trusty, if somewhat beaterish, 1973 Datsun 510.
It was during the event that word spread about Ayrton Senna’s death, casting a somber blanket over the event and my special day. Thanks to improvements in safety there has not been a single driver fatality since then. It’s the longest period without a fatality since the start of Formula One racing in 1950. If you haven’t yet seen it, do everything in your power to watch SENNA this Thanksgiving with your loved ones, even if they don’t have the slightest interest in automotive or racing. I guarantee they’ll enjoy it. You can thank me later.
July 26, 1998
Fatal spectator CART accident at Michigan International Speedway
In 1998 I managed to snag an engineering internship Delphi Automotive and drove 2000 miles to spend the summer working in Flint, Michigan. Say what you will about Flint and the metro Detroit area, but from my perspective I was living in Gearhead Mecca. My goal was to attend and absorb as much automotive culture as possible, and this included seeing a CART race on a high-speed oval track, the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway. This was the first time the drag-inducing Handford Device (think big upside-down Gurney flap) was used. It made for spectacular on-track action with several lead changes per lap, in the process setting a record for the number of lead changes during a race.
I had convinced two other interns to join me and they thoroughly enjoyed their first live racing experience. I was especially entertained because my favorite CART driver Greg Moore won the race after a spectacular last lap battle with Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser.
I left the track proud to be Canadian and was happy that my colleagues also enjoyed the race. It wasn’t until that night that we learned that Adrian Fernandez’s crash midway through the event had sent his right-front wheel into the grandstands, killing 3 spectators. Subsequently Michigan International Speedway raised the catch fence by 4 feet to improve safety. No other deaths have occurred at the track since.
Oct 31, 1999
Greg Moore’s Death
I was busy liquidating my collection of first-generation Honda Civic cars and parts (see my custom 1973 Honda Civic racecar), selling my two remaining Datsun 510’s, and coordinating the storage/painting of my 1973 Porsche 911. I took a break from mucking about in the garage, went to McDonald’s and contemplated my impending international move to Detroit where I was to start working at Roush Industries.
It was unusual for me to be eating at McDonald’s, but it was conveniently close to my rented garage. It was even more unusual for me to be eating a Happy Meal, but halfway through my Happy Meal I received an Unhappy Call from my friend Jay. Greg Moore had been killed at the final CART race of 1999 at Fontana, the sister track to Michigan International Speedway.
Jay had a special connection to Moore as Moore had driven one of his racecars, a Chevrolet Chevette specially prepared for ice racing. My connection to Moore was respecting him for achieving my lifelong goal of becoming a professional racecar driver. His death occurred while I was early in achieving my ‘backup goal’ of working as an engineer in the automotive industry.
Head-and-neck restraint systems, most common of which is the HANS device, were shortly made mandatory on ovals and subsequently all types of tracks. Greg Moore’s death was the last to occur in the CART Series, which eventually folded in 2008.
A tribute to Greg Moore’s career:
An even better version can be seen here (embedding is not allowed for some reason).
June 10, 2007
Robert Kubica accident pictures from the 2007 Formula One Canadian Grand Prix
I was attending the Canadian Grand Prix, merrily taking photographs of the action at the turn 10 hairpin. Suddenly I saw a disintegrating Formula One tub go flying across the opposite wall. The front-end of the car was missing. The driver’s feet were visible. The tub was on its side, bouncing along the ground while the driver’s head was flopping undamped from side to side in the cockpit. Even before the car came to rest I thought the driver was dead.
As seen in the accompanied photographs, Robert Kubica’s accident was serious. I was lucky to capture the series of photos, and he was even luckier to have survived virtually unscathed, receiving a light concussion and sprained ankle. He left the hospital the following day.
Footage of his crash:
A video simulation of his accident showing the various safety features that prevented more serious injury:
Pretty sobering stuff. What are you thankful for today?
[P.S. You should join us today on OctaneNation.]