As racers, I think to some extent we’re all kind of adverse to the dangers of our sport. While we all realize that the potential exists for something to go wrong, unless we’ve been through an accident or a tense situation on the race track I think we tend to fall into the trap of thinking “It won’t happen to me.” While I don’t want to dwell on the dangers of our sport, and that’s not my intent with this column, I do think it would do us all good to cover some basic “What if’s.”

As many of you know, we just completed a new American Race Cars dragster for my wife, Jessica to drive. She’s no rookie when it comes to sportsman drag racing. Like me, she grew up at the track watching and helping her father and grandfather race. She dabbled in Junior Dragsters, and has been racing regularly for about a decade. Not only is she experienced, she’s also a really good racer.

Prior to making her maiden voyage in the new car (she’s never driven a dragster), we spent an afternoon going over some basics. I wanted her to get acclimated to her surroundings and comfortable in the new car. Once she did we went over our version of the blindfold test (an often overlooked portion of NHRA licensing) to make sure she was comfortable with the location of major functions like the ignition switch, shifter, brake pedal, hand brake, fuel shutoff, etc.

Once that was done, I asked her to go through the complete routine of making a run, from the water box to the turn off, while sitting in the car in the shop without the engine running. We went through the burnout and staging procedure, the run itself and the shutdown process. We did it a handful of times. Once she was comfortable and confident, I started to add in stressful scenarios. At the end of one run, I reached in and held the throttle to floor. I said, “The throttle is hung. What do you do?”

On another, as she shut down I said “The brake pedal just fell to the floor. What do you do?”

I’m not trying to take a shot at my wife, but her initial reaction scared me. Here was a woman who has been racing for several years, but did not immediately know to do some of the things that I often take for granted. We went over various scenarios several times, and by the end of the afternoon she was a lot more comfortable – and so was I.

That experience got me to thinking that there are probably a lot of racers out there without the experience and/or mechanical background that I have. As a result, they may not be completely prepared to respond in those situations where something goes awry. That’s the reason behind authoring this column. It may be an insignificant column for many of you; I know these situations and my ideal reactions are engrained in my mind. They’re things that I’ve thought about for most of my racing career. But much like the moves that we make on the race track, the success of our decisions hinges upon our ability to act and react quickly. The best response is a trained one. A second or two spent in wasted panic may be the difference between bringing your race car back to the trailer on a rollback, or driving it back to the pits thinking “Whew, that was a close one.”

So, to those of you who will look at this column as wasted exercise in repetition, I apologize. But if the message below saves one race car, minimizes the damage of one accident, or most of all keeps one subscriber from getting injured or killed, then these efforts are well worth the time.

What if: The throttle hangs wide open at the finish line?

With rare exception, a throttle hanging wide open at the finish line should not be the cause of an accident. The reason it is often the cause of an accident is because a driver is unprepared and doesn’t know what to do, or because panic sets in and the driver either A.) Freezes up and does nothing for a few seconds, and by then it’s too late to stop; or B.) Overreacts by locking up the brakes and crashes on their own.

I encourage each of you to think about your individual racing vehicle for a moment, and think about what your sequence of events should be if the throttle were to hang wide open at the finish line. The setup and layout of each competition vehicle can, in some cases, change the procedure and/or sequence that needs to happen in order to come to a safe stop.

Ignition: In just about every application, the first reaction of the driver in this situation should be to kill the power to the ignition system. In vehicles that still use the factory ignition key and steering column, this is a little tricky, because you don’t want to lock the wheel – so be sure not to the click the key back into the locked position. Just about every purpose-built race car has a separate ignition switch. Hit that first.

Neutral: Now, keep in mind that most automatic/torque converter applications will continue running for a period if you kill the ignition and leave the car in gear. The inertia and momentum of the torque converter will continue to spin the motor; and if you’re at wide open throttle (particularly with a mechanical fuel pump), the speed of the car will continue to increase. So, immediately after shutting off the ignition, be sure to put the shifter into neutral. This will take the load off of the motor, and allow it to shut off completely.

Parachute: At this point, you should have no issue stopping the car (unless you’re at a very short track and/or you panicked, allowing precious seconds to slip by before shutting the car off). If your car is equipped with a parachute, it’s never a bad idea to go ahead and get it out. In fact, a lot of racers would mark parachute deployment as their first step in this process, and I don’t really have any issue with that. Many racers are taught that their first reaction in the face of any problem at the finish line should be to pull the ‘chute; and again, I’m fine with that. For me personally, in the case of a hung throttle, I think killing the ignition should take precedence. In most cases, if that’s done abruptly there’s generally not even a need to pull the ‘chute.

Braking: As soon as the ignition is off, obviously we want to begin braking as quickly and safely as possible. Again, it’s imperative not to panic here. We don’t want to lock up the brakes until and unless it is completely necessary. Some cars are equipped with a secondary braking system (Jessica’s dragster, for example has a hand brake that operates a second master cylinder and a second set of calipers, completely independent of the foot pedal). If your car has a second system, you may want to use both systems to bring the car to halt more quickly (again, you don’t want to lock up the tires until or unless you’re out of room and options).

For me, in any of our four cars, that’s the order of operations in the event that the throttle hangs: Kill the ignition, click it into neutral, pull the ‘chute (no ‘chute on the Vega), and begin braking. All of those steps are critical, and in the event of a stuck throttle I’m confident that I could perform all four steps within the matter of about a second; but that’s the order in which I’ll go through the sequence. It might sound simple, but thinking about it and creating a plan right now can save me valuable seconds should this situation present itself on the race track. Those seconds could very well be the difference between coming back to pits unscathed and running off the end of the race track.

What if: The brake pedal falls to the floor at the finish line?

Braking: Obviously, when we roll through the finish line and lift off the throttle, our next movement is to push the brake pedal. But something has happened, and it falls to the floor. When I presented this scenario to my wife, I said “The brake pedal falls to the floor. What do you do?”

Her response? “I’d think, ‘Oh $%*^’!”

While I realize that’s the first thing that would come to many of our minds, that’s not a productive thought! In this instance, if you’re driving a car equipped with a secondary braking system, that should be your first reaction. In Jess’s car, for example, she can reach for the hand brake in this instance; and assuming that braking system is still intact and working properly, that moment of anxiety is just that – a moment. She can continue the standard shut down process using the hand brake rather than the foot brake. Even if your car is equipped with an independent second braking system, I’d encourage you to read on and establish a plan in the event that both brake systems fail.

That may sound a little far-fetched, but it’s really not. Let’s say, for example, that you have a brake line leak, or more commonly a brake line catches a wheel screw and gets ripped off. Obviously, you have little or no brakes. That occurrence should not affect the function of a second braking system. But, let’s say that the brake caliper bolts sheer off as you apply the brakes at the finish line, the caliper grabs the rotor, and spins until it rips the line loose. In this instance, it’s very possible that the caliper takes out your second caliper, ripping the line out of it as well. Now you’ve got two brake kits that are rendered useless. I’ve seen it happen. The point is to be prepared in case the seemingly unthinkable happens.

DO NOT SHUT OFF THE ENGINE! Unlike a situation where the throttle hangs wide open, the last thing that you want to do in a situation where you lose brakes at speed is to kill the engine. Without brakes, the engine is the only thing that can really help slow your car down. Keep the engine running, and keep the car in gear (DO NOT put it in neutral). The decreasing engine RPM’s will drag down the driveshaft RPM, pulling the car back to a manageable speed.

Parachute: If your car has a parachute, get it out as quickly as possible once you realize that you don’t have brakes. The ‘chute won’t ever bring you to a complete halt, but at speed it will kill momentum monumentally, bringing your speed to a more manageable rate.

Down-shift: Once you let the engine pull down the car for a period in high gear, pull it into second (3-speed) or low gear (powerglide). The result will obviously be increased engine RPM, but the gearing will decrease speed. Again, the engine is your tool here; use it like a Jake Brake of sorts. Be prepared when you down-shift; on most combinations the gear change is significant: it’s going to try to throw you through the windshield briefly, and if you’re carrying too much speed/rpm it may upset the suspension. Particularly when pulling the car into low gear, be very cautious in your movement and be ready to shift immediately back to high-gear. In fact, in my experience in a similar situation, I went back and forth from high gear to low gear several times to kill momentum, not over-rev the engine, and keep the rear tires from trying to lock up.

Transbrake: If your vehicle is equipped with a transbrake, this is one of your last options. If you’re going to run out of race track, pull the car into low gear and mash the button (with the engine running, of course). Obviously, you’re going to lock up the rear tires immediately, so be prepared. If you’re carrying any speed at all, note that you’re very likely to break the planetary gears by doing this: but given your options at this point that’s typically a better option than running through the sand trap, into a catch net, or at some tracks much worse.

Always have an exit plan: The steps listed above can help you avert disaster in many instances. In my years of racing, I’ve had just about everything you could imagine happen, and I’ve been able to avoid serious incident and/or injury by being prepared and executing the sequences listed above (and a little luck). With that said, there are certain situations that simply can’t be avoided.

From the standpoint of not having brakes, the scariest car that I ever drove was one of the slowest: our 10-second Stock Eliminator entry. Thankfully, we never had a braking issue with that machine, but I thought long and hard about how I would handle it, simply because my options were very limited. Think about it:

Most class cars are designed to roll as freely as possible. Speed is key, so we try to avoid added friction and resistance to the extreme. As a result, if you shut off the typical Stock Eliminator car at the finish line, put it in neutral and did not apply the brakes, it would roll for miles.

Obviously, if I lost brakes I would want to keep the car running to use the engine as a lever. But, with the transmission setup that we had, you could not down-shift manually until the engine RPM decreased and there was not a load on the transmission. It didn’t have a parachute, and it didn’t have a transbrake. Essentially, and realistically, I wasn’t going to stop without brakes. Without any good options, I had to prepare myself for the worst. In the event of losing braking power, I was prepared to scrub a really nice, factory Chevrolet Nova against the guardrail to slow down and/or stop. That’s a tough decision: to essentially sacrifice the entire side of a car. But given the option of scrubbing the wall or wrapping the car around a tree a quarter mile off the end of the shutdown area, I’ll gladly scuff one side of the car.

When I was growing up, our local track (Texas Raceway in Kennedale, TX), had a huge banked turn at the end of the track. It was nice, because the banking allowed you to navigate the turn at some speed if necessary. But, if you went off the banking you went right into a thick forest – there really wasn’t any alternative. In my younger years, I witnessed a great female driver take the lesser of two evils. As she crossed the finish line, the throttle hung AND the brakes failed. She quickly got the car shut off, but it was evident that she would enter the banked turn with far too much momentum to get through it. Rather than catapult the car into the forest, she made the difficult but correct decision to cut the wheel and roll the car in a field between the short turn-off and the banked turn. She destroyed the car, but walked away. Again, I like her odds of survival doing a few barrel rolls in the grass better than I do dodging trees airborne at 100+ mph.

My point is to always have an exit plan. Worst case scenario, how can I live to race another day with as little damage to my car as possible? The answer will change from one facility to the next based upon the track layout, and often most importantly, what lies off the end of the racing surface.

What if: You crash?

Obviously, we’ll all do all that we can do to avoid actually crashing into something on the race track; whether it be the retaining wall or, god forbid, our competitor. But at some point, many of us will hit that point of no return, where all we can do is brace ourselves for impact. The bulk of our protection at this point was determined before we ever staged the car. Hopefully we had enough forethought and self-respect to use the proper safety equipment, strap ourselves in tightly, etc. At the point of impact, my biggest concerns would be my hands and arms. In many classes, we’re required to wear arm restraints, but in order to allow us to perform necessary functions in the car, arms restraints are not generally adjusted tightly enough to serve their intended purpose: to keep our hands and arms from extending beyond the roll cage. My first reaction would be to cross my arms over my chest and grab my shoulders as tightly as I could. I realize that in the event of the car barrel rolling it will be very difficult to control my extremities, but I think that the tighter I could “tuck” myself, the better off I’d be. I think that my natural reaction would be to grip the steering wheel, but in the havoc of an accident, I would be afraid of the wheel being ripped from my hands, potential injuring a finger or even taking one off – plus at that point I’m afraid my reaction would result in flailing arms. I’m not sure that I’ll have the presence of mind to actually do it, but I think my best bet would be to tuck and grab.

What if: Your car is on fire?

Whether the fire is the result of an accident or an independent event, our first reaction should obviously be to get out of the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible.

Fire Bottles: If you’re driving one of the small percentage of sportsman cars equipped with a fire retention system, pull the pin. By doing so, hopefully you can not only avoid burns to yourself but also salvage most of your race car. Unfortunately, very few sportsman vehicles are equipped with an onboard fire system. Note here: even if an onboard fire system isn’t an affordable option, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep a small fire extinguisher securely mounted within your reach inside the car.

Master Cut Off Switch: While most racing fires are fuel related, several can have an electrical culprit. If you’ve got an in-car master cut off switch (something that, in my opinion should be mandatory on all sportsman vehicles), your first reaction should be to kill the main power.

Fuel Shut off: If your car is equipped with a fuel shut off (required on belt-driven fuel systems), close it. If your fire is fuel related, maybe it’s on the backside of the shut off and you can prevent additional fuel from reaching it (and/or prevent the fire from reaching the fuel tank).

Get Out! In many cases, this should be your first response. I mean, if the car is engulfed in flames you’re not going to save it anyhow – and at that point who cares about the damage to the vehicle? Get yourself out of there so that you can hug your wife or husband and kiss your kids goodnight. Be prepared to exit the vehicle quickly with all of your safety equipment on. This isn’t natural, because most of us strip our helmet, gloves, etc. off before exiting the car. It’s a good idea to practice this occasionally before it matters (do it when you’re alone in the shop… Getting out of the car with your helmet on at the race track – assuming it’s not on fire – definitely knocks you down a few notches on the cool meter).

Danger Can Be Averted
The above isn’t actually an accurate statement. Our sport has inherent dangers that we cannot predict or often times prepare for. Life in general is full of potential dangers, it’s nothing unique to drag racing. What we can do, however, is due diligence in an effort to prevent as many potential incidents as possible, and keep ourselves (and others) as safe as possible in the event that the unforeseen actually comes to fruition.

Attention to Detail: Don’t cut corners in your racing operation. That’s a great general rule to follow in all facets of preparation, but specifically to anything that relates to safety. Don’t run fuel or oil lines through metal or aluminum panels; use a bulkhead fitting. Route brake lines away from heat and moving objects as much as possible. Properly vent and ground your fuel tank. Use large wheel studs and make sure that they’re of adequate length. Mount all of your necessary functions so that they’re within easy reach while strapped in. The list goes on and on. Over the course of my racing career, I’ve seen so many unfortunate mishaps that led to injury or damage of property as a direct result of negligence. Many of those haven’t been caused by negligent driving as much as negligent assembly and a lack of attention to detail. Our races are conducted in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans. Many of us are traveling at speeds well in excess of 100 miles per hour on the race course. Have some respect for the machines that we’re dealing with and the people around you – be as careful as you can.

Safety Equipment:
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been as guilty as anyone throughout my racing career of not always wearing the proper equipment and/or not using that equipment properly. At summer time bracket races, I’ve often raced without fire pants. I’m still not a huge fan of neck collars, so I’ve conveniently misplaced them and raced without them on several occasions. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly since starting a family, I’ve placed a much higher value on my personal well-being. As a result, I’ve made a commitment to wearing the required safety equipment, and often times I go above and beyond. I started wearing a Hybrid head/neck restraint in Super Gas last season and will wear it in both S/C and S/G this year. It’s not mandatory, but if I have the misfortune of getting involved in a finish line accident, I think it could save my life.

Wearing this stuff doesn’t really affect anyone but you. You’re not putting anyone else in danger if you don’t strap your helmet. But it’s dangerous and stupid. If you want to do it, it’s not like it affects me; it doesn’t even bother me. But what’s the gain?

Follow the Rules:
I know that we all tend to get tired of the sanctioning bodies constantly legislating new rules on our sport. These rules tend to increase our costs and at times even seem to impede upon our fun. Believe me, I’ve voiced my displeasure with seemingly asinine rules in the past. Just keep in mind that almost every safety rule on the book was put into place because someone got hurt. It may seem far-fetched for a header collector to fall off, get run over, and pitched into the spectator crowd with massive force; but it has happened. Follow the rules and respect our sport and the people surrounding us at the race track (competitors, spectators, track officials, etc.). Wire up the neutral safety switch. Use a diaper if mandated (this isn’t a bad idea whether it’s mandatory or not). Use the appropriate hose for pressurized lines. Have the proper shields in place on your car.

A lot of that stuff may seem like a money-grab by the sanctioning bodies and manufacturers, and it can seem especially taxing when you add it all up. In the end, however, it’s difficult to put a price on safety.

Wrapping Things Up:
The point of this column is to challenge each of you to take a few moments to prepare for the worst. Think through what you would/should do in these difficult situations. Prepare yourself mentally to make the split second decisions that could save your car and/or your health. And remember that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Thanks again for reading.

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