by Jerry (Siddhartha) Bradbury
A howling north wind pushed my rig down the I-5 through the Central Valley toward Buttonwillow Raceway. Trees were being shaken like bad children and the grass was bent double. Visibility was poor in the thick golden haze of dust and chaff, but my gas mileage was good. It was a Friday and I was a day early because Canyon Bob Scheer would be there testing his new engine. He’s missed all but the first race this season because of reliability problems with his Canyon Motorsports Mini race car. Now he’s enlisted Hubie Fuh, renowned SoCal Mini tuner, to help build a new turbo powered engine. Phone reports are that it behaved well in testing at Willow Springs and is fast as stink on a skunk.
Buttonwillow Raceway is a strange place. One of the last remaining road courses in Southern California, it is beastly hot in the summer. The last time I was there it was 112 degrees and I got hit by an overly aggressive driver on the front straight. Now it’s in the 70’s and the mornings are cool enough for a jacket. Buttonwillow Raceway is mostly flat with just a few minor elevation changes and no obstacles to speak of except the pit wall. But if a car goes off track it meets the fine brown Buttonwillow dust. As I rolled down the approach road around noon, a bright red Mazda went four wheels off in Turn 11, whipping up a billowing brown cloud behind and making the car look like it was challenging the Land Speed Record on the Black Rock playa. That cloud then blew across the track, completely eliminating visibility. A spin off sideways will push a big wave of dust up into which the car disappears until it comes to a stop. The wave then crashes down on the car, dumping about 30 pounds of fine dirt in your lap through the window (which of course is down for safety reasons) while the rest rolls across the track again, limiting visibility. Entering that cloud at speed is like charging into the smoke in one of those NASCAR crashes in the movies. Daunting.
My car has been sitting idle for awhile and the battery is down. With the help of Bob, Hubie and Dan, I get it bump started and take it for a spin to find out what the changes feel like. My sponsor, Bay Bridge Motors, has installed a new 15% supercharger pulley provided by my other sponsor, Mini Mania. It’s good for a 4% increase in boost from the supercharger. In addition, the interior of the catalytic converter had come loose and was stuffing up the cat like a bad cold until it was found and removed, freeing up the exhaust route. As I run it up through the gears out on the Lerdo Highway next to the raceway it feels really strong and sounds raspy and brutal. Nice. Thanks, guys!
Canyon Bob has had some good runs in the morning and they are playing with the boost gauge to balance the horsepower – too much and the car just burns rubber coming out of the turns, too little and the car bogs in the corners. We take our places at the pit wall but as the car comes by it starts backfiring loudly, the sound bouncing off the wall like gunfire. He pulls in. The hood comes off and flying fingers check connections. Everything is tight. Maybe it’s starving for fuel in the corners. Add some more. Go out again. Nope. Pull in. Recheck. Change distributor. Aha. Loose connection. Lash it down. Go out again. Uh-uh. And to complete the snafu, the differential detonates coming out of Turn 3. I’m starting to feel like a jinx – it was running fine until I showed up. Hubie is convinced the transmission can be changed out in time for Sunday’s race so we load the car on the trailer and they’re off to the shop to rebuild it on Saturday. I’m alone again. Naturally.
Next morning as the sun comes up I try to start the car, but there’s no juice. By the time I find a charger and get it started, there are only five minutes left in the warm up session so I don’t go out. Rich Peterson arrives with the Mini race car that he has been rebuilding since his differential seized at California Speedway last fall and he hit the wall hard. We visit until it’s time for qualifying, but he still has a lot of prep to do so I get on the grid and wait to go out. I’m the first one there so everyone lines up behind me.
The starter whirls his arms and I accelerate out onto the course. Two Honda Challenge cars pass me and I step it up a little. It’s the first lap so we’re not going full out but I hit the Bus Stop apex as if we were. It unbalances the car and the rear end starts coming around. I stay on the gas and counter steer but it fishtails around the other way. The rear wheels hit dirt, throw up a cloud, lose traction and snap around the other way. Again I try to catch it but I can’t and it gets away. I go all in, feet trying to push both pedals through the floor. The car slides screeching sideways down the track and comes to a stop perpendicular to the traffic flow. I find first gear and just get it rolling when out of the dust cloud come two cars side by side at speed. There is nowhere for them to go so I just grit my teeth and the outside car slams into my right rear wheel at about 60 mph, spinning my car 180 degrees. All the safety gear inside the car does its job. On impact my helmet bounces off the safety net on my right and slams into the padded roll bar on my left. My HANS (head and neck safety device), held firmly in place by my very tight six point harness, limits the travel of my head and the racing seat and harness combine to keep my body in place. When it’s over all I have is a slight headache and a severely bent race car.
Whenever we screw up, the temptation to find someone or something to blame is overwhelming. But there’s no use blaming anyone but myself for this incident. As I tell my students, accidents don’t come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of a chain of events, any one of which, if eliminated, would not result in the accident. I made 6 mistakes in a row and the car ended up on the trailer.
- With no warm up, I was first on grid in qualifying. I should have been last.
- I didn’t warm up my tires sufficiently in cool weather. Cold tires are slippery.
- I let the two Hondas passing me tempt me into going too fast too soon.
- I hit the berm inside the Bus Stop Turn too high, unbalancing the car.
- I didn’t react fast enough to prevent it from spinning.
- I didn’t get off the track soon enough when the car stopped.
This is not rocket science. I know all these things. My brain was as cold as my tires and my luck ran out. Racing is not all spraying champagne and being kissed by pretty girls. It’s hard work and it’s dangerous work with serious consequences for errors. Those of us who do it – who love it – accept the risks and must live with those consequences.
Canyon Bob managed to swap trannies, found a loose connection at the crankshaft sensor which was causing the backfiring, made it back in time for Sunday’s race and was doing well until the engine sucked a valve about half way through the race. More bad luck. Rich circulated uneventfully and finished the race, carrying the flag for Mini.
My car is back in the shop and hopefully will be ready for the final event at Infineon in November. I haven’t seen the points standings yet, but I should still be in the lead or close to it for Rookie of the Year, a position I will no doubt lose to Mike McColligan if I can’t make the call to the post at Sears Point next month.
I have no photos of the car at Buttonwillow, so please excuse the historical one that leads this article.