How do you tell a racing driver to slow down?

| Photographer Credit: Shell V-Power Racing

Good question, eh? How DO you, I, or a concerned partner, family or team member tell a racing driver that it indeed is time to slow down…or at the very least, crank back the intensity – what? – an eighth, a quarter or, if he or she is a really loose unit, a half a turn of some imaginary wheel?

On one level, of course, you don’t. Because going fast – preferably faster than anyone else in the same car on the same track on the same day is what racing drivers are supposed to do.

To even think about slowing down is anathema to most of them. Which is why you see so many cars and even motorcycles tail-ended even at the very top levels of motorsport (think NASCAR, F1, MotoGP etc).

You’ve wondered where terms like ‘foot flat to the floor or boards,’ ‘pedal to the metal’ and ‘see God then brake’ come from. Wonder no longer, they come from the lexicon of just such drivers.

I’m prompted to raise the issue of a driver pushing past his or her limits into what mountaineers familiar with climbing Mt Everest call the ‘death zone’ by a couple of recent incidents.

Obviously, the two which have attained the most profile are those involving our own Scott McLaughlin.

Also fellow Virgin Australia Championship Ford driver Chaz Mostert at the annual Gold Coast 600 Supercars race meeting on the Gold Coast over (our) Labour Weekend.

Another was Targa hard-charger Nic de Waal’s monumental crash during this year’s 25th Anniversary event.

If the in-car camera – somehow – remained unscathed (though I’m doubting it from the shot of the aftermath that was doing the rounds of Facebook over the weekend) it is going to be one scary watch.

Because?

Because when the car finally came to rest in a cockie’s paddock it looked more like a UTV – or one of those off-roaders with an exo-skeleton-type roll cage, because all the bodywork including the roof had pretty much been shaken off during the accident.

Nic – who was one of South Africa’s top rally drivers before emigrating here – and Irish-born but Temuka-based co-driver Shane Reynolds, escaped very much unscathed….a testament to the integrity of the roll cage and fact, no doubt, that Targa NZ was the first local event organiser to insist all competitors must wear an approved HANS safety device.

The other two drivers whose accidents at Surfers Paradise I have chosen to focus on also escaped unscathed thanks to the state-of-the-art safety systems all Supercars must use these days.

What concerns me most though is that Mostert has had a similar physics-defying crash before. Most of us, will quickly recall the sickening smash on the way down off ‘the Mountain’ in 2015 when Chaz pinballed off the inside Armco and smashed – hard – into the concrete wall on the other (driver) side of the circuit, the impact enough to break a wrist and his right leg.

There were eerily familiar similarities both to Moztert’s crash in the Top 10 Shootout on Saturday and McLaughlin’s in the weekend’s second qualifying session on Sunday at Surfer’s Paradise.

In both cases the drivers (sitting on the right hand side of the car) mis-sighted their apex point on the left, turning in marginally, microscopically too early before hitting then glancing off the inside wall which in turn pitched them off line and into the hard, unyielding concrete barrier on the other (right hand) side of the track.

Of course, we all make mistakes, and – if anything – Scott McLaughlin’ s hit proves that the 26-year-old reigning Supercars series champion is human.

That said, right from the start of the weekend he was bouncing of the tyre bundles through the sea-side front straight’s chicanes like a newb and generally being quick but at the expense of the incredible finesse he usually shows.

Was he rattled by the bullshit the tabloids were full of in the wake of what I suppose we can now call ‘Fabian-gate’ and subsequent enquiry and ‘record fine’ of the Penske/DJR Shell V-Power Racing squad as some commentators suggested?

Or had he simply cranked his driving up to – yet – another level to further push his case as the top guy in the category, and to hang with (to use a lovely old term from my Mum and Dad’s era) the consequences.

That’s certainly how I read it through the filter of the TV, remembering Scotty’s reputation-establishing ‘win-it-or-bin-it, ‘back-er-in’ move on (from memory it was) Mark Winterbottom when he was still driving a Volvo for Gary Rogers at the same event back in 2014.

Scott’s flair behind the wheel, is after-all, one of the key reasons most of us rate him so highly. The other is his metronomic-like ability (rare in a young bloke these days) to repeat lap after lap the same mm-perfect racing line and with it lap times.

In this almost super-human ability to apply a laser-like focus to the job at hand, he really only IMHOA (In my Humble Opinion Anyway) has one peer on the racing scene at the moment, and that is fellow Kiwi…………Scott Dixon.

With that in mind, and the fact that car and circuit safety has come on in leaps and bounds, even in just the past few years, perhaps we as observers have to accept the odd ‘monumental off’ as the price a driver – and team of course – has to pay if they are serious about running at the front.

Or not, as the case may be.

I know, I’ve survived some fairly serious ‘off-track excursions’ in my day (while racing on both two and four wheels) and in each case felt nothing like the fear – and very real sense of ‘oh shit, this could actually be ‘it’ – I did when my family and I were taken out by a licence-less logging truck driver and sent pinballing down Auckland’s North-Western Motorway seven or eight years ago now.

Which is the difference a full roll cage, racing seat and harness package and decent helmet make.

The only issue I have, in fact with drivers who so regularly defy the laws of physics on a track that a big accident will be a matter not of ‘if’ but ‘when’ is that the pursuit of ultimate pace – while noble in the extreme – can cost you the opportunity to enjoy a long, successful, and hopefully prosperous, career.

For an example you only have to look at what happened – several times in fact – to Kiwi motocross ace Ben ‘BT’ Townley.

BT was – and again, IMHOA, still is one of the best – in terms of natural talent, focus and determination – MX and SX riders New Zealand has ever produced (for a look at the latter part of his career you can check him out and make your own mind up (see below).

But after winning the FIM World MX2 class Championship in Europe in 2004, moving to the US in 2006 then beating no less a star-in-the-making than Ryan Dungey to the US Supercross East title in early 2007, then often beating but eventually finishing a close second to US-born teammate Ryan Villopoto in the US ‘outdoor’ MX Series later in the year, Townley couldn’t buy a break.

The problem was the serious injuries he kept sustaining – something I personally believe had to do with the level at which all the top US riders were training at, at the time.

If you want to blame anyone you can blame the GOAT (as in the rider the US moto media labelled the ‘Greatest of All Time,’ Ricky Carmichael. Or his mother…. who was actually the brains behind the Rickster’s amazing career.

I actually know a bit about training for a sport at this sort of level because (and laugh if you must) I spent a couple of (OK, in retrospect probably fairly deluded) years training pretty much full-time for Triathlons.

This was in the early days of the sport here and I combined training with running the local NZ Triathlete magazine for event organiser and all-round tri-sport marketing guru Alan Nelson.

Because there was such a direct link between the time you spent swimming, cycling and running and how well you did in events I – like pretty much everyone else I knew – over-trained like buggery, yet wondered why we were always at the physios or catching silly little sniffly colds………..

Sure, when I was 100% fit, I had the odd age-group success. But more often than not even I – an enthusiastic part-timer – was competing injured.

What finally set me off on my four-wheel path in fact was what – at the time was labelled a permanent knee joint injury, meaning I could hardly walk without constant pain, let alone run or ride a bike.

So, I stopped. Got a proper job and cold-turkey-ed the sport I had grown to love, almost as much as Enduro (motorcycle) racing, Karting and Mazda RX7/Pro 7 car racing.

So how come I now ride a Mountain Bike ‘for fun? Surely the pedalling motion exacerbates the same biomechanical issue which regularly ‘blew’ my right knee up back in the day?

Apparently not, and something my Dr (and cardiologist but that’s a story for another day!!) believe is to do with the (much more) relaxed pace I both ride and train at these days.

Sure, I’m not racing at the absolute top level like Scott and ‘Mozzie the Aussie’ are. But if the wretched struggle Ben Townley went through as his world-beating career gradually unravelled teaches us anything it is that we are all built differently and just because one athlete can both train and race at the same exalted pace doesn’t mean everyone else can.

Had BT just cranked the intensity (particularly when he was practising) back a quarter or even just an eighth of a turn, who knows what other titles he could have won in the US and/or on the world stage.

It’s the same, as far as I can see, anyway, with the Virgin Australia Supercars championship at the moment.

The last thing I’m going to suggest to Scott, Chaz or anyone else running at the front of a top-level racing series anywhere in the world, is that they slow down.

What I might do, should I ever get the opportunity, is ask them – for their own sake – to consider the ‘big picture,’ the whole lap, if you like, and not just a single corner, which is what both appeared to be doing on the streets of Surfers Paradise last weekend!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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