Racing the NSX in the Nevada Open Road Challenge
The trip to Nevada and qualifying
Thanks for the support. I was upset concerning the death. Some of the reasons for this will be apparent as I describe the happenings of the weekend in the desert.
I left for Las Vegas at 3 am Thursday morning. I was too excited to sleep. My wife and one year old son would fly and join me later Thursday. I expected a 12 hour drive but due to the early hour of departure, lack of traffic at that hour and my lead foot, I made the 568 miles in eight hours. I arrived fresh and excited. My college roommate flew in from Seattle to act as my navigator.
There was a class and track session on Thursday. I did not attend but heard that there were over 20 students, the class was delayed because of the lack of an ambulance, and there was no open track time for setting up the cars.
I arrived early Friday morning expecting to take a class and get in some track time. The class is taught by Terry Herman, the person that was killed. The class consisted of an hour lecture, some lead and follow run by the nstructors, some practice time, and a ride with an instructor as final certification. If you do not have formal racing credentials, you must be certified. The class is not essential but gives you priority for access to the track and cost $99.
The lecture was aimed to the least educated. There were seven students and most had no racing experience at all, period. I was the only one with any track time or even autocross experience. He talked about seating position, tight harness, and feeling what the car is doing. He deliberately avoided such concepts as over and under steer, track in, apex, and track out.
Terry did make one interesting point, one that would prove to be prophetic. He talked about what to do in a skid. He says people used to teach steering into the slid but that no longer worked with high performance cars and sticky tires. It acts too much like a spring and will snap back on you the other direction. He suggested that you just take you hands off the wheel and ride it out. I wonder what would have happened if he had listened to his own advice. I remember thinking that I would be able to counter steer the right amount and would recover. Now I wonder myself...
In order to get on the track, they did a preliminary tech inspection of my carand gave me a top speed of 150 based on my safety equipment. One of the requirements for this speed is a five point harness. I do not have a roll bar or cage and so had to mount the harness shoulder straps to the fire wall. I have a half inch thick by two inch wide aluminum bar attached with four bolts backing the mounting points. This was not checked. My helmet, safety clothing, and fire extinguisher were checked and I was allowed to enter the track area. See my later comments about tech inspection.
The class then did some lead and follow around the Las Vegas International Speedway. If you ever get a chance to drive this little, 1.6 mile, road course, do it. It is very interesting with more late apexes than regular corners. There are more places where you cannot see the apex than you can going into the corner! Lots of fun for the beginners! I was constantly laughing while I was following, until I remembered that I was on the same track with these guys. There were a couple of people that could not stay on the track during lead and follow and this at slow speed, like 40 mph!
(I find it difficult not to make comments about money to buy a fast car but no sense on how to drive it...but I will continue to try and restrain myself...)
Terry was an excellent instructor. He showed tremendous patience and was always making comments to help improve your driving. He immediately recognized my ability and starting commenting on the line and braking points and gear changes. He would then turn to another student and talk about hand position, not to try and go so fast, be smooth, and do not step on the brake so hard.
Many of the student were certified at a lower speed than their cars would allow. Mine read "OK, good understanding". I was not impressed with the quality of instruction aimed at the novices and was very careful who was around when I was running my practice laps.
This was the most fun of the weekend. I was able to make about 40 laps at speed in the car and was limited more by my ability to concentrate than time. I could have taken more laps. The course was challenging and difficult to run consistently with all the late apexes. My times started out 1;30's and progressed steadily to the 1:17 range and stuck there. I was not willing to press the braking areas but feel if I had, I could have found a couple more seconds. Terry had been in an NSX a couple of weeks prior and had gotten into the 1:09's. He liked the car and had a lot of nice things to say about it. I took my navigator out for a series of laps and scared him to death. He is used to rally situations but had never been on a road course or been in the NSX yet. He got used to it after a while. He was impressed and was looking forward to the race.
Friday afternoon the White Pine County Sheriff escorted us to Ely, a 268 mile trip. The escort moved at speeds of 65-70 mph, stopped frequently for rest and gas, and did traverse the race course backwards. The high desert is boring but this trip was fun. There were thunder storms and lightening and we were cruising with all kinds of cars. My wife, son, and navigator were in the rental car and I was left to my thoughts in the NSX.
Ely, the show and technichal inspection
Nevada has two reasons to close a road. One is to do the normal maintenance and repair, especially if there are safety reasons. The other is to promote tourism. It is this latter reason that the Ely Chamber of Commerce uses to promote the race. This is a real boon to the economy of Ely, a sleepy little town in middle of the Nevada desert. Highway 318 heads south towards Las Vegas and goes mostly straight through high desert country. One pass coming into Ely is at 7300. The course is 90 miles long and starts above 4000 and finishes around 3000 feet elevation.
Saturday morning all the cars are supposed to be on display. I go to the local do-it-yourself car wash and start getting the bugs out of the grill. Before I finish, there are nine cars waiting and more arriving every minute.
We go through another tech inspection. They forgot to check the front wheel bearings. I fill up with Trick 100+ unleaded gas.
The town blocks off a street near the old railroad station and all the cars are displayed. They have a BBQ, music, and sell T shirts and other momentos of the event.
The cars entered are lined up and we take some time to scope out the competition. My feelings about the event will probably come through here.
There is every thing here from the Ferrari F40 to a GTO, 1965 Pontiac that is. There are historic racing cars like an original Mercury Comet entered in the La Carerra. There are a ton of late model Corvettes with many of them ZR-1's. There are a lot of BMW's and a couple of S class Mercedes. There are several Porches, including a 930 with F1 style engine electronics, a 935 K, and the car that crashed. This car was a modified 911 with kit car body work similar to a 959. It was in primer, had beautiful engineering, but was still a home made job.
A lot of these cars were trailered in and were full race machines. They had support crews and lots of advertisements. Many were home made jobs. There were a lot of Cameros and Mustangs that had full roll cages, Halon systems, and full race engines. You could look at the sticker in the top left corner of the front window and see what the car was teched to run at. There were only about five unlimited and another nine 180 mph max cars. There were about 40 cars to run in the 160 and 150 class as I was 59 on the grid with a desired average speed of 134. The Touring class, 110 and under, contained the remainder of the 145 entries.
There were a few exotics. There was the F40, brought by a former Grand Prix Frenchman. It was set up sepecifically for this event but was teched at 180 apparently because the tires were not sufficient for unlimited speed.
There was a Ferrari 308, an Espada, three Pantera's, an Infiniti, and a Thunderbird with a supercharger that had run 180 before. There were three NSX's, including mine.
Tech was inconsistent. In order to run faster than 150 mph, you must have a roll bar. Both other NSX's did not have a roll bar but were teched at 160. One had a clothes hanger type bar running from shoulder belt point to point across the back of the car and the shoulder harness was mounted to this bar. The other car had two bolts running through the fire wall, backed by a plate that was two by two inches, barely large enough to pass the two bolts through. It also had a Halon system.
There were Corvettes teched for 150 with no harness mounting points and others teched for 130 with the harness points. Tires were closely checked and even Z rated tires were constrained below 180. The main checks were for tires, roll cage or bar, harness and safety cloting, and the helmet. It is difficult to decide if the car can handle these speeds. This is the key problem with a race like this. These are cars that are, for the most part, not designed to go these speeds. The engines have been modified to run these speeds and sometimes the suspension had been worked on but often not. There is no class of car that determines construction constraints. These are not formula cars or production cars or NASCAR cars. These are "run what you brung" cars and this presents a real problem for the tech inspector.
Mike Hanson is knowledgable and is the chief inspector. He did not ok the Testarosa that crashed several years back, killing the navigator wife. He has more power now and does his best to try and make the race as save as possible. I think it is almost impossible because there is not foumula or specification on the kind of car or the kind of classes you can run.
The open road challenge
Race day dawned bright and clear. Many of the participants proclaimed it the best conditions ever. The previous event had been rained on and some said they could not seen the road at 130+. Earlier events had even been snowed upon.
We caravaned out to the starting line and were gridded according to the speed we had declared as our desired average. I was trying to be conservative and hoped to average 134 mph for the 90 miles. The winner in each speed bracket was the person that came closest to their personal declared average. The unlimited class winner was determined by who ever was the fastest. Previous years winners were getting close to 200 mph average.
We all parked in order and waited for the course to be closed, course workers positioned and communications set up. There were course workers every mile or more frequently if visibility was limited. There were flag stations every ten miles that had an ambulance and fire truck. There were two planes in the air to cover communications and spotting. The majority of the course workers were towns people helping out and did not have any more training than could be delivered in a one hour class session.
The flags had been misplaced so the race director went to the local five and dime and had some material stapled to some sticks. The checkered flag looked like an Italian checkered table cloth and the yellow and red flags were a bit off color. Red meant stop as soon as possible and yellow meant slow and prepare for something in roadway. That was it.
The organization was better than most years. The road is blocked from 6 am until 1 pm. The first car out was to be at 9 and happened around 10 because there was a cow on the road.
We wondered up and down the line checking out the cars and talking. The local high school cheerleaders were walking up and down the line selling coffee and donuts. There was a real party atmosphere.
I happened to be at the head of the line when I noticed Terry and the owner of the 959 look-a-like talking next to the car. I had not examined it closely and was surprised to see it first in line with the other unlimited. I was curious to see what Terry was saying and noticed he had on a driver's suit. I wandered over and watched what was going on. They were talking about making some adjustments on the car and then Terry got into the driver's seat.
I tried to look under the back of the car to see more of the engine. There was a turbo sticking out the back with a separate waste gate exhaust pointing down. I wanted to see more of the suspension as that was my main interest but could see little. I did notice huge Avon tires in the rear and wondered what the criteria was for unlimited tires. The spec indicated they must be racing tires.
He went through what looked like a ritual. He adjusted the seat, stuck out his wrist to the top of the steering wheel, slide his hands from opposite lock to opposite lock in both directions, and shimmied back and forth in the seat. He looked over at the owner and said this was fine and started asking questions about the gauges.
He looked at the red line and was told to ignore it, run it at about 7200 rpm. There was an oil temperature light and a switch that he was supposed to throw about six miles out that ran a transmission cooler pump. He was supposed to run full out and let it idle at the end of the race for five minutes to keep the turbo from coking up. There was a boost knob. When Terry asked about it, he was told that it was disconnected and that the boost was preset. He should run hard and not worry about the engine, it was bullet proof.
I found it interesting that he was going to be the driver, had never sat in the car before, and the owner had great confidence in the car. In previous years the first ten cars have not finished because of breaking or running out of gas.
The race finally started. The first four cars were waved off at one minute intervals. An instant before the fifth car was to start, the course was closed due to the accident. The second and third cars were red flagged at the first flag station, about eight miles into the course. The fourth car could not be found and this hampered emergency access to the course. It was found ten minutes later, on fire, three miles into the course.
A plane landed near the accident and after that reports became unreliable. There was a control frequency that was advertised as the communication channel to listen to but all it had was vehicle traffic on course. Rumors were plentiful, real information was not. They eventually came around and said there was an accident but the track would open in half an hour. They came around again and said 15 minutes. At noon they came around and told us of the fatality and asked us to reevaluate our driving speed and attitude. Finally two hours later they canceled the race. The explanation was that the coroner needed to view the accident scene but he was on his way from 120 miles away. The department of transportation guy would not let the race continue. I do not know if he was the federal or state representative. The highway patrol was willing to let the race continue.
They escorted us along the course to get us safely on our way back to Las Vegas. They were afraid if they let us go our own way, the hot heads of the group would race anyway. We got about nine miles into the course when we noticed the accident scene coming up. There was a wrecker and a patrol car and some other vehicles. My navigator suddenly pointed out the skid marks. I did not get a chance to see the skid marks start. It was a left hand up hill corner. The ground drops off slightly to the outside of the corner, a slope down about three feet. The left side of the road is cut down about a foot and then goes up with a bank covered with small rock out cropings.
The skid marks went left, towards the inside of the curve, with one mark being particularly heavy and wide. There were two other narrower marks. It appeared as if the car was spinning as it left the road, toward the inside of the curve. This was the first real curve in the course after a significant straight.
The car skidded about 100 yards, left the road and left no indication of being there for another 200 yards. Then pieces of the body, the front suspension corner with wheel, and other bits could be seen, not more than 30 feet off the side of the road. The car looked to have tumbled and rolled multiple times but does not appear to have burned, contrary to news reports. Terry had been clocked at over 210 mph.
My thoughts were filled with images of Terry. I had just gotten to know him as an instructor. Driving instructors have to be a special breed, patient, demanding of safety, and excellent at communicating. I had seen him on race day and had high expectations for his performance. I had images of how he died and what it must have felt like. I questioned my own reasons for being there and the speeds that I was going to be driving. Autocrossing is one thing, this was another. I questioned the event. There are not safety fences or gravel pits. The nearest help is a long ways away. The unlimiteds lack any control and the control on those of us running more than 110 are minimal.
The award dinner was nice. Roger Ward expressed sadness at Terry's passing. He implied the race would continue in September. The Show Boat puts on a great buffet with great prime rib. My son slept in the corner sleeping on napkins. My wife and I sat at a table by ourselves and discussed the events. She is supportive of my driving, my cars, and even enjoys a fast drive on occasion. She is a competent mechanical engineer and understands some of the stress and strain we put on our cars. She was relieved when she found I was not going to race. She asked if I would enter it again next September. I do not know, I just do not.