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Hillclimbing

The Healey Hillclimb is my favorite event. I've had the pleasure of driving it several times and any time I can, I volunteer to work corners. It's impossible to find a place to see such a diverse group of cars all doing the same challenging course, each car with it's own particular challenge. The Healey Hillclimb 10 in May became 10a because there ended up being a 10b in June due to 10a being reallocated for jet skis only following a noon deluge.

 

Tom put me alone on corner 4 in the morning, halfway up the hill. He said, "That's pretty quiet, just stand in the woods and watch the cars go by." Yeh, right. Now I'm not complaining. I'd rather have something to do. I've been on corner 4 several times before and each time there was always at least one chance for me to red flag the action so I was not planning on snoozing. But, 10a was beginning to look more and more like this time there really was going to be very little action, mostly just rain and watching the pavement dry, and lamenting the fact that I forgot to bring a chair and no matter where I sat I got a wet butt.

 

Corner 4 is between the two sets of chicanes in the middle of a long left hand sweep going up the hill. The exit of the bottom chicane is on the left going uphill, there is a slight turn in the road to the right at that point, then it starts the left hand sweep. From the corner 4 station it's possible to keep an eye on cars as they exit the chicane and that's a good place to focus since I've seen deer there twice before. On this day, it was especially entertaining since the damp pavement gave the high horsepower cars an instant drift as soon as they got on the throttle. As I recall, the Plymouth and the Camaro would step out immediately on acceleration. There were others as well but everyone was pretty well behaved. The Corvette drivers were being especially careful.

 

One thing I noticed was that the faster and heavier cars took the longer view and stayed more to the left, about the center of the road, on the chicane exit, which seems reasonable considering that the larger turn is to the left and the apex of that corner is somewhere around where I was stationed, while the Spridget types would go for that first apex on the right. The smaller cars seemed to come through smoothly without loss of traction. Of course, it's hard for the lower horsepower cars to break traction on acceleration anyway and the hill makes it even more difficult to do so. It's easy to assume that the extra power and a heavy foot were to blame for a car stepping out, and that's part of it, but there is also the condition of the road surface and it's configuration. The cars would always break to the left, the inside of the long sweep! After the practice runs the timed runs began with the caveat that there was still water on the track, so easy does it. That came to an abrupt stop when Dwight McCullough had a bit of an incident on the hill.

 

Dwight has generously approved of the sharing of his embarrassing situation in the hope that it might help someone else avoid the same fate. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and he said, "I made several wrong decisions; Running with old hard tires and 'painting' them with a tire restorer. I made the choice to run in wet weather and pushing the car too hard." From my perspective, pushing too hard is only discovered when something like this happens. A little less is just pushing hard enough.

 

I have some ideas about the off, but with the qualification that I'm seeing it from the outside and the view from the car will be quite different.  Dwight is a very experienced driver in auto-cross. He said, "I guess I am experienced, but not in crashes...... Nor do I want to be. My sport is auto-cross, which is quite safe, in that you spin or go 'off' you might hit a pylon and embarrass yourself and at worse get a black smudge from the cone. No one can say we weren't warned! I was driving  close to the edge of the road and going way too hard in an attempt to 'win.'" Upon exiting the lower chicane he said he shifted into 3rd, then saw dirt flying up over the bonnet.

 

I was surprised that the first thing he said when he got out of the car is that he just suddenly lost it, and didn't feel it breaking loose, while I saw it gradually break loose for a while.  That's the kind of thing you expect to hear from a driver when there is a suspension failure or a blown tire or something like that.  It doesn't look like that's what happened though, but until the car is taken apart we won't know for sure. From an experienced driver, to me that means something odd was going on.  The corner condition would provide for an accelerating loss of traction after a very controllable slight drift once that center line was crossed.  Watching various cars going through there, the line was very important from a traction standpoint.  From what I observed, the car came out of the chicane, came to about the middle of the road, started a slight drift with the power on and then went out of control and nosed into a fortunately placed berm reinforced by some small trees on the right side of the road (where the drop off is.) Dwight had a lot of good luck after the bad luck of losing it in the first place. There was the berm and the trees that prevented him from an elevator ride to the basement. I was very surprised he didn't roll.  When the berm tossed the car back to the road, it came down hard on the left front corner and it looked like it was going to dig in and go over. He had a racing harness which kept him firmly in place and limited injury to some aches and pains. "I was very sore and stiff in my neck and shoulders for a week or so." X-rays of the neck showed no problems, very good news.

 

I walked that part of the track quite a few times afterward, and drove it a couple of times before we left that day.   The road has a physical line down the middle, not painted but with a different camber on each side.  This is not your typical crowned road.  The right side is fairly flat.  At that point on the track, the left side has a negative camber, going down toward the hillside.  The sun was just coming over the hill at the time and was shining on the right side of the track which was fairly dry.  The left side was still very wet.  Can you see where this is going?  If you get on it while a wheel is left of center, you are on a negative camber that is wet.  Not only will the car start to break loose, the further left it goes the faster it will break loose.  Once things start to go bad, they go badder faster.  None of these things are observable from the drivers seat, at least not by me in my Tacoma.  The only way to get a handle on this type of situation is to walk the course carefully before hand.  And, while walking look for all these factors that are normally not on our minds.  Usually we just want to know our breaking points, apex, acceleration points, general line, etc. In this case, I believe that the road configuration effect on traction was as important as the line.

 

I learned about this from an experienced go-kart driver doing a walk around at the Jaguar challenge several years ago.  He pointed out to me how things like a drain cover and an especially smooth patch of cement were good reasons for varying what would seem to be a perfect line through a corner.  He had the track times that demonstrated the validity of his ideas.  It's easy to say driver error for this type of incident, and of course, the driver has to take responsibility for where the car ends up. But this is a situation anyone could end up in, and it's a lot more luck than anything else that normally saves us from these things.  (Sebastian Vettel, Formula One world champion, also hit the wall that weekend.)  However, I feel that a real good walk on the track beforehand can give us a bit more luck if we are looking for all the factors that affect the speed of a car on a course.

 

One last thing that this corner worker would appreciate. If you happen to be in the position to learn where that fine line to "pushing too hard" is, and you crash, please shut the ignition off immediately and leave it off. If a fuel line has lost integrity, the last thing we want to do is test it with a spark.