VIR - "Crash Testing a Can-Am Car "- magazine article

Car and Driver June 1969
(click on photos for larger versions)

"Crash Testing a Can-Am Car - we drive a Lola T160 at 11/10ths"

The Danville Incident - or how I bought a Lola T160 - by Charles Fox

I was looking at the turn ahead when the Lola kicked out to the right. There was an enormous explosion of aluminum and fiberglass which coincided with a massive body blow - and then complete stillness.

  When the Southern dispatcher put Steve Broady into '97,' Broady knew he'd made it as an engineer. The 166 miles from Monroe, Virginia, through Danville to Spencer, North Carolina, was one of the biggest mail runs in the Southeast. It earned the Southern Railroad over $140,000 a year in postal revenues alone, and we're talking about 1903.

Broady had only been with the Southern a month. He'd transferred from the Pocahontas Division of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. But, on September 27, 1903 he climbed up onto the footplate of '97' with Fireman A. J. Clapp and an apprentice fireman known simply as "Dodge." Broady was under a lot of pressure on his first run. The tall, slim Southerner had never run the route before, he was having marital problems with being away from home as much as he was, and, according to the song which Dave George claimed to have written, the train was very late leaving Monroe and Broady was under strict orders to arrive in Spencer on schedule. In fact, Broady was an hour behind leaving Monroe, and since '97' normally took four hours and 15 minutes to make the run, it hardly seems likely that lie could have made up the loss.

Apparently he was determined to try. With Clapp and Dodge keeping the firebox glowing like Hades, Broady, peering out of his slit at the line ahead, had '97' straining at every rivet and making time as only a crack engineer knew how.

No doubt his passengers were relieved when the train slowed up on the White Oak Mountain grade, but once they'd crossed the divide for the 3-mile run down into the Dan River valley and Danville, most of them probably wished they were somewhere else. This was a bad piece of line. But Broady, by this time as fired up as '97,' simply opened the throttle all the way and charged downhill, blissfully unaware of how completely be was out of his depth.

According to surviving passengers the train was doing at least 90 mph when the time came to shut off steam for the curve before the Cherry Creek viaduct which would bring it out on the banks of the Dan just above town. When they realized in the cab that the brakes had failed, everyone in Danville heard the whistle scream. Broady must have watched it coming for a long time. He must have known they'd never make the bend, but he stayed with the train and did what he could, which was probably little more than to throw the huge coal-burner into reverse and curse and pray. It didn't help. As it hit the curve the engine jumped the tracks and led the cars hurtling 100 feet out and down into the creek bed. The locomotive half buried itself in the marshy ground and Broady and his fireman were scalded beyond recognition.

This was all I knew about Danville, Virginia when we arrived, 66 years later, with Sam Posey's Group 7 Lola T160 humped up on the back of the truck. Ostensibly the idea was to get some idea of what it's like to drive a 1400-lb. car powered by a 576-hp, all aluminum, 427 cu. in., fuel-injected Chevrolet V-8. To legitimize the exercise we planned to put the car through a standard road test with quarter-mile times and speeds and braking figures and come up with some kind of ultimate reference point for handling and performance. But in suggesting the story, there were also a number of private, but unselfish, motives on my part. Mittyism aside, five years of watching these cars race had made me powerfully curious. I had any number of ideas about how it felt to be folded into one of these Saran Wrap sleds and go bombing off down the road with 600 hp chasing you and nobody to answer to but the Lord himself. I wanted to sniff a little of the real exhilaration which addicts everyone who comes near a Group 7 racer. Writing about winning the coveted pole, and leading from start to finish, and ball joints coming loose and A-arms breaking, pretty much puts me to sleep these days. People don't race because they like working with a screwdriver or the sound of a metal saw or the smell of wet fiberglass. People race because they're egotistical, success-oriented, sensitive, aggressive, competitive beings. Because they enjoy the hypertense state of having to make a dozen critical decisions in half as many seconds. They race because there is a sexual satisfaction in the intimacy and unity a driver shares with a car which is totally separate from any off-track benefits. Consider the fastest drivers in the world today: Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Jo Siffert and Jochen Rindt. These men are all drivers, pure and simple. If a car is fast, they love it, if it's slow they leave it. If only Dan Gurney and John Surtees would stop playing engineer/car builder and concentrate on driving, the World Championship and the Can-Am series would become the closest and most exciting things to happen since A. J. Foyt last took on Rufus Parnelli Jones in a midget.

The trouble is that I'm obviously incapable of delivering an authoritative analysis on the true joys and inner meanings of driving a Group 7 car. My experience was something of a fantasy wish-fulfillment. And perhaps the subject is incommunicable. Although I felt qualified as an operator (after all the thing is only a car), obviously I couldn't drive it. Put yourself on a scale of ability with Dan Gurney and then realize that even Gurney would admit he isn't all the way there with Group 7 cars. But since most drivers are embarrassed by, or unconcerned with, communication, and since I couldn't rationalize spending the amount of time and money necessary to achieve this type of climax (which may be because I have neither), we went down to Danville looking for some kind of compromise.  

It rained slightly the night we arrived, and in the morning there was another light shower. But by the time the convoy of vehicles left for the track it had stopped, although the air was still heavy and the sky overcast.

Charles Coe, the Life reporter, and Charles Bonnay, a staff photographer for Time-Life, were with us. They had come down to do the Posey story. Although Coe was doubtful that Life would run the story as he wanted to write it, I was glad to see him chasing after some of the same things we were. Together with Peter Manso, a radical young Ph.D. teaching American literature at Rutgers (who had found himself caught up in racing on the horns of his own intellectualism), and Ray Caldwell (who started the Autodynamics Corporation, through which Sam does his racing), we picked Sam up at the Danville Municipal Airport, on the way to the track.

You go out of Danville on Route 62 and take the turn-off to Milton, a Confederate hamlet with two general stores and a gas station just across the border in North Carolina. A few aging Negroes stood by the road and looked at us as we drove through with something more than curiosity. Just beyond Milton, "Virginia International Raceway" was hand-lettered on a weathered billboard., We turned up an even narrower road and drove past barren tobacco fields and clumps of evergreens and conifers to the red-dirt cut leading through the trees to the track.

At the end of the access road there was a bridge over the track. In its shadow a strip of snow still lay across the course. Crossing the bridge and, circling down the bank onto the track the vehicles mixed red clay with the snow as they went around to the pit area.

In addition to the Lola, we were running a test with a couple of Formula Ford cars and Bill Scott's National Championship-winning Formula Vee. While the skilled prepared the cars, the unskilled went around the 3.2-mile course clearing the remaining patches of snow from under the bridge and along the back straight.

We were still working on the braking area at the end of the straight when Caldwell appeared over the rise in his Formula Ford, throwing occasional plumes of spray into the sunlight which had broken through and was fast drying the track. He did two laps, and on the third, as we stood back and watched him approach, he braked violently, the left front wheel pouring smoke. The car was brand new, and for an instant I thought he was doing some kind of brake test. But as he stopped a long, wide tongue of flame rolled out from the car's belly and from around the engine behind him. Caldwell squirmed frantically in his seat until he realized that he'd forgotten to undo his harness. In a moment he was up and running to the back of the car to pull the 51G Kidde fire extinguisher off the gearbox casing. It exhaled a cloud of white potassium bicarbonate and then the flames reappeared. Manso took off in the rent-a-car to get another extinguisher from the pits while the rest of us threw armfuls of snow from beside the track into the Caldwell D9 prototype. It was a losing battle. We could contain the fire but couldn't keep up with the pace-running back and forth and then rolling the car into the ditch with the flames following on the ground. But finally the station wagon appeared with the large extinguisher. The shoulder of Caldwell's Nomex driving suit was slightly blackened. As we cleared up and towed back to the pits, he was congratulating himself for having worn it. He reminded us of how Bruce Eglinton, an SCCA formula car driver testing a new Le Grand Formula A car, had climbed into his car in his street clothes simply to check the shift linkage. The throttle stuck wide open, the car shot into a wall and burst into flames, and at this moment Eglinton has been in the hospital for almost a year.

It was in this calamitous atmosphere that Jack McCormack, Sam's mechanic, fired up the Lola. It was short and wedge-shaped, with a blunt tail and a swift nose that rose to the cockpit from four inches off the ground. Eight fat, spun aluminum velocity stacks, with flared openings at the top, rose out of the engine through an opening in the white fiberglass bodywork immediately behind the cockpit. The two 6-inch diameter exhausts vibrated the air as McCormack warmed up the 427. "I'll do a couple of laps by myself," Sam shouted, "then we can go 'round together and then I'll ride with you for a lap. After that she's all yours."

We stood listening to the rise and fall of the engine note as Sam worked his way around, and although I felt strangely composed I envied his familiarity with the machine. I remembered watching his extraordinarily bold drive in the car at Las Vegas in the final Can-Am race and thought how strangely out of context its performance seemed here in the Virginia boondocks. Like Houdini putting on a magic show for half-a-dozen friends in an empty boys' club hall.

When he came in, I put on a helmet and climbed over the semi-enclosed windshield next to him. Sitting there in my street clothes I remembered Eglinton and suddenly felt extremely unprofessional and hypocritical. A year ago I went around Lime Rock with Sam in the same Group 7 Caldwell which he had skyrocketed over the bank after the esses, so the present sensations were not unfamiliar.

As we accelerated towards VIR's first turn I felt that same buildup of adrenaline, and sought to control that same feeling of confusion and disorientation as the speed built up in a staggering rush and the wind buffeted around my head. There was also a curious sensation of strobe-light movement, where everything visual appeared to be broken up into single frame, split-second action, creating a strong feeling of illusion. And I felt that same peculiar intimacy which seemed to be a composite of the very restricted cockpit space, the roar of that invisible fountain of movement at our backs and the feeling of commitment to the car and our unity with it.

This was by no means the same feeling I had driving the car, because I was then obviously distracted by having to control it.

For the first lap I simply watched the tach which was canted over on the bulkhead above Sam's thigh, and I watched how he used the wheel and how, and when, his gloved right hand would drop off and press the shift knob into another gear. On the second lap I watched the road, memorizing his line and his braking points, because to a great extent he was obviously driving pretty much as he felt I should when I took over. He ran very slowly around to the hairpin approach and then accelerated violently down the hill, and as the corner rushed to meet us, braked hard enough to lift me out of my seat, which was about the best way of demonstrating what I would have at my disposal if I needed it. As we drifted out of the hairpin and looked down the straight, which arced very slightly to the right and then disappeared over a crest a half-mile distant, Sam put on the power. We went to 6000 rpm in second, and with a puff we were in third and accelerating hard again, and then fourth and then fifth and the road was rippling towards us, an even strip of pure grey. There came that supreme inner conflict between the responsible instinct of self-preservation and the totally irresponsible exploratory instinct. You get an approximation of this feeling on a roller coaster, but only an approximation. Inevitably the struggle is decided in favor of self-preservation. Approaching the end of the straight at a speed already far beyond the extremities of self-experience, you mentally hit the brakes, and two seconds later Sam shifts into a higher gear and accelerates hard. "Sometimes," he said, when we talked about this later, "I have this incredible urge to keep my foot down to the end of the straight and put myself into some sort of eternal orbit.

"It isn't anything to do with a death wish," he said, "it's simply a wish to sort of maintain the feeling of exhilaration for ever."

At the end of the second lap he pulled in and I put on his Nomex suit, with some relish, because this after all was a part of the dressing ritual, which has become almost as symbolic as it is in bullfighting. Standing by the car looking as collected and businesslike as possible, I put on the helmet and gloves, feeling rather like St. George going out to take on a dragon.

The dragon sits there, silent at this point, and you step carefully over the windshield into the black fiberglass seat and slide down into it and wriggle around and notice how warm and comfortable it is. Then Sam and Jack lean over and help you with the aircraft-type shoulder and lap belts and you snap the huge buckle closed against your stomach, so that about the only thing you can move are your arms and legs. Sam suddenly says that he's not going to come around after all, and you feel a little relieved, not because of the risk of an accident, but because the fewer people watching you trying to sort out the non-synchro Hewland gearbox the better. Sam has already spoken about the gearbox -on the downshift you have to pick the revs up to 5000 and then snap the lever firmly, which means just rolling your wrist. If you miss the shift there are two noises, a good one and a bad one. The low pitch clattering is the good one, the high frequency whine is bad - very bad.

"There are a couple of wet patches on the track that are extremely treacherous," were Sam's last words. "Remember, when you run through one don't be in any hurry to accelerate afterwards, because it really takes a long time for these tires to dry themselves off."

I nodded to him, and Jack turned on the switch in the center of the bulkhead. As he worked the throttle linkage manually behind my head, I pressed the start button and the Lola came to life. I pulled my goggles down and pushed their elastic strap up on the back of my helmet. The first real indication that I had control of the car came as I watched the red tach needle rise and fall across the dial in front of me, and realized that it synchronized with the movement of my foot on the throttle. I looked up for an instant and saw rather a lot of obviously concerned people standing beside me and knew it was time to go. The clutch pedal was amazingly light, but I couldn't really tell when I was in second until Sam looked over the side and nodded. As they pushed the car I let out the clutch and found myself under way.

Immediately it was totally magnificent. Just running down the pit road, knowing exactly how those people behind me felt as they watched. The small, thick-padded, black leather steering wheel moved jerkily at low speed, and the directness was difficult to get used to -four or five inches was a lot of lock. The noise of the engine grew as I accelerated gradually towards the first turn and I felt rather as though I was sitting in the mouth of a giant fish. In front of me there was little but two massive curving fenders which I was peering between down the road, while from behind me came this enormous and fathomless pushing. It felt like sitting on the doorstep of a house as it falls off a cliff, but as I prematurely backed off the throttle the huge engine supplied all the braking I needed.

Strangely, the visual fragmentation was still there. It was even heightened by the struggle I was having to groove with the situation. I know Eric Broadley isn't exactly a straight person, but this machine he created is a mind bender which acid rock and the whole drug scene doesn't approach. Doing an unwavering 160 MPH down the back straight, the realization that I hadn't begun to turn this car on was a very cold feeling. But when I messed up a shift negotiating a long 'S' bend, looked down for an instant to sort it out, looked up again to find I was running out of road and simply steered the car back onto the line with a negligible amount of movement or fuss, my mood changed to positive hilarity.

On the third lap the Lola ran out of gas at the end of the straight. The engine died while I was downshifting and I sailed into the right hander in neutral, the car trying to understeer right off the road. It snaked violently on a wet patch and I felt good about getting it back in line as I coasted into the pits.

While we were waiting for someone to come back with more gas we talked, and after I had told Sam how impressed I was with how easily and well the car handled, Manso looked at me sideways and asked if I wasn't afraid of it. "Not in the least," I said. "The only thing that frightens me is the feeling of self-confidence it generates. " It was an honest answer, not motivated by any feeling of bravado. I felt distinctly happy with the car, as though it had been considerate. It was only myself that I was frightened of. In offering me the car, Sam had held out his hands to me, and after only a few moments in his environment the invitation was creating an identity crisis which I knew above all else I had to control. To forget for an instant the distance that separated us could literally be fatal.

They put about eight gallons in the tank, and as I drove out after a long wait it began to drizzle. The rain stung my face and I knew I had time for only one more lap, so I decided to simply concentrate on trying to do things slowly and smoothly and put it all together. I went through the turns before the bridge in second, and as I exited the last turn changed into third and aimed very steadily at the brown smudge in the middle of the short straight - it carried on about 70 feet beyond the bridge. I watched the revs build up to 4000 and then feathered the throttle, thinking that I should neither accelerate nor decelerate until I was well clear. Sam had explained that at 4200 rpms the engine came on the cam and fed another 100 hp to the rear wheels. But I was merely looking at the turn ahead and keeping the wheel very steady when the car kicked out to the right.

In the brief instant I had to make the minute correction I was still registering surprise. By the time I corrected it was obviously too late and I overreacted badly. The car swung to the left and then the tail came around to the right again and started to slide. It was only then I knew we were traveling at over 100 mph. In one instant of very real horror I saw the trees beside the track rushing towards me in a solid blur of brown wood. In the same instant I had a complete vision of the unit I had suddenly become with the car being received up and destroyed in the cold interior of the forest which was concealed by that blur. I had already anticipated the blow, and was apologizing to myself and conscious of feeling totally impotent as the car hit the first tree.

There was an enormous explosion of aluminum and fiberglass beside me which coincided with a massive body blow, and then complete stillness and silence. During this instant one tree broke open the end of the gas pontoon and monocoque by my elbow, but failed to burst the Goodyear fuel cell. The car spun around and struck a second small tree nose first. It spun again, hurling the $800 aluminum radiator 105 feet up and across the road. The third tree smashed through the right rear trailing arms, ironing the header pipes flat against the block. The car caromed 20 feet up the edge of the track and stopped. My mind had seemed to leave my head even before the impact and become an impartial observer, so that in the aftermath, although I felt certain I had broken my legs and right side, I didn't expect not to feel any pain and was even surprised by the flood of welcome euphoria. Had I been stone dead at this point I felt certain that I would still have been observing the scene with the same analytical detachment.   As I sat there a trickle of blood ran down from my chin, my teeth started chattering, and I was massively depressed and exhausted. Suddenly, there was Bill Scott, dressed in his driving suit, standing in front of me talking in a quiet voice. As he leaned over and turned off the switches, I remember asking him if I could please get out now. He told me to sit still and wait for the others to come.

The aftermath: fuel tanks ripped open but the cells did not burst

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