Speed Kills?   

Fourth Edition, Vol. 2


This month’s topic is one that has always made my blood boil. It’s a saying that is like a crutch to excuse the inabilities of someone when it comes to describing a tragedy that was borne from the poor judgment or inexperience of that person, whether the incident occurred on the road or in the air. Don’t misconstrue my point here, any accident fatal or otherwise, is a tragedy. But, most of the time, these incidences can be avoided if the person sitting in the operator’s seat, had better judgment or more experience. It’s like the liberal mantra that guns kill people. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The same for speed. Speed doesn’t kill, lack of skill, incompetence and inexperience is what kills people.  Driving too fast is a matter of opinion. I drive fast compared to my wife. Shoot, I drive fast compared to a lot of people. But, that doesn’t necessarily make me unsafe. I do drive the speed limit most of the time, but others, and it depends on a lot of variables, I will exceed the posted speed limit. I don’t mind getting behind another driver whom is driving at the posted speed limit. Provided he/she is in the proper lane if there are multiple traffic lanes. Remember, “Slower Traffic Keep Right”. I do not care for the folks who feel the need to regulate the rest of us who wish to break the law and drive faster than they are, regardless of their speed. If you’re going the speed limit, and I don’t want to, let me go by, and don’t speed up. That just pisses me off, and that kind of behavior, could get you killed in these parts. Not by me, I’ll get around you at some point just by pure skill, but others in this part of Idaho have been known to strongly let you know that your behavior is unacceptable and that you’re asking for trouble and are more than obliged to give it to you. Other parts of the country are well known for this phenomenon we know all too well as “Road Rage”. The road is not the place for games. The same could be said about flying, although 99.9% of the time it’s fatal. We’ll discuss the ground bound mode of transportation first, and then we’ll explore “air speed”.

I know I know, everybody thinks they’re a good driver. Just because you’ve been driving for a long time and haven’t had any accidents, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good driver. It just means you’ve been lucky, or you don’t really have the miles under your belt to state that you’ve been driving a long time. Calendar time doesn’t count. Experience doesn’t come with how many years you’ve been driving, it comes with how many miles you have driven to date. So, follow along and assess yourself when we’re done.

Driving fast is more than just burying your right foot on that long skinny pedal on the right side of the floorboard and hanging on. Unless you’re a fugitive in a car chase and you’re trying to outrun the cops. There is a time and place for it and speed is something that needs to be respected. There is more to driving fast than just driving fast. I drive at a speed I’m comfortable at, based on the road and/or weather conditions, the condition of my tires, the abilities of my equipment, my skill level and my training. Sometimes, I don’t drive fast at all. Sometimes I’m the slowest guy on the road and there is usually a good reason for it. Let’s break down and analyze each attribute mentioned above and you can rate yourself to see how you stack up. First, a couple of ground rules. Number 1; Very rarely do I listen to the radio while I’m driving. Only when I’m on the open road on a cross country highway and there are no “hazards” to deal with. Plus, I like to hear things. Like the engine. The sound the tires make on the road. Or any unusual noises. Number 2; I don’t use the cell phone. Unlike most people, I can easily drive and carry on a conversation with someone on the phone, or in the seat next to me, but I don’t, because it’s a distraction. If I do get a call, I usually don’t hear it anyway, and if it’s that important, they can leave a message and I’ll get back to them at the next scheduled stop. Number 3; On the Highway or open road, or any multiple lane road, I drive in the Right lane. If I’m approaching a vehicle that is slower than me, I push the turn signal stalk down, and go around them. Once I’m passed them and a safe distance ahead, I signal and get back into the Right lane. That’s the law. Remember, “Keep Right Except to Pass”. I’m very disciplined when it comes to driving. But, I lack any tolerance for ignorance, inexperience and stupidity of other drivers.

Now, let’s get on with the list.

  1. Road or Weather Conditions; If it’s raining heavily, I slow down accordingly. Even good tires with lots of tread on them can hydroplane if driven through enough standing water. Especially tires that are not designed for wet roadways. If it’s foggy, I slow down so as not to out drive my headlights. Fog lights help, but fog lights are designed to illuminate the road only about fifty feet in front of you and from side to side. In the snow, I make sure that my chosen winter vehicle has new tires on all four corners that are studded and siped for maximum traction. I can drive my ‘77 VW Van at the posted speed limit of 35 and 45 mph and be in control in snow up to about six to seven inches deep or so before it gets a little challenging. I will then slow down to keep myself out of the ditch. Also, I rarely use the brakes in the snow, and if I do, it’s very sparingly. I coast a lot in the snow as the resistance will help me slow down at a good rate anyway. Sometimes the road is icy, and you won’t know it until you’re spinning around like a frog in a blender. There are signs to alert you to this condition, if you know what to look for. I do. For example, check to see if there are any puddles of standing water on the road or beside it. Is it frozen in any way? If it is, you can bet the road is probably in the same condition. How about fog in below freezing temps? A couple of years ago I was heading to Spokane for an IA seminar at Felts Field, and while cruising along down Highway 95 in the four lane portion just south of Cocolalla, the van seemed to be a little squirrely at times. It was foggy in places, and below freezing, but the sun was out in some places and there was no indication of any issues. Until, the van started to sway a little. It was a little breezy, but it wasn’t until the tachometer needle moved up but the speedometer needle didn’t, that I realized the road was covered in ice from the fog that had frozen on the roadway. I slowly backed off the accelerator and slowed down to about 35 MPH. This obviously irritated the guy behind me as he was catching up to me very quickly. He passed me and as he proceeded to get back into the right lane, his car pitched a little sideways because of his abrupt and jerky movement when re-entering the right lane. His car fish-tailed back and forth a couple of times, but he didn’t hit the brakes until he had recovered and his car was pointed straight down the road again. He was now travelling slower than me, and as I passed him, I gave him the “thumbs up” as a congratulatory gesture of his motoring skills. As I got abeam of his driver side window, he sheepishly looked over at my gesture of applaud, with a face as white as a hospital bed sheet. I’m sure he was in need of a clean pair of underwear after that experience. Another indicator that I use is the resistance in the steering wheel. If the steering gets “light”, then I know it’s icy. If your vehicle has power steering, this information is not available to you, as there is no “feedback” from the front tires and the road surface.
  2. Tires; As mentioned above, I always make sure the tires on any given vehicle are up to the intended task. I’m not a big fan of “All Season” tires. I prefer season specific rubber on my vehicles. I have winter tires for the winter vehicles mounted on permanent rims, so I don’t have to keep dismounting and remounting tires at the end and beginning of each season. I just change the whole tire and wheel. For a high performance application such as the Mercedes-Benz, I buy the best name brand tire I can that has the speed rating recommended for that vehicle. I do not want a tire failure while driving at a high speed. Winter tires are for winter driving and no other. The summer tires on the Merc are for summer only. We don’t drive the Merc in the winter anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Tire pressure, (T.P.), is also a big factor in control and safety, not to mention longetivity. Radial tires are inflated to the pressure indicated on the placard in the door jam, (or somewhere else on the interior), and in the Owner’s Manual. 32 psi is not the proper inflation pressure for your vehicle. This is a misnomer. The correct T.P. will be determined by the manufacturer for the intended design and load range of the specified tire for your vehicle. Now, with that said, I will run a lower T.P. than recommended in the winter tires for a wider “foot print”. Another thing. A set of Mickey Thompson “Gumbo” Monster Mudders will not work on your fancy pick-up. It’s a lbs/in² thing. Tall, narrow tires are best in the snow. Big, wide tires tend to plow the snow instead of rolling through it.
  3. Equipment; This would be the vehicle you are currently driving. Does the vehicle perform well in all types of road conditions? Some vehicles perform better than others in different road and weather conditions. The VW Van I drive in the winter has a pretty good weight distribution and very good weight over the drive wheels, with no over or under steer characteristics. Some vehicles completely suck in the snow. Take for example, my ‘85 GMC/Chevy 4X4, ¾ ton pick-up truck. I plow snow with it, and before I rebuilt the engine and completely went through the drivetrain, it would get stuck on the slope of my driveway. And as embarrassing as it was, I had to get my wife in my ’64 bug to pull me out. Let me explain that a bit. First, the Bug has ’54 and earlier Type 2 running gear underneath it. That includes reduction boxes in the rear that bolt right up to the stock Type 1 spring plates, and slightly modified front spindles. This set-up raises the car up about four more inches. This coupled with a Quaife Automatic Torque Biasing, (ATB), differential, it would go places that the GMC would get stuck in. The reason the GMC would get stuck in Four Wheel Drive, (4WD), is that 4WD isn’t really 4WD. It’s 2WD. When it would get stuck, I could get out of the vehicle while it was in gear and with the engine idling and observe one front wheel turning and one rear wheel turning. This is two wheel drive in my book. A couple of years ago when the engine gave up the ghost, I decided that I had had enough of getting stuck, and spent quite a bit of cash on a new, high torque, 383 cid . ”hi performance” engine, new universal joints everywhere there was one, and an Eaton Limited Slip Differential, (LSD), in each axle. Now I have real 4WD, and as long as one tire has traction, the beast will still move. Same with the Bug. Although the Bug under steers a bit when the fuel level is low. (Not enough weight on the front tires). Another note on 4WD. I only use 4WD when I’m plowing. When I’m on the road, even if it’s snow covered, I move the transfer case selector into 2WD. The reason for this is simple. Once the front wheels break traction, you have no steering control what-so-ever! The vehicle will just maintain the trajectory determined by the relocation of the vehicles center of gravity, (CG), caused by the upset of the vehicles polar moment of inertia the vehicle was last experiencing the moment the resistance between the tires and the surface was removed. Plus, it prevents the drive lines from trying to twist up like a Barber pole when positive traction is achieved. All Wheel Drive, (AWD), vehicles posses the same characteristics as 4WD. They’re fine for going through the snow in your unplowed driveway or at slow speeds, but these vehicles exhibit the same attributes as a 4WD vehicle does, if not more so. It’s a false sense of security on a smooth, plowed road or on an icy road. Just ask my neighbor Bill. He spun out in his Dodge Durango in a sweeping left hand curve right in front of us a few years ago on a plowed County road. He nearly ended up in the ditch after launching over the berm. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t do the same thing in our VW Bug, as we were going the same speed as him. I proceeded to give him this same lecture between 4WD/AWD vehicles and the physics that were in play at the time of his “loss of control” event. Obviously, he was exceeding the limitations of the total package of his equipment. AWD, slippery road surface, and of course, too much speed. These type of vehicles tend to under steer once traction from the front wheels is broken, sending you towards the berm or ditch, and in response, one will tend to let off the gas, and turn more into the turn. This will just exacerbate the situation. The aft end will then break traction and it will slowly start to “swap” ends, until you plow the front end first into the berm on the other side of the road, or spin around performing a complete 180°. Front wheel drive vehicles seem to do well with the right tires. Although they can tend to under steer when traction is broken as well. With the Bug, or any rear wheel drive vehicle, I can “blip” the accelerator and break the traction of the rear wheels enough to momentarily upset the polar moment of inertia and relocate the CG towards the aft, outside end of the vehicle. This will rearrange the position of the vehicle in relation to the road and allow me to continue to stay in control and headed in the desired direction. This little trick is especially helpful in a curve. This technique is called “steering with the throttle”. This tactic creates kind of a temporary over steer situation that is prominent in some cars with aft CG. (e.g. Porsche 911 series, Corvair, etc.). Lighting is another aspect of your equipment that you need to pay attention to. I can’t tell you how many vehicles I see on the road with only one headlight. This would drive me nuts! What also would drive me nuts are the headlights that are only illuminating about thirty to forty feet in front of the vehicle. How does one see anything in front of them at any speed? The other combination that drives me nuts is the car with one headlight pointed at the curb and the other one pointed to the tree tops on the other side of the road, or that’s pointed directly in my face. Go get those burned out bulbs replaced and your headlights aimed correctly before you hurt someone or yourself. You’re obviously out driving your headlights at any speed if your vehicle    possesses any of these above issues.
  4. Skill Level; This is a big one. Driving skill is something that is gained over years of driving experience in all types of road conditions. This includes, but is not limited to racing, both on the road and off. When I first got my ’66 Bug, I was living in Big Bear California. It snows quite a bit there and being at 6,500 feet MSL, it can get pretty cold also. Now, being of youth and having a car, made for some interesting winter nights in the Safeway grocery store parking lot at Interlaken Center. This venue satisfied my desire to become a better winter driver. Late at night, when there were very few cars in the parking lot, I would swiftly drive around the light stanchions, to purposely upset the car so I could try to recover and stay in control. This was a very advantages drill as it taught me how to anticipate and what inputs had what effect on the car’s behavior. Driving up and down Highways 330, 18 and 38 also contributed to my driving skills. There was a time I could make it from the bottom of the hill to the Dam in about fifty-four minutes, depending on traffic. That’s a pretty impressive time for a stock, swing axle Bug with a 1,600 cc single port engine. Ironically, my Dam to the bottom time wasn’t much faster. I got to be pretty good driving that swing-axle Bug up and down the hill. I began to learn the road and learned how to approach and exit each curve as efficiently as possible. I never had an incident. Except for once. It really wasn’t an incident, it was more like an awakening. I was heading down the front grade one day and as I entered the sweeping left hand elliptical turn of the center passing lane, I heard a “bang” and a loud scrapping noise as the back of the car pitched up and came unglued from the road. I backed off of the gas and the car became even more upset. In a seemingly counter intuitive maneuver, I stepped on the gas and the car settled down. Keep in mind, I’m still in this downhill, left hand sweeper, so accelerating wasn’t something that one would normally or wisely do, especially in a VW bug with barely adequate drum brakes. Once I got the car straightened out, I managed to slow it down and get it stopped in the turn out at the end of the passing lane. I got out of the car to assess what had caused this extremely unnerving incident, and as I looked under the back of the car, I noticed that the EMPI camber compensator that is bolted to the center of the transaxle and has each end of the leaf type spring strapped to the outboard end of each rear axle tube, had broken in the center at  the mounting hole and one of the newly fabricated two pieces, was dragging on the ground causing that hideous  noise. Wow! I hadn’t realized how much of a difference in handling that piece of aftermarket equipment really made. But I did now. After this learning experience, I decided that I needed to understand the principles at play  here, and asked, who else, but Jerry about what was happening at the rear suspension when “all hell broke loose”. He began to explain the law of physics and how it related to the swing axle car. After a brief but informative discussion on this subject, I started to collect these necessary “handling enhancement devices” as it  was obvious how important to my safety these devices really were. Incidentally, I’d gone through four of these devices over the twenty-some years I drove that car. I also became more proficient at driving a swing axle Bug than an IRS Bug. The IRS car is far more forgiving, but not as “firm” of a feeling than the swing axle. Even the later IRS cars with the factory “Z” bar didn’t seem to be as firm as the swing axle. But, it was a safer set up for the masses.
  5. Training; Now, this is even a bigger one. Without the proper training, you will, at some point, destroy your equipment and/or seriously injure or kill yourself in the process by driving too fast. I’ve been fortunate to have  had professional training in both road racing and in off-road racing. This fact makes a big difference between    me and the rest of the people on the road. I’m sure I’m not the only person on the road with this type of training, but I know I’m probably the only one within a 100 mile radius at any given time. There just isn’t that  many people that have done this type of thing when compared to the thousands of drivers on the road at any given time or place. I’m not being conceded, it’s just a matter of statistics. Learning to read the terrain in both types of racing is paramount to being proficient at it. Forget about ever winning a race if you can’t even consistently finish each one. When you’re just starting in these two types of activities, working your way up the  roster and consistently finishing should be the goal, but this is often not the case. Everyone wants to win that    first race. This is an unrealistic goal and you’re a fool to think that you are going to win that first time, or even    the tenth time out on the race course. You haven’t gained the “experience”, (there’s that word again). Unless, everyone else breaks down or “DNF’d”, (Did Not Finish). While working for Moore Racing In 1984, the Baja 1000 that year was the inauguration race for the new SCORE “Challenger” class. We won that race in our class  because everyone else broke down, including us. We simply went the furthest. Our primary problem was driving faster than was practical, which exceeded the limitations of the vehicle, which resulted in a DNF. When I was the Crew Chief of Cohen Racing, another off-road racing team, I sometimes had to fill in as a driver or co- driver. Putting me in the driver seat often had a negative effect on the rest of the team, especially my co-driver/passenger. The reason was simple. I knew the car and it’s capabilities. I also had methodically pre-run    the race course on my motorcycle, so I knew the course as well. I made mental and sometimes written notes on where to pass, where the best line through a certain section was, where there was a “gotcha” and so on. This intimate knowledge of the car and my intense pre-run allowed me to drive faster than my team mates, while still being consistent in my lap times. This was attributed to me paying more attention to things I learned a long time ago riding motorcycles in the desert, and my time at Moore Racing. Road racing is a lot like off-road racing in the terrain reading aspect. One must know the track and how well ones car performs on that track. As well as knowing the capabilities of your equipment, and your own limitations. Formula “V” is a very limited class, and relies more on driving skill than power or acceleration. There is plenty of speed. A well tuned FV could easily attain 126 MPH on the back stretch of the now long gone Riverside International Raceway, (RIR). But, the emphasis is on driver skill. After going through the Cal Club driving school, I began to look at curves and turns differently than I had before. One day, when I was driving that ’66 Bug up Highway 330/18 heading to Big Bear, I found myself analyzing those turns and curves. I also found myself entering and exiting those turns and curves that I thought knew so well, differently. After several trips up and down the hill, I managed to shave three minutes off of my best time. Wow, that’s a lot for just taking turns differently. Actually, I was now driving through those turns far more efficiently than I was before.

Road racing is an experience like no other when it comes to driving fast and in control. Driving on the freeway three feet from the guy in the lane next to you seems like he’s a mile away when you compare it to driving an open wheel car with less than a foot between you and a fellow competitor. Sometimes we would experience some contact by rubbing tires or bump each other’s car nose to tail. This is a very intense activity, and you tend to cut seat grommets the size of donuts with your sphincter, because all of this is happening at 100+ MPH. Now, that’s entertainment sports fans. I learned to anticipate what the other drivers were going to do before they even knew they were going to do it. When you drive with the same bunch of guys all of the time, you get to know their individual idiosyncrasies. For example, one competitor would always back off the throttle at the same brake marker entering turn 9 of RIR. In the FV, your right foot is locked to the floor from the exit of turn 7B or 8 all the way until the transition between turn 5 and 6. When I would get behind this guy, I would “draft” him all the way down the back stretch and just before that brake marker, I would slowly back off from his rear bumper. As soon as he backed out of it, and because this is racing, I would take advantage of his momentary lack of confidence, and stomp on the gas pedal. While still in the effect of the draft, I could literally “slingshot” around him on the outside. Timing was key in this maneuver, and it worked just about every time. I must confess though, that during my driving school, I was fortunate enough to have a FV driver as my instructor. He was adamant about driving full throttle through turn 9. “I  know your car will do it” he’d say. Maybe so, but I couldn’t. This was something I couldn’t do for the first ten or so laps, as I thought he was freakin’ crazy, and I was going to firmly plant myself into the wall of turn 9. Once I was able to accomplish this and got comfortable with the fact that I could steer the car through turn 9 at full throttle and stay on the track, I found myself looking for more throttle. Again, this is a very intense activity, and there is no room for error. Don’t let your mind wander or you’ll make a possible deadly mistake, and will be leaving the track in an Ambulance. If you’re lucky.

So, with all of that said, when I’m cruising down the freeway at 70 MPH, three feet away from the car beside me, I’m aware of the car and the distance between us, but I’m not nervous or worried. I watch the distance between the tires and the lane dividing line, and if the gap gets smaller, I can pretty much guess that that guy’s going to make a lane change before he knows he is. If you’re riding a motorcycle, possessing this instinct is crucial to your survival amongst all of the cars and trucks within your close proximity. I’m also scanning the instruments in the panel/dashboard, and constantly checking my mirrors and the lanes on either side of me, in case I have to make some sort of evasive maneuver to avoid an incident or an accident. Plus, I’m watching traffic way ahead of me. And, the faster traffic moves, the farther ahead I look. This technique works very well when navigating curves in the road. If you look way ahead of the turn, say 700 ft. or so, your “minds eye” will allow you to drive through the turn smoothly without the tendency to “square off” the turn. If you look, say only about 100 feet in front of your vehicle, you will square off the curve every time, guaranteed. A good rule of thumb for this distance per speed ratio is 100 feet for every 10 MPH. So, at 70 MPH, you should be looking at least 700 feet down the road in front of you if not more. Having driven on the Autobahn in Germany, I can tell you that the level of intensity there is almost the same as being on the race track. You’re travelling at a high rate of speed and it’s imperative that you stay on your toes, “Keep Right Except to Pass”, keep your eyes in the mirror and employ some discipline. If you don’t, you will get run over by some guy in a Porsche, a Mercedes, or an Audi travelling the open road speed limit of 150 MPH. (This is of course if you’re not one of the fastest cars on this legendary interstate system). This scenario is really no different than driving in a SCCA sanctioned event with other faster classes of cars on the track at the same time as you in your FV. Driving that 2012 Mercedes-Benz E220 four cylinder turbo-diesel station wagon rental car, was a true driving experience I will never forget. It accelerated quickly, it got nearly 36 MPG at Autobahn speeds, it had room for all of our luggage and souvenirs, but most of all, it was fast. It was governed at 156 MPH though. (Don’t ask me how I know this. It should be obvious by now). It also handled very well on the Nürburgring. (Don’t ask how I know this either). I was very comfortable at the speeds the Autobahn is famous for. Why, because of, you guessed it, my experience on the race track. As with everything in life, there is no substitute for experience. If you have the skills and the experience, and everything else being equal, you shouldn’t become a traffic statistic by being killed by speed.

So, how do you think you did? Be honest. Do you loiter in the passing lane? Do you drive looking directly in front of your vehicle? Do your headlights need a burned out bulb replaced or do they need to be adjusted? How about the condition of your vehicle or the tires? Is your equipment up to the task at hand? How about your attitude or demeanor? Do you notice frozen standing water on the side of the road? Are you distracted by the radio or by talking or texting on your cell phone? Most people that read this are probably guilty of some if not all of the above negative habits mentioned and don’t know most of the tips and tricks I discussed, and that’s fine. The take-away here, is that I hope you learned something from this month’s article that will make you a better and safer driver on the road, at any speed.

Next time we’ll explore the aspects of speed of our aircraft and its relation to the air and the affects speed has on the different components of the aircraft at elevated speeds. Until then, happy motoring.