HOT AND BOTHERED —
MUSCLE CAR MADNESS
I’m always a bit intrigued by the strange ways in which our brains work sometimes, particularly when fuelled by big doses of adrenaline in fight-or-flight situations. Some 20 years ago, an old mate from Whanganui, Michael Eden, experienced a few seconds when his normally razor-sharp brain behaved in a most interesting and peculiar way. Michael was racing his very quick classic Vauxhall Viva GT circuit car at the Ohakea air base near Palmerston North and had a very light comingtogether with a Chevron sports car on a highspeed corner at somewhere around 90mph. Michael never knew exactly how it happened, but, during the rub, the two cars somehow touched front tyres at exactly the wrong time just as they were turning in, which suddenly and violently launched Michael’s car into the air. The out-of-control Vauxhall vaulted 30m — about seven times its own length — through the air before it thumped back down, then slid along the asphalt for another 20m, before starting a series of eight horrifying barrel rolls down the track. When someone later measured the series of gouges and scrapes on the runway surface, it was found that the car had travelled more than 150m from the time it was launched off the Chevron until it finally came to rest. As the Viva was suddenly launched upwards, Michael’s first thought — as he felt his belts slacken against his weight when the car gradually rolled over in mid-air for the first time — was that he wished he’d tightened the shoulder straps of his race harness a bit harder. The impact was hard when the car came down for the first time, landing squarely on the driver’s side. The 20m slide along the tarmac completely ground off the driver’s door handle. Then, during the first barrel roll, the fibreglass boot lid and engine hood flew off. On the second roll, the driver’s door was torn completely off, creating a large open space through which Michael — desperately hanging onto the steering wheel — could see light and dark, light and dark, light and dark, as the sky and the black tarmac surface appeared to rotate around him, time and time again. The darkness became his enemy; with each thump back down to earth, the car slammed against the ground on the right-hand side, the impact pushing the side-intrusion sections of the roll cage further and further in against him. After a few gyrations, the side-bars were punching against the fibreglass race seat on each roll, and, each time, in turn, the impact of the side-bars against the seat punched against Michael’s rightside rib cage. His head was swung around so violently that his helmeted head hit the runway surface at least twice, and, despite him trying to brace himself against the steering wheel, his right elbow also made contact with the runway surface at some point. The noise was horrendous, and all he could do was just hang on and ride it all out, trying vainly to pull himself as far against the left side as he could while the brutal impacts of the roll cage punched his right-side rib cage again and again. He was also acutely aware of the thumping of his helmeted head against the B-pillar over and over again, but all of his strength couldn’t prevent it from happening with each roll. In trying to describe the deafening noise during the barrel rolls, Michael said, “As a kid, I used to help my dad pour concrete. At the end, I’d clean out the concrete mixer by putting in big rocks and lots of water and turning the mixer on. The rocks used to rattle and clang around, making a hell of a crash, crash, crash noise — and that’s exactly what it sounded like inside the car.” While it was all going on, Michael’s only real emotion or thought, as such, was an ongoing question to himself: When the hell is it going to stop? “It was strange at the time, playing it over in my mind — there was no real fright or fear; it was just something that was happening, and I was just holding on waiting for it to stop.” While Michael was riding it out inside, outwardly, it was a horrifying high-speed crash, and the crowd was stunned by the sickening series of tumbles. As it began to unfold, Steven Francis — the son of fellow Whanganui racer Ross Francis — grabbed hold of Michael’s girlfriend and, in one swift motion, spun her around to face her away from the crash and pulled her into his arms to prevent her from seeing it all happening. During the final roll, the momentum almost over, the Viva landed on its side for the final time, teetering momentarily, and Michael could remember thinking that it felt like it could go either onto its roof or onto its wheels, and hoped for the latter so he wouldn’t be left hanging upside down. Finally, the Viva — it’s violent and frightening energy finally spent — thumped back down onto its floor and came to rest. Then, suddenly — silence … The crumpled wreckage sat amid a huge cloud of dust and rising steam. As the remains of the car came into view, the stunned onlookers could see that the Viva was torn to pieces. Most panels were missing; both front and rear windscreens and all of the side windows were gone; all four aluminium wheels were smashed; each of the tyres was either torn off or flat; the whole right side was completely flattened, as if a giant steamroller had driven down its length; and the left side of the roof and roll cage had been flattened down to the bottom of the window line on the left-hand side. The engine was seized and on fire, the gearbox was smashed, the driveshaft was broken off, and the diff housing was bent like a banana. As the marshals and onlookers were sprinting to the scene, fearing the worst, Michael was awake, alert, and immediately assessing the situation: the car had stopped, the engine was off, and he seemed to be OK. What do you think his first decision was? What did he do first? So, here’s that crazy adrenaline thing: Michael realized that the rest of the cars were now well ahead of him. He saw that the key was still in the ignition, so he reached for the key and tried to fire up the engine so he could get going again and catch up to the rest of field — seriously! That was his racing brain’s pure instinctive response to that situation. That bizarre reaction lasted for only a few seconds; while he was unsuccessfully trying to restart the engine, he began to take stock of the steaming wreck around him, the missing door and bonnet and windows, the crumpled wreckage, and the flames engulfing the lifeless engine. Finally, his brain quickly snapped back to rational thought. He took his hand away from the ignition, unbuckled his harness, and climbed quickly and easily out of the wreckage through the gaping aperture where his door once was. He took off his helmet, looked around to see a marshal putting out the fire in his engine bay, and became aware that the race had been stopped. The next thing he saw was a white AC Cobra replica race car stopped in the middle of the track behind him, the driver frozen in his seat, hands still on his steering wheel, and his eyes as big as saucers. The shocked Cobra driver had been behind Mike in the race, seen it all unfold, and been hard on the brakes to avoid the tumbling Viva while swerving wildly to avoid the panels and tyres and windows and pieces of debris as it all flew at him. Michael laughed as he recounted seeing the guy: “I reckon he was in shock more than I was! Here he was avoiding all the shit flying off my car, seeing a crash up close that looked nonsurvivable, and then he sees me hop out of the wreck completely normally!” By now, people were running towards Michael and yelling at him, “Lie down, lie down.” Within seconds, a fellow competitor, who happened to be a doctor and who carried a medical kit with him in his race car, was putting a needle into Michael’s arm in preparation for the ambulance’s arrival. Michael recalls, “That needle hurt like a bastard — more than anything else I had going on! I actually felt fine, and I wanted to sit up but they wouldn’t let me.” Anyhow, everyone lived happily ever after. Mike was taken to hospital and discharged later that day with nothing more than some broken ribs and a grazed elbow. He didn’t even have any bruising. His helmet and fire suit were buggered — “I’m a big fan of good roll cages and window nets now!” he says — and what was left of the car, apart from a few bits from the top of the engine, went to the Whanganui rubbish tip.