NZV8 - - NEWS -

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.

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