Feature: Track Crew @ Knox Mountain Hill Climb

**Note: Please be patient with the video links below. They do work, but they aren’t quick.**

Day 1
8:00am
“You click on things and they die”, Cam says with a tinge of disgust. He is referring to Diablo 3 – a game which puts grown men into a fantasy land where they can slay dragons or the devil or something.

Today I will be experiencing something completely different to this – we will not be slaying the devil, but safety hazards as part of a track crew at the Knox Mountain Hill Climb.

I have tagged along as a 6th wheel with Cam (different Cam to the one I have mentioned in previous articles), his girlfriend Cayla, his long time friend Kevin, his girlfriend Bonnie, as well as Cam’s friend Matt.

Why am I doing this?

I wanted to see what life would be like as a member of a track crew – the guys who monitor a track to make sure spectators are safe, the track is safe (ie clean), and ultimately that drivers are safe in the case of an accident.

There are total of 9 corners on this course, with different teams stationed at each corner. Myself, Cam, Cayla, Bonnie, and Kevin are stationed at turn 5 – a harmless looking sweeping left corner that upon closer inspection contains many difficult hazards:

Panorama of Corner 5 – from the mid-corner perspective

1. It is a blind corner. There is an elevated hill on the left side of the turn that prevents you from sighting the turn, making a good line through the corner difficult.

2. The turn is off camber. As you enter the corner the road slopes away from you; this means less grip through the corner than you would expect. Which is bad.

3. It is a mid to high speed corner. Which means that if drivers do crash they are usually going at high speed.

4. There is probably the longest straight on this course afterwards. Losing speed through the corner means more time building it up through the straight. Which means people press themselves. Hard.

5. There is gravel on either side of the turn. Go in too hot and you will run wide, hit gravel, and something will happen. And it won’t be good.

6. There is a cliff on the outside edge and the only thing preventing you from taking a dive is a concrete barrier. And some tires.

The concrete barrier which prevents people from flying off the cliff….which has been used before.

The national anthems have just been played, and we are put into positions. There is no practice time for the drivers; a truck carrying the drivers shuttles them around the course twice and in those 5 minutes there they have to try and understand the intricacies of each corner, figure out where they should be braking, applying the gas, and what line to take. It is a mind boggling number of things to memorize in 5 minutes.

Drivers get their tour of the course. I’m assuming they all have photographic memory…

I start off on corner 5 entry with Matt (also called 5A), with Kevin and Bonnie monitoring the mid-corner (5B), and Cam and Cayla covering the corner exit (5C).

View from our perch at the entrance to corner 5 – you can see the complex curve of corner 4 from here

Matt gets comfortable before the race starts

9:00am
The first cars start making their way up. We can hear the cars blare through corner 1 for a moment before fading away. A short time later, the cars appear out of the compound curves in corner 4 before it reaches us.

The first car is a Ford Mustang. 3rd generation. The bellow of the V8 is unmistakable.

Next is a pair of Honda CRX’s which have had a high revving Integra Type R engine transplanted into them (called the B18c).

CRX w/ B18C engine on its first run

Second CRX – also with a B18C engine.

I also get introduced to rotary engines in a race. Contrary to my previous experiences of them (smooth sounding, free revving), these sound absolutely brutal (and not in a good way).

Rotary Engined Mazda link below:
RX7 Green day 1

The next hour sees us with what appears to be a Chevrolet Chevette with some pretty major modifications, a first generation Scirocco, and a couple of Datsun 510’s. I also spend some time trying to guess the engines of the cars coming up with Matt – which is pretty fun for a while.

10:00am
I notice some people on and near the track at turn 4 and try to radio the crew at turn 4 to control them. When I get no response, I walk down to turn 4 only to realize that the people on the track are actually volunteers that are not wearing their volunteer t-shirts. When I try to warn them, I get a “I know what I’m doing I have been doing this for 3 years” + a stare down as a thank you for my concern.

11:00am
Everyone has just completed their first round. Matt gets attacked by a cactus.

11:30am
Cars are now into their second run, but I feel like many of them are still feeling the course out a bit. Gradually rising temperatures, chirping birds, and calming breezes are only interrupted by the sounds of twin-V engines, inline-4s, and V8s.

Here are some examples:
Twin-V engined “Legends” car:
Legends Day 1

Inline 4 of an AE86:
AE86 Day 1

Bellow of a V8 Mustang. You can tell its not a fan of the corners. Sounds good though:
Yellow Mustang

Despite all the noise, I’m starting to feel a bit sleepy. With the sun and the gentle breeze I’m getting a bit too comfortable.

12:00pm
Round 3 begins.

So far, I have seen some pretty nice cars – An Alfa Romeo Sprint GTA, Lancia Delta Integrale, our friends from AMT Machine Shop piloting a Datsun 240Z, Caterham 7, Fiat X-19, and a Jaguar E-type.

Our friends from AMT Machine Shop (the guys who made my roll bar) piloting a 240Z.

Not the fastest car out there, but definately one of the coolest.

We hear over the radio a Volkswagen Scirocco had spun out at turn 3 but nobody was hurt. And after a brief pause, the driver collects himself and keeps going.

12:30pm
Break for lunch. A truck comes by with sandwiches.

1:30pm
Matt gets attacked by a rock.

A deer jumps onto the track at turn 6. The turn 6 crew radio us quickly and we are forced to red flag the next car coming up (basically ruining his run).

2:45pm
Matt gets attacked by a bee.

A spectator jumps across the road at a non-designated area without checking with us first. We try to warn them to be careful but just get attitude as a thank you for our concern.

3:00pm
My camera runs out of battery. I don’t remember capturing the Lancia on film.

3:15
The Lancia drives by. It sounds awesome. Cursing ensues.

Later, I would find this – a video of the legendary Lancia Delta Integrale in action!
Integrale Day 1

The radio comes on to report an “off” in turn 2.

3:45
Last run of the day.

4:15
The pace car ends the day by parading all the participants around the course. We wave as the drivers pass and many of them wave back.

5:00pm
We are camping at the grounds of the race so I set up my tent and hang out with “Team Turn 5”. Hot dogs are on the menu for dinner.

8:00pm
Its starting to get dark now. I meet Herb – driver of a heavily modified Honda Prelude, ironically while he is hitting on Bonnie with Kevin nearby. I give him the videos I have on my camera and he tells me about some of the struggles of the day; some engine problems and a diff that crapped out which heavily limited his ability to make – and put down – power to the ground. Despite being a bit of a joker, when looking over the video of him through corner 5 Herb is incredibly hard on himself.

Herb tells me how he has been doing this race for years, and about some of the rivalries he has had with fellow competitors. Herb is a pretty jovial guy but turns serious when he tells me that despite the rivalries, that everybody is really out there to beat themselves. To better their own time. To see how far they can push themselves. I am sitting there (I’m sure with my mouth wide open) listening to him while he is going on in a Yoda-like fashion. It is completely fascinating.

11:00pm
Most people have headed off to bed now. I am sitting there drinking a beer and sharing stories with Cam. We are facing a lake and although it is getting quite chilly there is something very serene about everything – quite the opposite to the blaring of engines only a few hours ago. I can only hear myself breathing, crickets in the distance, and a person splashing through the water as he is manually towing a boat in the lake from the dock to another location that I can not see from where I am. Hmm looks illegal.

12:00am
It’s pretty cold now, and I move into my tent as Cam calls it a night. I have all my clothes on, I’m inside my tent, and I’m still freezing.

I wince as my beer can makes a really loud “pssh” as I try to stay warm. Before I know it, I pass out.

Day 2
12:30pm
We are frantically trying to join back up with the rest of the crew at turn 5. We have missed the lunch food truck up so we are hiking, and have missed lunch as well. We are climbing up to turn 5 when we hear a loud crash. Cam and I tell Cayla to take the switchbacks up as we clamber up the hill directly towards turn 5.

When we get there, we see a black Camaro stopped at the exit of turn 5. New scrape marks have appeared on the concrete barrier.

A flatbed truck is called up to haul the Camaro away. The race is put on hold while the Camaro gets carried away and we clear up the debris that has been introduced onto the track.

Wheel of the Camaro which has been sheared off.

Camaro on its way back to the starting gate. Not the way the driver had envisioned, I’m sure.

We later find out that the Camaro went in with a bit too much speed and turned into the corner while hitting the concrete barriers. The Camaro actually rode up partially onto the barriers before settling down. Aside from destroying the wheel, there is some damage to the steering components but the driver is not hurt.

We settle back into our positions. I am in the corner middle today (5B) with Bonnie. Cam and Cayla take 5A, and Matt and Kevin to 5C. I have more responsibilities as I have to listen to one radio and relay the information from that radio to the rest of the crew at turn 5.

1:30pm
You can tell the drivers are pressing much harder today.

Here is a video of a Subaru STI almost losing it on corner exit – inches away from the tire wall.
MVI_0484

3:00pm
I see a Miata coming around the corner at turn 4 and instinctively turn on the camera – thinking “go Miata!”.

Here is what I see:
MVI_0488

I apologize for missing the main part of the action, but I couldn’t believe what was happening before my eyes. After hitting the tire wall, the Miata flips and rolls over several times before being stopped by a tree. I shut off the camera and rush to the scene to help.

The tire wall has been decimated. There is glass everywhere. The Miata is lying on its nose with its tail against the tree. The hardtop on the car is smashed in and not a single window pane is left. The front nose of the car is destroyed. The driver appears to be ok.

A tow truck arrives while we are sweeping, fixing the tire wall, and picking up large pieces of glass. The tow truck drags the car out of the ditch. Without a flatbed truck, the tow hook pulls the car as high as possibly can and drags the car (still on its nose) up the straight towards a safe place at turn 9 to stop. I watch in disbelief as sparks fly as the chassis near the destroyed nose is grinding against pavement. As a fellow Miata driver, it is incredibly painful to watch.

I later find out that the driver realized he had overcooked the corner and in a split second disconnected the steering wheel, wrapped his arms across his chest, and closed his eyes. Some of the onsite first aiders would later say that that motion he carried out in a split second probably greatly reduced his chance of injury and potential death. I am grateful.

3:30pm
A bit off-put from capturing the car crash on video, I am trying to settle my nerves by eating a burger supplied by some locals via a Snap-On toolbox/bbq.

Snap-On BBQ at work…mmm yum.

I am trying to control the dripping of sauces on my clothing when a Caterham appears out of turn 4.

The Caterham is looking very aggressive. He enters into the corner hard on the brakes, and as he exits the tail of the car steps out. The driver tries to correct but in doing so over does the correction and the car starts to spin. The car spins into a large tree shearing its driver side front wheel off before resting against a much smaller tree.

Caterham destroyed.

I rush towards the scene again; Matt and Kevin are already on the scene and are trying to expunge any chance of an engine fire as engine fluids are leaking towards an extremely hot exhaust pipe. The driver is already out. Kevin lets go of a fire extinguisher onto the engine as the driver watches. A truck with a water pump shows up as the crew try to put out a small fire which has showed up on some of the grass.

Sheared off pieces of the Caterham

The wheel that was sheared off has been broken into 3 pieces, and the disc brake into two. As we are cleaning up, we find miscellaneous car parts lying around.

I am trying to focus on cleaning up the track but I can’t help but notice the driver. He is standing there watching his car in pieces and I can see his heart is breaking. Here is his project, that he built with his bare hands, with his own money, and at the end of the day the only person responsible for destroying the car is you. A pace car shows up to take the driver down to the start line where he will be examined for injuries and monitored for a concussion but I think physically he is ok. I see tears welling up in this grown man as the pace car drives off.

A flat bed truck arrives to take the main parts of the car away. As the car only has 3 wheels left, as the winch is pulling the car onto the deck the rest of the chassis is dragging onto the bed – metal to metal contact. It sounds a hundred times worse than claws on a chalkboard; excruciating.

I am pretty shaken up now. And I am just at the point where I want this race to end as I can not bear to watch another car crash.

Its kind of funny – after a whole day of day 1 where I am trying to keep myself awake, almost wishing something would happen, I can not bear to watch anymore. To watch somebody who has poured so much time, money, and effort into a project only to watch their heart get broken is unbearable.

4:00pm
The race picks up again. I am cringing as although some drivers have eased off a bit, many are still pushing hard on corner 5. This despite knowing some of their fellow colleagues have been involved in a crash.

4:05pm
A 62 year old granny passes me going full tilt with a MGB GT.

4:15pm
With the crashes that have occured, and many cars facing technical problems the race is soon over. The pace car leads the remaining cars once more through the course. As they make their way through, people stand and cheer the drivers on as the drivers wave, with a smile on their faces. The drivers are either crazy, stupid, or incredibly brave.

The results are in as to the winner but I don’t care who won. As Herb told me the night before, these guys are just out their to test themselves and to show that they can beat themselves.

I have always wanted to race a car, but after watching this event I’m not sure I have it in me to do it. To know one of your peers has pushed it to the max and suffered severe consequences, and then do it yourself facing the same risk is pure insanity.

I know after watching this event there is something that separates race car drivers from people who like driving – they are incredibly brave, almost hero-like. This event has made me realize that.

The next time I crack open a beer at 12am by myself in a tent, I won’t be doing it to keep myself warm/buzzed – I will be doing it in their honour.

In some ways, wrapping this article up with Diablo 3 is actually pretty relevant. It may be fantasy (race car driving), but you go in anyway for the thrill with the odds stacked against you. You may lose the game (or your car, or your life), but the thrill in overcoming these obstacles and beating the game (your own time) can not be matched. I’m still not sure its for me though.

I salute you – brave race car drivers – and especially you, Granny in the MGB GT.

2 Comments Add Yours

  1. BECKMCS

    nice u were at Knox.. though what happened to the Caterham is quite painful to watch!

    Reply
  2. Jon

    I can neither confirm nor deny that I was at Knox 😉

    But yes…watching that was painful. Its not like watching F1 teams with big budgets crash, these guys are privateers that have to fund and build their own car. Gut wrenching.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Reply

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