AWD Turbo Parts and Performance

How Not To Take A Fly-Over

By Mitch McCullough

Mike Welch, my crew chief, is a master fabricator. A real body man. A regular McGyver. Maybe that was in the back of my mind. Or maybe I was frustrated at dealing with the big D. Or maybe I just like to show off – that’s what rallying is all about, after all.

Whatever it was, I had decided to take the jump flat out.

The physics of the situation seemed to have eluded me: Glen Helen Off-Road Vehicle Park just north of San Bernardino had been designed for off-road buggies and trucks, race cars with suspension travel measured in feet. I was sitting in a Mazda 323 GTX, a cheap econobox. That it had a turbo, four-wheel drive and a fantastic factory rally suspension was of no consequence on the big hump I was about to attack.

While walking around the course, I foolishly came to the conclusion that the big hump could be taken without braking. I mean, that’s what Rod Millen would do, right? Or am I thinking about Rod Hall? Anyway, the closed circuit took only five minutes or so to complete and it was a hoot. We’d be topped out in third gear on a straightaway, brake hard for a 180-degree turn, slide sideways through a 70-mph sweeper, then brake hard for the big hump. The rest of the course went considerably farther, but I would not be exploring the rest of it that day.

I sat in line, peering through my helmet as each rally car took its turn. The suspension of the first car got light as it went over the hump. “Whoa” went the crowd in the stands. The next car caught a little air, maybe six inches. “Yes!” shouted the crowd. As I watched, I thought: “Why are they braking so hard for that jump?” Beside me was co-driver Scott Webb, who had some sort of misplaced, irrational, idiotic faith in my driving abilities.

We pulled up to the start line. On cue, the starter draped a green flag over the front of the windshield and shouted, “Five! Four! Three! Two! One!” Then he yanked the flag up and quickly stepped back from the car. “Go!”

I stood on it and all four knobby Michelins twisted in the dirt. I grinded it on the upshift to second, but otherwise it was a good launch. I braked for the 180-degree turn and slid around a giant earth-moving tire. We slid to the outside as I accelerated out of the turn, but I stayed with it opening up the steering wheel to keep the speed coming on. As we approached the sweeper, I lifted, turned in and got back on the throttle. The car pivoted and slid around the corner, all four wheels slinging dirt. “This is going to be a good run,” I thought.

As we approached the jump, I lifted off the throttle where most people had been braking. We were doing about 65 mph. A cry crackled in my intercom: “Oh shit!” I stepped on the throttle again as we crested the top of the jump, thinking that would keep the nose up.

The little GTX jumped toward the heavens. Observers said there was at least 12 feet between the bottoms of the tires and Mother Earth. From inside the car, it seemed like the sky darkened as we crested the upper edge of the atmosphere. Our poorly designed rocket hit its apogee, then began the long ascent back to earth. When the ground loomed directly ahead I began to realize I may have overdriven just a bit. “Oh!” the crowded shouted. “What was he THINKING?”

It was a tremendous impact. The car landed on the front bumper. The radiator ripped in half, the hood crumpled, the bell housing cracked, the front wheels bent and most of the front clip was destroyed. Instead of going end over end, the car came to an abrupt halt and bounced back onto its wheels.

I looked to the right as the dust settled. “Are you okay?” “Ooof” was the only sound that came from the other seat. “Ooof.” Scott felt like he suddenly had a mouthful of sand. It was later determined that that was the enamel from all of his teeth. The emergency crew loaded us up on stretchers and carted us to the hospital where we spent a long, boring, humiliating day getting X-rays. We had stiff necks, I had bruised pride and Scott spent a fortune on dental work that year. Mike filmed the whole incident and later had the audacity to put it on his Web site, but the view from inside the car felt far more dramatic than the video portrays.

 

Mike quickly rebuilt the car in the Road/Race facility, replacing or repairing everything ahead of the windshield. We went on to win the California Rally Series championship that year. It was 1993 and we each earned Rookie of the Year titles. The following season, I drove off a 500-foot cliff in Arizona, rolling five times and stopping against a bush 100 feet down. The car looked destroyed, but we winched it to the top of the mountain and Mike had it back in the rally the following morning. We went on to win the 1994 SCCA PRO Rally Southern Pacific Division Championship in Open Class.

But that’s another story.

McCullough is a contributing correspondent to Field & Stream, AutoWeek, Sport Compact Car and European Car. He edits a car-buyer’s guide that can be seen at www.newcartestdrive.com. He now brakes for fly-overs.

Coming soon, the Co-Driver’s Version:
“It wasn’t my fault”

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