Close Calls and Lessons Learned
Photography by David Marvier and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious
Recently we were lucky enough to meet Mr. Scott Fisher, who just finished an epic solo quest…in a very small car (read more here). On his way to visit us, Scott had the misfortune of encountering a deer at high speed in Utah. He was not physically injured (just his psyche) although his Datsun was scarred and the deer is now chasing bucks in the great beyond.
However, hearing about it and seeing the damage got me pondering my own moments of automotive near misses. Two of which are worth relaying in more detail.
If you hand over the keys to a three-thousand-pound chunk of speeding metal to a hormone-addled teenager you’re definitely living in America. I was only fourteen when I was issued a two-bit piece of plastic that gave me legal freedom and I couldn’t wait to take advantage. However, my parents were pretty smart people. They were well aware that I was a simple-minded creature headed into the world with no thought of survival beyond getting home by curfew. As a result, my first vehicle was a 1975 Toyota FJ 55 Land Cruiser. It was gloriously slow, and sounded like a vacuum cleaner, but it was safe, reliable and my parents knew it was built to withstand the abuse it was sure to receive.
As a teenager in rural Idaho the local social scene was an outdoor affair. Similar to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, a party was simply a bunch of kids drinking beer in a canyon. If it was really elaborate, said kids might have had an older brother procure a pony keg. These parties developed organically, and given this was well before cell phones, if you wanted to join you had to be told where to go. And to be told meant you were ‘in the know’; one night shortly after I got my license I found myself in the know. Or so I thought.
I headed into the darkness in the Cruiser. The road began at 6000 feet above sea level (that’s not a typo) and climbed another thousand feet into the deep mountains. I didn’t tell anyone where I was headed because, why would I? I was a teenager in a 4×4 with a full tank of gas. I was happily driving towards friends and a bonfire. The dark road kept winding, I kept driving until finally I slowed, realizing abruptly that perhaps I wasn’t ‘in the know’ after all. Perhaps I had misheard the canyon, or the road, or the spot. The road was narrow and dark and there was no place to turn around, so with all the confidence of a young man I headed into the coarse sage lining the road, prepared to simply bounce around back to the road.
I was halfway through my off-road maneuver when the front of the Toyota slammed and pitched upward with a metallic shriek. I slammed on the brakes, although I wasn’t moving and turned off the car. The only sound was my heavy breathing and the faint ticking of cooling metal. The smell was cold, deep mountain cold scarred on the edges with the acrid smoke of burnt sage. I stepped into the darkness and assessed the situation. The truck was perched with its front wheels off the ground. High-centered on a large boulder conveniently hidden by the sage.
To my teenage mind this was a serious crisis. I was a new driver, what would my parents think? I wrecked the truck and I’d barely been driving for a month! I was doomed! Doomed! I could almost hear the howl of the wolves as I circled the stricken truck, unsure of what to do.
Finally, getting cold, I got back in the car and looked at the controls. I knew how to operate the four-wheel drive system and so I locked the hubs, got in, and put it into low gear. Starting the car with gritted teeth I waited for something to happen. Nothing did. I gingerly put it into reverse and gave it some gas. Crrruuuuunnnch. Oh no! I slammed the clutch through the floor. This was not good. I waited some more. It slowly dawned on me that no one was going to pass me by and offer a friendly tow, no lonely cowboy, no hiker in a Subaru. I was ALONE.
So I started the truck back up and with a prayer to the party gods slammed it into gear and gave it some gas. The sounds were horrible as the rock dragged along under the front of the car, the rear wheels spun and I put it into first, sending the car forward an inch, and then backwards, working on a rhythm to the sounds of what I was convinced were total mechanical failure. With a hard jerk the truck finally lifted and dropped back to the ground.
I was free.
I didn’t get out of the car to look. I didn’t stop. Sure as I was the car was bleeding out into the dirt, I put it in gear and headed down the mountain, coasting as much as possible. It was as long a twenty-mile drive back to my house as I’ve ever had. I got back in the darkness and parked in my driveway. I mumbled to my parents and grabbed a flashlight, if I was going to get hided over this incident I wanted to know the damage for myself. I scuttled onto the gravel of the driveway and slid under the Toyota, fearing the worst. Playing the light under the engine bay revealed…
…a quarter inch of steel plate and a small scratch.
That was it. It had an OEM skid plate. I was saved. I was sure I could hear mighty angels around the Toyota and at that moment I fell in love with that truck. She carried me all the way through high school and I remain thankful for my parents’ foresight. I even managed to go another few years before my next self-inflicted automotive terror. It was across the country in sunny Los Angeles, and I no longer had the opportunity to blame adolescence for my hubris, it was ego.
I once owned a Porsche that I’ve mentioned before, a white ‘76 2.7L that was my pride and joy. It was both exceedingly fast and exceedingly slow depending entirely on whether or not you were behind the wheel. One Saturday, I had enjoyed a leisurely business lunch with a friend and colleague. Wrapping up, we started discussing the Porsche, as he was a fan. We jibed and jabbed and by the time we left, we had informally agreed to race west along Wilshire.
I should pause here and admit that this was very informal, and when I say ‘race’ what I mean to say was a simple off-the-cuff remark, friend to friend. But I was still determined to beat him so off I zoomed, the little Porsche flat-six wailing in the California sunshine. For those of you that are unaware, Wilshire Blvd is a main thoroughfare in Los Angeles. It’s a downtown-to-the-beach bifurcation that is almost always clogged and six lanes wide. On a Saturday afternoon, the road was busy but not jammed. Just open enough for a little sports car to make minced meat of the slow-driving SUVs.
The road is long and straight except for one particular area, where it crosses the soul-crushing, traffic-choked acres known as the I-405 Freeway. Just before the freeway, Wilshire winds through the Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration. These are large, slow curves that bend right, then left before straightening into Westwood (home to UCLA).
The speed limit on Wilshire is a sedate 35MPH (I think) and by the time I hit the Veteran’s Kink I was Hurley Haywood approaching the Ford Chicane at Le Mans with speed to match.
As you might well know, the 911 is a marvel of engineering that goes very, very fast and then tries to kill you when you turn. This is due directly to the dynamic issues inherent to having a six-cylinder engine hanging off the back of the car and as a result, when I hit the first curve the car was willing…I wasn’t.
There was a little dip, a dip you wouldn’t notice at normal speeds, however, I wasn’t traveling at normal speeds and as a result just as I initiated my left turn the rear went light and just like that I was spinning, across Wilshire, in midday traffic.
Everything slowed down as it generally does in the movies. But this wasn’t a movie, it was real life and even as I roughly downshifted and prodded the gas I could see the horrified looks of SoCal mothers in SUVs through the side window of the 911. I slid past them, rotating, pirouetting until the front passenger tire just kissed the curb and I was once again facing east and going the speed limit.
I didn’t crash.
I didn’t even scratch the car. I puttered along a few more blocks and pulled over, gasping. My friend, who had only seen my roof as it spun across the lanes pulled up next to me and slowly lifted his finger, circling it in the familiar way, his eyes wide. I could only nod.
He still tells this story more than I do.
It was dumb, foolish, egomaniacal and dangerous. I never did anything remotely that stupid again. Well, remote might be too broad a word, but the lesson was learned, limits were identified and I walked away with nothing worse than a story. I am a lucky man.
How about you?