Learning From Accidents
Dr. James R. Adams, Jr., M.D., Tachyon Sports Injury Research Foundation
Published: October 09, 2003
Our foundation started our racing safety research for 2003 at the WERA Regional race at VIR in mid-March. Since 1999 we have been gathering information from accident studies in order to improve our program for teaching efficient methods for ambulance workers to use at racecourses. Time is an issue that affects what we can learn. Scene evaluation during the first minutes can be critical, but reflection on the situation after the fact sheds new understanding that is useful.
We teach paramedic techniques to use at the accident site by studying accidents and detailing their surroundings. We study road course layouts, run-off areas, barriers and walls, other racing vehicles, track edges and gravel trap surfaces. We watch ambulance crews work, and talk to the racers when we get the chance. Getting the story takes time. We have found that you need the first information about the wreck as well as what the racer remembers after having time to analyze the cause of the incident. Indeed, this helps our teaching, but we have also discovered how you can use it to improve your racing.
VIR had a sunny day of practice on Friday, but it rained through the weekend. We had no major injuries, but there was plenty of off-track activity. We added to our accident information base, but spent some time discussing how a racer, by understanding an accident, might best analyze the accident and find ways to get some positive information to balance the setback that all accidents bring. As you come to understand more about what happened, you can make the mental corrections and bike set-up changes that will make you safer, smoother, and faster. It is possible that thinking of accidents in this way will help some racers to have a smoother time after an incident; despite the expense, extra work, and in some cases, injury healing. The payoff comes when you get on the racecourse the next time, whether it is for race number eight the same day or at a different track, several weeks later. Let’s talk about what information is important to think about.
What do you have to know to understand your accident?
You need to know as much as you can remember. (If you have memory loss from a concussion you have to go on what you hear from others.) In all cases, it’s the beginning of turning the accident into a path for improvement. Start with the “5Ws” and add the details of racing reality.
Who: Rider information: Novice, Expert, bike type, any contributing factors, and other bike involved? (Contact before, during, or after loss of stable control.)
Where: Track location. (exact: e.g. corner entry, outside, before turn-in point, in a bumpy braking area, what was the condition of the surface?
When: Mid-day, early or late (tired or fresh), wet, dry, hot, cold, first lap, last, etc.
What: General description of incident (e.g. lost the front, lowside, across gravel trap and into Airfence). Bike trajectory, rider trajectory, description….mechanical malfunction?
Why: Well, we’re getting to that… there’s still more…this is where the specific realities of racing come in.
Consider these other factors as well:
What safety gear was used? How did it work?
Any other factors in pre-accident setting? (e.g. spilled oil, bird hit your helmet, any symptom of bike instability in preceding lap?)
Describe what happened as bike went down. Where did the bike go? What did you see happening? What happened next…
Injury comments/healing-rehab plan/function.
Bike damage evaluation, look for mechanical causes.
Future plan: Rider plan, set-up plan.
What can this picture teach?
It always answers Kevin Cameron’s question: “Are you in or are you out?”
An accident can mean your racing is over. Accidents are costly. Many of us run on slim budgets, and the loss of a bike that costs thousands of dollars and a thousand hours of set-up time can mean the end of your program. This can mean a season, it can mean years or forever, but you did do it, and you’ve learned a lot.
Other times the injury will be something that will make racing impossible. It can be worse, but nevertheless, we have to realize that racing is like other high-kinetic-energy sports where the effects of an injury make it impossible to go on. Sometimes the injury can’t even be seen because it is inside your brain—clear into your soul, and you find that the fire that got you on the racecourse has gone out. Don’t fool yourself, you choose to go out every time. If the energy to continue is gone, listen to the message. Any real friend will understand, and the only person you need to listen to is the person you see in the mirror every day. Sooner or later, this happens to all of us.
On the other hand, most of the time, the fire is still burning. It can burn so brightly that you see guys hosing the mud off their racing leathers and repairing a bike for an event the same afternoon. The gifted and well-prepared racer will go out and win. Follow your instincts on this one. Do the right thing for you that day. You can always change your mind.
For our research group, the lessons lead us to better understanding of racing safety. For the racer, this information turns the experience into positive directions that can lead to better set-up, better lines, smoother control inputs, safer racing, and faster racing. The “5 Ws” are the key to understanding the big picture. The rest of it fills in the details and can lead you to finding more ideas that you can use, but it all adds up.
Who: It starts with the rider. More important, if you are in a sport like racing, you will do better, the more you know about this person. Finding out who you really are takes time for some of us, but we all work with what we have. In your thinking about how the accident happened, be as honest as you can be about your skill and level of riding. Sometimes you learn about yourself by this analysis. We also need to consider who sets up the bike. If you are the one who does all the work, you’ll be evaluating your bike prep habits as well. Racing is a team sport, and we all depend on one another when the bike is on the track. The “Who” from the “5Ws” is who learns the most from accident evaluation.
Where: This locates the incident. Accidents can happen anywhere on the course. Figure out not only the location of the impact, but also the situation leading into the accident zone. Some turn sequences involve several bends and a bad entry to one, upsets the sequence, leaving you in the wrong location for the rest. Think about the track surface: Smooth, bumpy, slick, was the track edge involved, were there rumble strips? Did the run-off area affect the outcome of the incident?
As you use the run-off area (with or without the bike) try to recall just what happened. Some accidents involve slides of hundreds of feet. Some are smooth, some are tumbling; some are cut short by walls, Airfence, haybales or tire barriers. Other times there are ditches or bushes and trees. Each situation has a part to play in the incident.
When: This is easy, but there is a lot to consider: Were you rested or tired? Cold or hot? Fit or breathless? Last race of the day, or the first? How was your day, your week, your month? Your mental set on the race weekend is critical to high performance and to mistakes.
These factors lead to why: Here is the payoff. All of the above factors figured in some way in the event itself. Exactly what happened, gets you to be able to bring the factors together as it begins to explain the accident. This explanation determines your future.
Described what happened with simple racing terms. For example, “I lost the front, then lowsided off the outside of the track, across those rumble strips. I was tumbling through the gravel trap, holding my arms in and watching the wall come up. And then I hit the Airfence.”
Think about the accident; small details will come to you. Divide it into rider events, and mechanical or set- up events. Other times you’ll find outside factors played a role.
Start out by visualizing the accident. Replay it in your mind to understand as best you can what factors figured in the fall. Sometimes you can identify the cause of an injury, other times you’ll see some positive factor that prevented an injury. You want to “program” your mind to remember that one, and if you found a cause, perhaps you can program a way to avoid it in the future. (In other sports the athletes practice falls as part of their preparation or as part of their natural progression in the sport. The martial artist is familiar with the mat; the rock climber will use his rope during the course of climbing. We can’t jump off of bikes, but we can climb or take martial arts classes and learn the same thing.)
Mechanical Failure: Sometimes a mechanical failure is a part of the “what.” Carroll Smith tells us that parts don’t fail, people make the mistakes. Using the wrong material, or the wrong technique overloads the materials used for assembling the race vehicle. Vibration stress that exceeds the design tolerance causes breakage. A perfect part, improperly installed, will fail. If your handlebar grip slides off during a wet race and you break a leg, it is the human installation of that grip that caused the accident to happen. The end result is a simple and impersonal random lesson in high-school physics that can be a simple accident with little bike damage, or your racebike may be fit only for the crusher.
The Lesson: Be meticulous as you assemble the bike and ruthless in your checking of its condition. All the time. This is simple, and the doing is time-consuming. But it is the whole difference for everyone in motor racing.
Human Factors: Everything about racing is human. If we accept the idea that we devise the machine and prep it, the fact that we control it makes the picture complete. Sometimes the accident we have is someone else’s problem, and we go down merely because our machine was struck by the results of someone else’s problem. Nevertheless, once the control margin is lost, physics takes over, helped by random chaos. Up until that moment of control loss, events are in our hands and in our heads. The reason that track time is so important is that we are developing all of the skills of racing. Most of the time we only think about lap times and speed. But every time on the track, you are developing habits of racebike operation that will turn on without thought every time you get near the edge. You must work hard to develop good habits. The time to start that is right now. (Really, the time to start is when you first decide to ride a motorcycle, but most of us were thinking about something else in those days.)
Explaining how to learn motorcycle road racing would take a book. There are many books that will help us to learn as we go. But books won’t do it all. It takes time on the track, time in the gym, time visualizing racing, and then, more time on the track. One needs to watch Experts race, and to analyze events each time you are on the track in order to see the hundreds of ideas that need to work together for safe, smooth, and fast operation of the racing motorcycle.
Every weekend we see guys who “have it” and guys who “don’t have it.” (all of us spend a bit of time in both groups as we’re learning). The Champions come to have it, and build on a solid base of physical technique and mental toughness or discipline that is seen as smooth and consistent racing. There are no exceptions to this. Be sure to note that even the best go off course during the MotoGP circuit. The difference is they have plenty of bikes and plenty of help. A lowside at 140 mph means a trip back to the pits to get the spare bike.
(Note: The Amateur racer does exactly the same thing, except his spare bike is still scattered around the world in warehouses, as parts. Some of those are back-ordered. When they arrive at your garage, you build your spare bike.)
The point is that we must develop good habits to prevent un-needed accidents. Bad habits tend to be hard to break, but sooner or later, they will be the cause of an accident. It’s the old story: The best safety program is the prevention program. Prevent an accident with solid preparation: Prepare the bike, prepare your body, and prepare your mind so that when you race, you just have to race. This takes track time and hundreds of hours of work over each year. There’s no other way. And, know this: Accidents will still happen.
The margin of adhesion of your tire patches is razor thin at the limit. Anything from a gust of wind to a loss of grip on a bar or a footpeg can put you over that limit in a moment. That is the edge that you approach as your skills improve and your lap times come down. The racing business includes going off the track. Rossi does it and you will do it. All we can do is to try to learn all of the factors that can help us to avoid the needless accidents. The rest has a lot to do with luck. Some people say you make your own luck.
All the Rest: When the Random Chaos takes over, we still have some friends:
1. Safety gear.
2. Personal fitness and musculoskeletal flexibility.
Don’t skimp on quality of safety gear. It makes all the difference. Be sure that it fits; be sure that it is in good repair. Always use it. Today’s helmets, boots, gloves, suits, back protectors and armor do a lot to minimize the effects of kinetic energy at all speeds. Your gear must be adaptable for rain: rainsuits, coatings, fog prevention methods for visors, and methods to keep warm or keep cool. Replace your helmet at the recommended times if you don’t drop it and immediately after any major head impact.
The function of the safety gear must be invisible when you’re on track. No tightness, no restriction of movement. The only way to do this is to wear it to break it in, and use it on the track. Knee pucks must not only work smoothly for your style, but they have to stay in place. Losing a knee puck on a fast bend is a distraction; not having that knee puck for the rest of the session is a distraction as well.
This is another rule:
When you’re on the racetrack, any distraction is bad.
What are distractions? Try these: A bee inside your visor, nausea from food poisoning or partying, business problems, family problems, crew problems, warning lights, throttle cable stickiness, watching a competitor instead of your reference points. Sure, just about anything you care to notice can be a distraction for you, so you need to find ways for improving your focus like they teach in martial arts. Interestingly, this sometimes means focusing less. Or more correctly, it means focusing your attention in new ways. All edge sports are mental.
I won’t bore you with fitness. If you don’t care enough to be fit, you’re not going to run up front for long. If you do, you’ll sooner or later lose because your competitor will be more fit. While you’re learning, you’ll do better during your off-track excursions if you are fit and flexible. If you are fit, you’ll reduce the distraction of fatigue. Racing is intense. Anything over 20 laps will tire even the elite athlete. Do the best that you can. This is the point, anyway. If you are fit, you’ll know that you did what you could to handle this safety and performance factor.
Luck. When you have done all that you can do, luck will handle the rest. People who talk down luck tend to be young and smart. I think it comes from thinking that if you can control the causes then you’ll somehow control the effects as well. You begin to think that somehow this will control your destiny.
I used to be one of those people who thought luck was for suckers. As I have gotten old, I’ve seen too many things happen when the variables begin to pile up. When “success” is so dependent on everything going right, I now believe in the power of luck a lot more. I don’t buy lottery tickets (the laws of probability don’t have anything to do with luck, but you do have to be lucky to win) but I have come to believe that the only way that you can trust to luck is to do everything you can with everything that you can control. When you get that done, you can relax and have fun. You’ll turn out being smoother and faster. You will finish more races, and you’ll win more races. You will also be safer, every single day.
So take the time to analyze your accident. Then get yourself back into shape and rebuild the bike using the new ideas that you have discovered. Next time when it really gets tight, and you have done everything else, luck comes along, and makes all the difference. Believe it. Work hard for performance and for safety.
If you had a motorcycle road racing accident during the past 12 months and would like to add to our confidential research information base, contact us with a brief note or e-mail: Tachyon SIRF@aol.com or write to Tachyon Sports Injury Research Foundation, 653 Commercial Street, San Francisco, CA, 94111. We will mail or e-mail the reporting forms to you. Your participation will help us with our research and our EMT teaching programs. Look for us in the paddock area during this year’s WERA events. The research and EMT teaching of the Foundation are funded by donations and grants from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Back to top