Bill Hoddinott: Tom, would you give us the full story of just what happened when you had that terrible crash in 2001 at Bonneville.
Tom Burkland: It was catastrophic for us, Bill. The car badly damaged and I had a broken right arm out of it. We didn't know what had caused it at first until we were able to reconstruct the event, so we wondered if there was some kind of integral flaw in the car design. And if so, we weren't going to try to run it any more! So we were in a state of trauma for a while there. And even after the decision was made to carry on, it took three years for us to make repairs.
Bill: What happened to cause the crash?
Tom: It was the end of a successful parachute testing pass and I was pulling off the course at the end at about 150 mph when SUDDENLY, the car turned HARD RIGHT! I countersteered to full left lock immediately to try to catch it, but it was no use, the tires dug in and flipped the car into the air, pencil-rolling FOUR times before it hit the surface again. Then it carried on rolling and bouncing, for a total of 12-1/4 rolls before it finally stopped on its left side.
In the process it had banged down hard on the top of the car, crushing the airscoop and damaging the throttle bodies. Towards the end of the tumble the fuel tanks, which were designed to separate from the chassis, had moved up and down enough to buckle the canopy structure. This pulled the latch up and released it from the chassis allowing my arm to extend all the way up to the restraint strap limit.
What I hit was a third of the top of an old 55 gallon course-marking-oil drum someone left in the salt. It was sticking up about ten inches and covered with salt so it was invisible. This had struck the right side chute door and thrown the car sideways.
It was a million to one shot because a few more inches left and I would have missed it. The same few inches to the right would have run squarely over the debris with minimal damage potential.
Anyway, up rushes my crash car crew and everybody piled out and helped me crawl out of the cockpit. There was no fire. We found later that five of the six frangible chassis points to disconnect the engine package from the cockpit had broken, but not the sixth. Also, the fuel tanks alongside the cockpit had not separated from it, but had maintained their integrity and there was no fuel leakage. The nose water tank did rupture and dump the cooling water.
But I knew I was in trouble because my arm hurt enough that I had to switch hands to release the harness cam lock. The G forces in the flailing I received broke the two forearm bones against the arm restraint.
These narrow cars create very large centrifugal forces when they get into one of these pencil roll type events.
But what scared the crew the most was my EYES! The white part of them was BLOOD RED. I could see all right after a slight feeling of grittiness initially, but I looked BAD right then!
Immediately the ambulance pulls up and they load me in for a trip to the University of Utah trauma center in Salt Lake City. Radio communication is instantly set up with the University hospital's helicopter to meet the ambulance on I-80 and get me back to the ER faster.
What the medical personnel are scared about is that my eyes suggest that I have taken a 25 G or larger impact upward during the rolls and bounces, probably on the top of the car; which caused an instantaneous blood pressure spike in my head, which ruptured the blood vessels in my eyes, BUT could have also caused brain injury!
So now I'm on my back on a stretcher in the ambulance, speeding up the Interstate heading for Salt Lake City. My wife is in a car behind, scared to death of what might have happened or be going to happen, and of course she could tell nothing in the car.
But actually, I did not feel that much discomfort lying in there, of course my arm was painful - it was a simple fracture, not compound - but my mind was working normally and I was talking to the EMT personnel. So I didn't think the situation was too bad. I was worried about the car, but Gene and Betty were back at Bonneville attending to that.
They informed me that we were to meet the hospital helicopter shortly. But first thing you know, word came over the radio that there had been a bad highway crash elsewhere that the helicopter was also needed for. So there was some discussion, including me, and it was decided the copter should go to the other scene as priority. We drove on to the ER where they checked me out very thoroughly to eliminate potential internal head injuries.
My arm was not a bad case, the bones did not break the skin, but the surgeons did put titanium plates on the bones and after a few weeks I experienced a complete recovery and no disability ever since. So they did a good job with the alignment and repair.
My eyes cleared up in a few weeks with no bad effects, and there was no brain injury.
Bill: Tom, that's quite a story! What was next?
Tom: We were all very upset about the incident and wanted to know just what caused it. As I mentioned, I had plenty of time to think about it and if there was some design flaw in the car, I wanted to know it. But eventually it became clear what had happened. Maybe seven to ten years previously, some irresponsible soul had left this drum out there after marking the course with the oil. The salt should have rusted it to pieces, but it hadn't due to the oil coating on the interior.
At the time, most events were not using marked turn-out lanes which had been carefully checked, but after this incident, they became commonplace. And when we eventually started running again in 2004, we generally stopped straight out on the course rather than pull off at speed. This did not create many problems since we were so far down the track it would not hold anybody up. You realize there is such a huge expanse of salt flats of which to make a course and different areas are used year to year, so it's almost impossible for the course crew to find every flaw that could cause trouble. Metal junk falling off racecars is a constant hazard, and the stuff gets into the salt surface so it's very hard to find and recover. Salt builds up on a car during a run, and hard chunks of it fall off, creating a threat to the tires of superfast cars, which is impossible to do anything about.
Bill: What was the aftermath?
Tom: We had a group meeting of the team at Thanksgiving that year and discussed what had happened and what we should do from that point.
The upshot of it was agreement that since the car design was not at fault in any way, we would repair it and carry on in our effort to get the world record! The car had two runs well over the record speeds on short courses with plenty of potential yet to be developed. The new parachute system was working well so we decided to press on to the original goal of setting the world record for a piston-engined wheel-driven car.
We had all the original chassis fixtures and jigs to check and correct what was bent. This also provided the opportunity to improve some aspects of the chassis with the lessons learned from four seasons of racing. The helmet specifications had increased significantly since the original design was completed in the late '80s and the only flexible part was the driver's neck; so we elected to raise the roll cage to properly accommodate the new larger helmet. This eliminated the original downward-sloped cage design which had provided some forward head movement restraint. We replaced this feature with a new stronger canopy hinge and latch system that included a helmet bumper to restrict forward movement and potential neck injuries. Upgraded arm restraints were incorporated into the cockpit safety equipment, but the rest of the harness and suit were retained as they had now been crash proven. Virtually all of the body panels were battered and destroyed, which entailed a huge amount of work. Some minor contour changes were built into the replacement parts to retain the proven center of pressure location and fit around the new larger cage. We disassembled and checked every piece of the car, including the engines, for damage and by Magnaflux or Zyglo, for a solid scientific survey of exactly what we had and what we needed to do about it.
Both of the Crower throttle bodies were badly damaged, but Gene welded and re-machined them back to serviceable condition, replacing all the linkage, etc.
Bill: Quite a trick to weld magnesium castings!
Tom: That's Gene. As I mentioned, we did add the fixture to our canopy to support the driver's helmet in front and prevent it snapping forward in a frontal impact.. So this was a major safety improvement.
Bill: Gene told me during the initial phase of the recovery, he asked you "fifty times" if you wanted to continue with this project or not. I suppose you wanted to finish what you started.
Tom: Maybe something like that... Dad has never pushed me during this entire project, in fact most times he is more of a stabilizing level-headed advocate of doing things only when they can be done in complete safety. The operational procedures used to decide when to run one of these cars can be the most important aspect of safety. Winds, course conditions and available space are critical factors to making correct decisions to begin a run.
Bill: Okay, in the next part let's look at where the Burklands team goes from this point and wrap things up. You've had this tremendous success, fastest piston-engine car in history for a mile, international FIA record to certify it, so what's NEXT??????
Copyright © 2009 Bill Hoddinott