For five years I’d been waiting for this day to arrive. My best friend, both of our fathers, a pair of RX-8s, and the mountain roads of West Virginia. They’d been driving the cars on the flat, straight roads of Virginia Beach (where I grew up and the rest of them still live). I had been wanting them to experience how these cars were meant to be driven. Next spring my father’s RX-8 would become mine, so it was probably now or never. We opted for now.
The day before I had met up with my father in Bridgeport, WV. Nissan had lent me a G37 coupe on the condition that I keep the miles around 800, so the Infiniti would sit in the Wingate parking lot for a few days. The plan for today: meet Trey and his father (“the judge”) at the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Afton, Virginia, around 11. From there we’d head down the Blue Ridge Parkway, exiting for lunch in Lexington. After lunch we’d drive west along WV 39 to prepaid hotel rooms in Summersville, WV.
Afton was about four hours of twisty roads away, so the old man and I head out before sunrise. Before leaving Bridgeport we stop to fill up. With the temperature in the mid-20s, I wish I had brought gloves as I pump the gas.
My father had been visiting my sister in the DC area, and unlike me had taken the Interstate all the way into Bridgeport. So he had yet to drive his car on a challenging two-lane road, and was very eager to. I suggest that I drive first instead, because the road out of town, WV 76, is a secondary (at best) rural highway of unknown difficulty, and I have far more experience driving such roads. The old man reluctantly agrees to start out in the passenger seat. The sun rises as we leave town.
Though not bereft of curves, WV 76 proves less challenging than I’d feared (for him) and hoped (for me). As I drive I try to verbalize the knowledge I’d gained over the years. I’m no Jack Baruth, but since Jack isn’t here my instruction will have to do. One pointer: with the temperature still around freezing, the RX-8’s summer tires aren’t as grippy. So I initially take it easy, and am not surprised that the rear end kicks out a little more easily when vigorously exiting turns. The locals are expected to know how to drive, so the suggested speeds posted before each of WV 76’s curves are about 10 miles-per-hour higher than they’d be in Virginia or Ohio. These signs are very helpful: add 10 to the 15s, and 15 to the others, and you’ll stay safely within the RX-8’s limits. The most important tip: brake before each curve, not during it. Also: err on the side of too much, and be ready to hit the brake hard BEFORE turning the wheel if the curve looks more challenging up close than it appeared from a distance. Get back on the gas, lightly, through the curve, then accelerate out of the exit. I wash, rinse, and repeat as often as I can before WV 76 runs into US 250 at Hopewell.
US 250 can be a very challenging road. But not the section out of Hopewell. Almost bored, I trade seats with my old man after crossing a covered bridge in Philippi. I’d meant to bring my Garmin, but had forgotten it. Scanning the West Virginia page in an old book map, which I had remembered, I notice an alternate route that bypasses Elkins and that should be more entertaining, and suggest we take it. After some trial and error (the map, being of the entire state, lacks some needed details) we find the right road. The map doesn’t include any route numbers—these roads are too small—but does include a few towns along the way: Coalton, Mabie, Cassity. Luckily, at each critical intersection the road signs indicate the town to which each alternative leads.
We have these narrow two-lane roads all to ourselves, rarely seeing another car. I repeat my earlier pointers as he approaches each turn, with one new one: the turns on these roads are not marked, so assume the worst. The road grows more and more challenging. My father takes a curve fast enough to scare me, but he seems very confident. After a few of these I wonder if the curves don’t seem so hard from the driver’s seat. He’s handling them surprisingly well, and grinning from ear to ear. The RX-8, so balanced, so communicative, and so willing, can do this to you.
One tight curve passes a store and a few houses. A small pig has escaped the fence behind one of these, and is in the road, but notices us coming and scampers off. We’re heading downhill. Approaching a curve, I say “brake,” and he does, but not as much as I would have. It’s a tight one to the left, and from the passenger seat I’m first to notice that after the first 90 degrees there are…seemingly another 90 degrees. A hairpin, and downhill all the way through.
We’re picking up speed, but the Mazda’s limits are high and I figure the old man will just sail through this one like those before. Then I feel him hit the brakes. Not hard, but hard enough. He’s panicking. “That’s not what you want to do, that’s not what you want to do,” I immediately blurt out, as calmly as I can manage. He regains his composure and gets off the brake, but it’s too late. I hear gravel under the tires and know without a doubt we’re not exiting this one unscathed. We’re still traveling about 40 miles-per-hour, and there’s much less grip on gravel.
The tree approaches in slow motion, hitting with a loud bang just ahead of the A-pillar on my side, a few feet away from my face. The passenger side airbags do what they were designed to do. We had oversteered off the road, but not too badly, and the car glances off the tree, exits the curve heading in the right direction, and comes to a stop on the shoulder about 100 yards down.
We’ll later debate what would have happened if he had not hit the brakes. Would we have remained on the road, or only headed faster and straighter off of it into a tree? Probably the former, but the consequences of the latter could have been severe. Good thing he had quick reflexes?
My father says his neck is a touch sore, and I have a sore wrist, but we’re otherwise unharmed. The car isn’t so lucky. The right side of the windshield resembles the Rocky Mountains. The passenger side windows are gone, shattered, and there’s glass everywhere. The instrument panel has shifted to the left, and no longer aligns with the adjoining interior bits. The passenger doors are crunched in, and clearly won’t be opening ever again.
We both exit through the driver’s door, which requires that I hop over the high center console, and walk around the car to survey the damage. The impact shifted the front door outer rearward a couple of inches, and it now partially overlaps the rear door, also shifted rearward. The inner door beams touted countless times in car ads over the years are clearly visible in the convolutions of the sheetmetal. Like the airbags, they worked as intended. Even without a B-pillar, the RX-8 handled a hard side impact amazingly well.
Somehow unscathed: the wheels and tires. The tree only damaged the entire right side between the wheels. Rocks a quarter-inch in diameter were jammed between the tire and wheel on the front right, but the bead did not lose its seal. The car looks almost driveable. Except it won’t start. And our cell phones can’t get a signal.
For reasons I cannot fathom, my father’s mood remains upbeat. Mine, not so much. Afterwards he tells me I looked mad. I’d been looking forward to this trip for years. We had people coming to meet us. All of the hotels were prepaid, and non-refundable. And now, just an hour-and-a-half in, he’d totaled the car. Which I was supposed to get in the spring. So, yes, I was mad. But quietly so.
A Dodge pickup coming from the other direction stops and a young couple get out to see if we’re okay. She works nights, and he’d picked her up at the end of her shift. No doubt she’s eager to get home, which is among those houses we’d passed just up the road. Chad offers to give us a lift up to the store, which his family owns, and which has a phone.
At “Bill’s Place” we’re informed that at least once or twice a year a big truck overturns on that blind unmarked downhill hairpin. I call Trey. They’ve just left Richmond, and are still about 90 minutes from Afton. They handle news of the crash well, even enjoying it, at our expense. We quickly decide they should continue up US 250 to where we are. They’re about four hours away, and in the meantime we’ll do our best to sort this mess out. One way or another, we’re going to continue this trip.
There’s no obvious reason I shouldn’t be able to get our RX-8 started, to at least get it to the closest town on 250. Mill Creek, it turns out, is just a couple miles further down the road—the old man had nearly made it. I assume the crash must have triggered a fuel cutoff, and just need to figure out how to reset it.
Chad drops his wife off then gladly gives us a lift back to the car. While I work my way through the owner’s manual, searching for information about a fuel cutoff, and failing to find it, we discuss our options. I give up on the owner’s manual and, borrowing a screwdriver from Chad, set to work prying the stones out of the front right tire bead. I’m still cooling down, and this is good therapy. Chad and my father watch. My father wonders if we can get some cord to tie the airbags out of the way. I’m very grateful for Chad’s patience—like many people we encounter in West Virginia, but few I’ve encountered in a big city, he’s quite willing to freely provide as much of his time as we seem to need. We continue to discuss our options.
Option 1: unique among sports cars, the RX-8 seats four fairly comfortably. Perhaps all four of us could continue in the judge’s car. To do this, we’ll have to return to Bridgeport to offload some of our luggage into the G37, as the RX-8’s trunk is nearly full. In addition to far more clothes than I could possibly need and my laptop I had also brought along a second, 21.5” LCD monitor. Like all of my vacations, this would be a working vacation.
Option 2a: return to Bridgeport and get the G37. It’s Saturday, but perhaps I can get in touch with the contact at Nissan. Was his cell number on the paperwork? If I can reach him, what should I say? “We’ve totaled our car after just an hour, so can we use yours?”
Option 2b: drive the G37 even if we cannot reach Nissan, and beg forgiveness later.
Option 3: rent a car. My father is keen on this. But I cannot imagine renting anything that would be fun to drive in a small West Virginia town.
Option 4: I’m not sharing this one with my father and Chad just yet, because it seems unlikely.
So, what should we do?
Follow Michael’s journey in part five of this piece here.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data