By on December 29, 2010

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

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31 Comments on “A Road Trip Five Years In The Making: Part Four: The Event...”

  • avatar

    Colossal bummer. It hurts me to look at the side of that car.
    I don’t think there’s enough room for adults to be comfortable for long periods of time in the back of an RX-8, although it would be fine for an hour or less.
    In choosing what to do, I think you should focus on doing whatever it takes to continue having a great father-son vacation. And ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if you go back and get the Nissan–mind you I’m not recommending getting the Nissan, just saying that that is how to think about that option. I hope everything turns out well in the end.

  • avatar

    A lot of times I will skim through a story before I actually read it.  I did not this time.  That is really not how I was expecting that skid to turn out.  I was hoping the old man would have an epic save.  A colossal bummer indeed.

    • 0 avatar

      If he’d had even a foot or two of paved shoulder, I think he would have made the save. But once the rear tires hit the gravel it was over.
      He did learn what I meant about being wary of unmarked turns, and about being ready to brake hard just before the entry. He wasn’t expecting more than 90 degrees, and made it through the first 110 or so…

  • avatar

    Dude that suuuuuuuuuucks. My condolences.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “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.”
    (page down, see front 3/4 pic) Uh oh.
    One thing I’ve learned rolling around back roads (even in the flat parts of Virginia) is to always overbrake on the blind turns until you can see where they go.

  • avatar

    Such a bummer! Glad no one was hurt. I assume you’re out of the woods by now but, my recommendations would be: 1) two of you bunk up with Chad and his wife while the other two drive the remaining RX-8; then switch. That’s counting on a lot of generosity. Or, 2) take that Infinity out for a (long) spin.

  • avatar

    I once made a very similar mistake not braking enough coming up to a blind corner. I thought it was a gentle corner as I could see the road several hundred yards ahead, but as I came up to the corner I could see it was a 90 degree right followed immediately by a 90 degree left. The road was raised up on an embankment with a ditch on the outside of the corner and beyond that a muddy field which was several feet lower than the road. My saving grace was that I was still going fast enough to clear the ditch when I came off the road and I ended up buried up to my axles in mud. No damage, but it was a b*stard to dig the car out and I’m pretty sure I needed new underwear.

  • avatar

    Also Michael, I was truly looking forward to hearing of your experience in the RX-8. I was going to live vicariously through you and have you feed the fires of an eventual RX-8 purchase of my own. Well, I’m still looking forward to installment number 5.

  • avatar

    Shiiiizzzzzzzz that sucks.  I understand how hard it is, even as a fully grown man, to give your dad pointers.  So I relate 100% to you not having told him to take it easier even when he was seeming to go too fast in the turns.  Ahh well, looks like a lesson was learned.  What and by whom, I’m not sure.

  • avatar

    The most important thing is that you and your dad were unhurt. As I scanned ahead, I saw the photo of the RX-8 and thought my screen was screwed up; then I read that it was really the car. And here I thought this was going to be an idyllic description of father and son motoring at its best! (I took my kids on a mountain bike ride near Moab, Utah and we found the trail we’d hoped for was not a trail at all; thus spent until after dark, including an anxious time without water, finding our way off the Porcupine Rim trail). Anyway, the car’s more easily fixable than the two of you, and any encounter with a tree and automobile that you walk away from is a good one.
    As to your option, I’m with Dad; rent a car – maybe you can find something interesting, or even just get a base Mazda3; I rent these every time I can and find that even in the “rental auto”, they’re fun to drive. Good luck on the remainder of your working vacation, and please let us know how it turns out.
    Not the results you’d hoped for, but nice piece, Michael.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Dang. Sorry to hear about the mishap.
    If you can’t find a decent rental car (and you may – I got a loaded Tiburon GT V6 once at the Enterprise counter at Baltimore-Washington airport. It even had a Rockford Fosgate stereo – not bad for a “standard car”)  and the only options are awful GM vehicles like Cobalts and HHRs, why not drive the G37 back to Michigan with your dad? That sounds like a worthwhile road trip.

  • avatar

    Reaction upon seeing the picture before reading the story: Oh God you idiots… j/k

  • avatar

    Sorry to hear about this one, Michael. Your posts helped me along in my decision to take advantage of a deal on a new ’10 Series II model last month, and lately when I run across a heated debate that inevitably leads me to feel a tinge of buyer’s remorse it’s the few write-ups like yours that bring me back to that comfortable place in my decision that I’m always at after a good drive through some challenging roads.
    But your obviously not in one of those comfortable places right at the moment as you survey the aluminum door skins wrapped around the side impact crossbars. I’ve found it tough to coach people that are both inexperienced but competitive at the same time lately. I can see them telling themselves “hey I drive everyday and this driving fast thing is only slightly more difficult than everything else I do – I’m going to show him” Not pegging your pops for that type just echoing that I’ve been in that difficult situation of having to tell a strong willed person to take it easy while in the passenger seat.
    Having said all of that – I’d love to read a compare and contrast of the RX-8, a non-luxury four seater with a near luxury four seater. Not sure how NMNA would feel about it – but hey – road conditions and travel of all kinds is crazy out there so I’d imagine your contact would be more forgiving this time of year than any other.
    Run that G37 – give us your review and I’ll pose this question to you. Buy an RX-8 or lease a G37 for around the same payment?

  • avatar

    I once went on an offroading trip to WV with a bunch of Land Rovers.  I saw roads that you couldn’t even call roads.  On the way home I did drive some of these curvy paved roads too.  They are marvelous and I always wanted to go back with a proper sports car to see those roads again.  Shame to see your Mazda bent.

  • avatar

    Sorry to hear about the mishap. Those curves sure can bite you in the rear…
    Good luck and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  • avatar

    That’s terrible to see, but at least you and your father walked away.  The car can be repaired or replaced.  I have to say that it did seem to stand up pretty well to the impact, all things considered.

  • avatar

    This will be a story you and your father will tell forever.  Enthusiasts will listen to the time you drove your RX-8 through WV, but nobody else cares.  Everybody will get a laugh from a story that involves a mishap like this, though.  My friends and I laugh at our ill-advised driving errors of the past which led to destroyed cars, no matter how painful it was at the time.  The memories and stories are worth more to me than the cars.
    On another note, where in VB did you grow up?  I am a longtime VB resident, still here, unusually under a covering of snow.

  • avatar

    WVC §61-3-48. Offenses involving damage to shrubbery, flowers, trees and timber; limitation of section; penalties.
    (a) It is unlawful to break, cut, take or carry away, or in any manner to damage any of the shrubbery or flowers, including everything under the title of flora, whether wild or cultivated, growing within one hundred yards on either side of any public road in this state, without the permission in writing of the owner or tenant of the land upon which the shrubbery or flowers, including everything under the title of flora, are growing.

    WVC §17C-4-2. Crashes involving damage to vehicle.
    The driver of any vehicle involved in a crash resulting only in damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of such crash or as close thereto as possible but shall forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of such crash until he has fulfilled the requirements of section three of this article. Every such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary. Any person failing to stop or comply with said requirements under such circumstances is guilty of a misdemeanor and, subject to the penalties prescribed in section one, article eighteen of this chapter.

    WVC §17C-4-5. Duty upon striking fixtures upon a highway.
    The driver of any vehicle involved in a crash resulting only in damage to fixtures or other property legally upon or adjacent to a highway shall take reasonable steps to locate and notify the owner or person in charge of such property of such fact and of his or her name and address and of the registration number of the vehicle he or she is driving and shall upon request and if available exhibit his or her driver’s license and shall make report of such crash when and as required in section seven of this article. Any person failing to make the notification required by this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be fined not more than $150.

    WVC §17C-4-6. Immediate notification of crashes.
    The driver of a vehicle involved in a crash resulting in injury to or death of any person or total property damage to an apparent extent of $1,000 or more shall immediately by the quickest means of communication, give notice of such crash to the local police department if such crash occurs within a municipality, otherwise to the office of the county sheriff or the nearest office of the West Virginia State Police.

    Shrubbery aside, I hope the damage was less that $1000 – in case you did what I think you will do in the next installment.

    I once found out the hard way, Close by, on a country road from the Blueridge Parkway to Charlottesville, VA. I had a brute of a Chevy Caprice wagon, and I lost control of it in one of these curves. It had rained, the road was slippery, so I steered the swerving monster into the ditch. There was less side damage, and I just called the shop to send a wrecker. The wrecker arrived with a County Mounty of the Albemarle County Sheriff Dept. At that time (it was in the 80s) the minimum damage was $300, IIRC …

  • avatar

    At least the locals didn’t eat y’all.
    Must have been a good deer season.

  • avatar

    Next time, how about you and Dad buy a track day? As much as I enjoy a good WV road, it’s not really the place to teach yourself driving techniques. But I guess you know that now.

    • 0 avatar

      On public roads I generally stay well within the car’s limits, and haven’t had an accident caused by driving too quickly for the road and the conditions in 25 years. (Had a couple instances within a couple years of getting my license.)
      Now that I think about it, my original concerns about my father’s lack of experience had been a little more complicated. I thought he would benefit from a few pointers. But I also feared that he would drive far too conservatively.  I had wanted to demonstrate what could be done while still remaining well within the car’s limits. I had not expected him to start pushing the car so hard so soon.
      The turn in question did border on a worst case scenario: unmarked, about twice as long as expected, and downhill. If you enter a downhill turn going too fast, there is no easy way out. I still cannot believe we ended up back on the road heading in the right direction–just luck, or did the old man actually do the right things after getting off the brake? I was too busy looking at the approaching tree to notice what he was doing.

  • avatar

    UGH, glad your OK. This is why I play Gran Turismo, finding the limits when trees are around is big problem in real life. Also this is why I consider Rally drivers the best in the world, no F1 or NASCAR guy could even begin to drive at the level those guys do – impossible hairpins with constantly changing grips level? How do they do it at such breakneck speeds?

    • 0 avatar

      You consider rally car drivers to be better than F1 and Nascar drivers because the most serious driving you’ve ever done is with a Playstation?  Hard to argue with that logic.

      Good read, Michael. Poor RX-8. But it doesn’t look as bad as my Mazda3 did after being T-boned by a young girl on her cell phone. After a tape measure DIY alignment, I drove that for about three weeks before I got it into the shop, and that included a highway trip with no driver side window, so I’d think you should be able to continue driving it for the rest of the trip!

  • avatar

    You may not want to hear it, but I find your experiance at least somewhat comforting.  My ’09 RX-8 drives with my 1y/o son’s carseat sitting behind me.  The “2-door fun, 4-door safety” makes for good marketing, but I hadn’t seen a real-life example yet of the design protecting the passengers. I’ll breath a little easier now.

    As for what to do… if you make it to a major-airport car rental agency, you could try to get one of their more enjoyable models (Vette, Camaro, Challenger, Mustang).  They’ll still be rental-stock but that may be the most enjoyable option.  Use that TTAC leverage to get one pulled aside for you.  Otherwise, something more base like a Mazda3 would still allow you to keep up and maybe the drivers can rotate behind the RX-8 wheel.

    Four adults in the RX-8 will be tight after an hour and will be rough on the back-seaters if you are driving like you want to drive… remember that they get a pretty tiny window to look out of. 

    To be honest, I’d leave the G37 where it is…  you know too much to plead ignorance, and even if you think they’ll forgive you, chances are you won’t be able to relax about it (unless you can get the full blessing ahead of time).

    My one other suggestion from driving my RX on the Tail of the Dragon…  find the most enjoyable portion of the route and take it several times in a row.  You’ll be able to be much more aggressive when you’ve already identified the blind corners.  Given the nerve-racking start to the trip, I’m sure everone will be go a little easier than they would otherwise.

    Good luck… sorry to see the early results, but at least it’s making for a good story!

  • avatar

    I grew up driving those roads. I didn’t know there were people who couldn’t drive around curves until I went to college and met people who grew up around DC or at the beach.

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