Trackday Diaries: How'd That Cadillac Crash, Anyway?
I come to bury Motor Trend’s Scott Evans, not to praise him. Scratch that: Jalopnik’s Matt Hardigree already dug and filled Mr. Evans’ grave with a double sprinkling of schadenfreude. It’s old news. Not that I don’t personally chuckle every time GM deliberately stacks their event with yes-men and useful idiots, only to see one of those puppets smash the Chinese wheels right off one of their press-trip whips, but it’s happening often enough now that it’s no longer particularly interesting.
Rather, I have a more noble purpose in mind: I want to make sure that the average TTAC reader won’t ever trash a car on the street the way Evans did. We’ll examine Scott’s version of the events, consider the likely truth of that version, and explain how he could have prevented the accident.
Before we do any of that, however, I have an extremely unusual story to tell: it’s the one about the journalist who backed off from the edge and didn’t wreck the car.
Here’s the problem with “fast-road driving” or “spirited driving” in a nutshell: speed. Sounds obvious, right? Perhaps I should explain. The average racetrack is composed entirely of corners which would be marked somewhere between 15 and 35mph on a public road. Even the so-called “big bends” which appear on tracks like Shendandoah, VIR, and Road Atlanta would be marked 45mph maximum under most state and federal highway guidelines. Yet we regularly expect to carry triple-digit speeds through them on a racetrack. Take that same mindset — that same willingness to hold 1.2g or more through a turn — and apply it to the street, and you will be where I was a couple of years ago on the infamous Cherohala Skyway. I was running my Boxster S at what I thought was reasonable pace when I looked down and realized I was doing slightly more than an indicated one hundred and thirty miles per hour in the midcorner. On a public highway, in November, at altitude, with the sheen of ice visible up the road. Stupid. That served as a real wakeup call to me about applying a racetrack mentality on the street. The street is too big, and too fast.
Some time ago, I was on a “first drive” with a fellow journalist, an online guy who had heard the siren song of print and sold out, as our own Ronnie Schreiber is known to say, as soon as he could find a buyer. We were on a fantastically twisted California road in a crossover of some sort. I drove first, going as quickly as I thought prudent, or perhaps a little more. I broke a couple of my own rules in order to learn more about the car’s behavior, doing some trail-braking and throttle rotation in midcorner, and frequently holding the throttle to the stop between turns instead of driving “the Pace”. I was doing a lot of the turns at triple the marked speed or more, but I didn’t find myself in any particularly sticky situations, mostly because I was fanatical about looking ahead through the unknown corners. After about forty-five minutes of that, I handed the wheel over to my co-driver.
He started off going hard. Maybe too hard; I didn’t think he was looking ahead as far as he should have been, and he was getting surprised by corner radius pretty frequently. (Remember that topic: you’ll see it again later.) His final misjudgment came as he speared the car sideways into a wet intersection which was, thankfully, deserted. We came to a halt, and he said something which gained him my immediate and complete respect: “I’m squidding out here. I need to dial it back and take it easy.” I’ve seen a dozen journalists nearly wreck a car in similar situations, and not once have I heard such a self-aware summation. As far as I’m concerned, that guy can drive me to the gates of Hell if he wants. He made a mistake, he recognized the source of the mistake, and he fixed the issue.
Compare that to the excuse Scott Evans gave Jalopnik for flipping a Cadillac ATS:
The turn was a downhill S-turn, a sweeping left into a sweeping right. The speed limit on GA 136 is 55 mph, and despite Matt’s suggestion, I wasn’t speeding… My mistake was misjudging the corner. It was tighter than I thought and I didn’t brake quite as much as I should have. As a result, I tracked wide at the exit and was left with a choice: tighten the line right before making a sharp right turn and risk upsetting the car that way, or let it run a little wide into the shoulder and drive back onto the road. I chose the second option.
With the pavement ending at the white line, driving into the shoulder meant into the dirt, which was far softer than I thought. The car immediately turned sideways, and while I counter-steered, the car was sliding at a 90-degree angle across the road. Thankfully, there was no on-coming traffic…
I’ve done a few stupid things in my life, but I’ll sleep soundly tonight knowing that this wasn’t one of them… I’ll gladly bear the shame of it because I am responsible, but the Matt Hardigrees of the world aren’t going to get me down.
This wasn’t one of them? This wasn’t one of them? You violate the trust of your readers and the OEM by carelessly totaling a $40,000 car in a completely avoidable act of negligent ass-hattery, and this wasn’t stupid? It must be nice to have that kind of bulletproof self-esteem.
I’ve spent a little bit of time looking at Google Maps, trying to figure out where the accident occurred, trying to get a sense for how fast of a road it is. My initial thought: With the exception of two very tight turns near Interstate 59, most of that road could be run well above 100mph. There are a lot of long, lazy bends there which are almost tailor-made for imbuing poor drivers with a sense of high-g confidence. GM doesn’t pick venues by throwing darts; this is a good road to make people feel like supermen.
One good place this wreck could have occurred can be found at coordinates 34.812183,-85.424294, or thereabouts. It meets all the characteristics of the road as described, including the car-eating drop off to one side. The turns, although gentle, are marked clearly at “35mph”. If Mr. Evans was actually doing 35mph through the turns, as seems to be indicated by his comment that he was not speeding, then, well, a dead man leaning on the wheel of a Freightliner could handle the corners at that speed. If he was doing them at 55mph, which is still legal depending on the way the state views the status of advisory signs, then I would trust anybody in the world to steer the Nuuuuuurburgerkingring-rated Cadillac ATS through.
Let’s suppose, but not claim as fact, that Mr. Evans was, instead, indulging the wannabe racer who hides inside many autojournos and was doing closer to 80 or 90mph, which seems to be the default fast-road speed for many of them. What kind of mistakes did he make, and how can we prevent them?
The first mistake he made was low eyes. There is no, repeat, no excuse for misjudging an unknown corner. If you can’t see enough of the corner to guess the maximum safe speed, you choose a lower one. There was already a suggested speed posted for him to try: 35mph.
If you want to drive fast on back roads, you need to learn to look as far ahead as possible. This means moving your head and body where necessary to see as far around the curve as you can, and taking the appropriate speed for the knowledge you have. If you can see the whole thing, that’s great! If you can’t, assume it tightens to a forty-foot radius, which is about as tight as you’ll ever see a public road crank to, and decelerate to 25 miles per hour. The Cadillac ATS will make it through anything, up to and including a U-turn at its max steering engagement, at twenty-five miles per hour.
If you realize too late that you’ve misjudged, what do you do? Stand on the brake. The ATS can stop from 60mph, which is 5mph over Mr. Evans’ maximum claim, in about 130 feet. Stand on the brakes. Crank the wheel if you must. The stability control will sort it out. Within 60 feet you will be down to 40mph or so and you should be able to do the turn easily. This advice won’t work for a ’76 Fleetwood, but it will work for a ’13 ATS very, very well.
If you can’t even do that, go off straight. Don’t saw at the wheel like a drooling infant swinging a rattle around: that produces the “immediate sideways turn” described by Mr. Evans. If you go two-wheels-off into the dirt with your foot on the brake, guess what? The engineers who designed your stability control have tested this scenario again and again. You’ll do fine, as long as you don’t panic and saw the wheel. If you do that, the car will go sideways, you will “countersteer” in the most inept way humanly possible, and you will create an accident where none existed before.
It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback car crashes, particularly when the driver is as prideful and incompetent as the Motor Trend guys tend to be, so I am willing to put my personal money where my mouth is. If GM has the guts to release the ECU data showing the actual speed of the incident, and disclose where the incident occurred, I’m willing to take my 83,000-mile 2009 Lincoln Town Car through the same turn at the same entry speed, on camera, and I will easily sort the whole thing out without denting a fender. Since the Town Car has absolutely no super-awesome Autobahn development, Speed World Challenge race history, or free supercharged variants sitting in the Motor Trend garage grinding out goodwill with the gullible, it should be plain as day that anything the Town Car can do, an ATS could have done. As long, of course, as the ECU data even remotely supports Mr. Evans’ claim that he was doing a legal, or near-legal, or even kinda-legal speed.
An alternative hypothesis, with no disrespect intended to Mr. Evans, is that he was showing off and he entered the turn at 90mph or so, panicked when he saw the fact that it was a bit of a switchback, and he immediately Moron Limited the car by sawing the wheel to the stop, jamming the brake, and plowing nose-first/sideways off the road, resulting in the inevitable rollover. I think it would be in the interest of the public (who are GM shareholders), Motor Trend, and the cause of truth in general to release the data. We will look forward to the excuses made on all parties for not doing so. In the meantime, when you’re on the road, remember:
- Eyes up! Don’t guess! Look through the corner!
- If you enter too hard, go full ABS until you reach a safe cornering speed.
- If you need to go off, keep the steering wheel straight and engage the ABS.
- Remember, very few high-speed road accidents end without a victim of some sort, so think twice before you show off.
Jalopnik is right about one thing: the ATS survived the crash reasonably well. If you plan to crash, it’s a good car to pick. If you don’t plan to crash… well, I wouldn’t use the upcoming Motor Trend test as a basis for a purchase decision.
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I had the underlying suspicion that perhaps he had disabled the traction control. Anyone of the opinion that a modern vehicle with ATC disabled handles worse than a non ATC vehicle? That can exponentially increase error punishment factors that above rational advice will reduce. I managed to spin a Subaru wagon and get it stuck. The day I got my drivers license. Guess that was a good safe scare that kept me around the limits of physics..