"The Steering Wheel Came Off In His Hands"

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
the steering wheel came off in his hands

On September 14th of last year, a participant in the “Rusty Wallace Racing Experience” at Kentucky Speedway crashed into first the inside track wall, then the SAFER barrier on the outside of the track. One week later, he died from the multiple and severe injuries he sustained in that crash.

On Wednesday, the text of the lawsuit filed by his estate against multiple parties was released. The allegations contained in the lawsuit should horrify anyone who has ever considered participating in, or instructing for, one of these rent-a-stock-car “experiences”.

The full text is available here but I will summarize the most disturbing allegations below:

  • The quick-release steering wheel on the car provided to Mr. Cox wasn’t just carelessly installed after Cox got in the car – it was on backwards. This is possible with some of the cheaper circle-track equipment and indeed when I went circle-tracking back in 2009 or so I once had my crew do it to me.
  • The position of the wheel after the crash and various forensic evidence suggests that the wheel came off in his hands while Cox was driving at over 100mph.
  • And it’s at least the third time that such a thing has happened at the Rusty Wallace Expericence.
  • To get him comfortable in the car, a thick foam pad was placed behind Cox, putting him in a position to strike his head against the halo cage should there be a crash.
  • The car was immediately cleared from the track so other participants could have their Experience.
  • Mr. Cox was hard on the brakes when he hit the wall, attempting to stop a car with no steering wheel.
  • The cage failed and the A-pillar cracked, possibly because it was hit that hard by the driver’s head.
  • The head supports on the seat were rendered ineffective by the placement of the spacer pad behind Cox.
  • Although Cox had a HANS device on, it didn’t work…
    • …because photos show the shoulder belt was routed next to it, not over it,
    • …possibly because the individual who strapped Cox in has a “long history of drug abuse”.
    • …leading to a basal skull fracture,
    • …which is what the HANS prevents.
  • The seatbelts in the car were expired and not legal for competition.
  • The driver’s suit was not competition legal.
  • No gloves were provided.
  • The seat was not SFI-rated (although to be fair, I don’t think the LaJoie seat in my Neon is, and I’ve hit the wall at Mid-Ohio at approximately 90 mph and walked away thanks to that LaJoie seat and my HANS Professional.)
  • The window net was from 2006.
  • Medical expenses for Mr. Cox prior to his death exceeded $414,000.

If even half of these allegations are true, and the plaintiffs have plenty of photographic and forensic evidence to suggest that this was the case, then “Rusty Wallace Racing Experience” has probably turned its last lap. But they aren’t the only game out there. So, let’s go over some brief safety guidelines for any time that you spend in a rent-a-racer or rental exotic car:

  • The car you are about to drive should pass a basic visual inspection.
  • You should look for the presence of technical personnel there checking the cars for tire pressure, lug nut torque, and fluid leaks.
  • Make sure your helmet fits your head snugly. If they give you a HANS device, make sure it’s attached correctly to your helmet (by tugging on it HARD) and make sure the belts go OVER the HANS.
  • Ask for gloves, preferably fireproof ones. They can save your hands.
  • Don’t drive a car with excessive play in the steering or a low brake pedal or any noises that don’t sound right to you.
  • If something scares you when you’re on the track, come in immediately and go home. It’s cheaper than taking a LifeFlight, trust me.
  • It’s okay to ask your instructor for his qualifications…
  • …and don’t go on an unfamiliar track, or with an unfamiliar car, without an instructor.

If you have further questions about a particular event or provider, email me care of the site and I’ll tell you the whole truth as I know it and nothing but, okay?

Join the conversation
2 of 48 comments
  • Domestic Hearse Domestic Hearse on Jun 16, 2015

    Bark was asking the other day, following up his Focus Track Day article, why more people don't read and respond to racing/performance driving articles -- as in, get out there yourself and give it a try, why don'cha? I think this about covers most of it. One's experience learning to drive fast is utterly and wholly dependent upon the track staff, driving coaches, and equipment provided. As a complete novice, how is one to know better from worse? We go into these things on blind trust, and that's not a good thing. An article like this appears and I think about the risks. I think about the driver's last conscious seconds. I think about what his family went through -- and are still going through. And then I decide that even though I've done a few exotic "experiences" and had a couple brief lessons from professional race car drivers, that I know enough to appreciate racing as a fan, but do not want to participate. I know I'm missing out on something I'd enjoy immensely, but having sat by the bedside of a family member, brain dead and in a coma, I will not put myself in a position that may cause my wife to go through that again. (Life presents us with enough risk without tempting fate further.)

  • Racerxlilbro Racerxlilbro on Jun 16, 2015

    I was instructing at our club's annual school earlier this year. I got in an argument with a student driving a Monster Miata - because I told him he couldn't participate in practice race starts because his car wasn't "race prepared." He argued the seat belt bar was a rollbar, the racing seat and 5-point harnesses and all of the Cobra Club event stickers meant it was a race car. His helmet was at least four inches higher than the "roll bar," and there was no cage. We told him we'd rather have him upset with us for not letting him run, than have to visit him in the hospital...or worse. The point is, somebody has to raise their hand and say no. Inexperienced drivers can't possibly know what they are getting into. Guys who've been around awhile have a huge responsibility to look after the newbies, and their peers.

  • Jerry Hightower I'd like to see a true hardtop.
  • Jerry Hightower I'd like to see a true hardtop
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  • 28-Cars-Later Kudos to the Mazda team on the attractive front end, though the lack of front bumper is still detention after class. Rest of it is also visually appealing, its shocking me how good this looks and how bad Honda (and to an extent Toyota's) styling is in comparison.
  • Slyons My guess is they keep the 2.0 liter they have now with minor tweaks, and shoehorn in the 48V mild hybrid system that just debuted in the CX-90. Should allow for all the regular fun of wringing out the 4 cyl and bump the fuel mileage up at least a couple points. I don't think we'll see a major evolution of the drivetrain until the next next model (NF?).