By on June 12, 2015

rusty

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?

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48 Comments on ““The Steering Wheel Came Off In His Hands”...”


  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I’m literally speechless.

  • avatar
    jfranci3

    Just got out of a car (hint the company rents ST170 Fords) at the Nurburgring with a low pedal and questionable prep. Didn’t turn it back in because the ring isn’t brake intensive and I didn’t have much time. Be sure to double check your rental equipment.

  • avatar
    jfranci3

    I should also say, it is very difficult to tell the difference between a well prepped amateur race car and a complete shitbox. If you’re a racecar virgin, you have no chance.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    A question for Jack: I’m thinking of doing a ride with that Xtreme Xperience group you wrote about earlier this year, were you satisfied with the condition of their cars?

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    This is why punitive damages are necessary.

    This is also why 99.9% of the population should stick to Ford Fiesta ST “Track Attack” experiences.

  • avatar
    redliner

    In a recent statement, attorneys for the “Rusty Wallace Racing Experience” are quoted as saying, “Who do we write the check to?”

  • avatar
    See 7 up

    I think it does need to be stated that there is a difference between a race car and a high performance street car (of which many companies run “experience” programs)

    I race car is purpose developed around a driver and requires extensive maintenance. I’m going out on a limb to say that this isn’t done in race car rental scenarios to the degree that it is with an actual driver in a competitive race environ. Race cars do not have systems designed for being easy to use or foolproof. The components they use are fit for purpose but it does not mean they are robust or user friendly nor configurable to any all all people.

    I trust a road car rental (like the Ferrari track exoeriences) much more. Those cars are designed for the everyday driver and the abuse they dish out. Sans tires and brakes, their systems are designed for all drivers as tested and required by the nhtsa. If still perform my checks though.

    Getting into a race car prepped by a company that can increaee profits by minimizing maintenance, no thanks. I don’t even ride a carnival rides.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I would disagree. A purpose built race car is much better suited to use on a racetrack than is a street car. There’s nothing particularly daunting about maintaining a racing chassis, and I assume this car had a stock crate engine, which is also very reliable. The roadracing schools used production Formula Fords for decades,and many of them still use purpose built race cars. Bondurant is using Formula Mazdas, and Simraceway uses Formula 3 cars at their facility. Skip Barber’s formula cars are purpose built for them as well.

      The reason that Mr. Cox died was not that the car failed, it was that the crew failed. Also note the recent death of a passenger in a Lanborghini at the Walt Disney World speedway.

      • 0 avatar
        See 7 up

        I don’t disagree, but the the safety systems in a race car are not as tamper proof as they are in a road car.
        But if maintained and instituted correctly, I do think a race car tends to be safer in a track crash.

        I think the issue at hand is that this was a shady company that took shortcuts to maximize profit. Sadly someone had to die to show them they were not training the crews and maintaining the cars correctly for the users.

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          “I think the issue at hand is that this was a shady company that took shortcuts to maximize profit.”

          Ding ding ding – we have a winner.

          And inexperienced people who spend a large sum on this “experience” aren’t likely to question some safety shortcoming and walk away at the last minute.

          In for a penny, in for a pound…

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    BMW Driving Experience in Spartanburg – Any feedback on that one? I was thinking of getting that for my father for his birthday.

    • 0 avatar
      See 7 up

      See my comment above.

      One thing to remember, a road car has an odometer and a model year. I likely wont question getting into a street car that is new and has low miles. Now one with say 50k? Maybe not. BMWUSA keeps these in good shape and they are new. They want people to buy these cars.

      Stock car experiences and the like:
      How old is the car (hours)?
      Where did it come from?

      These are essentially unknowns not to mention they don’t want to sell you a nice new stock car to take your kids to school.

    • 0 avatar
      kyleck

      My father and I did the 2 day course a few years ago, and I have no reason to doubt the safety of their cars and instructors. Everyone there was very professional, most if not all of the instructors were race drivers, and the cars were obviously maintained very well.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      The BMW Performance Center is excellent. I have been there a couple of times and have no worries about the equipment. Most of the exercises are done at lower speeds. When we did a higher speed run on the straight stretch, there were no other vehicles around. This was just before the E60 M5 was released–one of the instructors took us on a hot lap in an E39 M5, which was incredible.

      BTW, they used to use a John Deere Gator with a roundel emblem on the front to deposit/collect cones from the track. :P

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Ask for Kevin York. He is the very best.

  • avatar
    johnhowington

    this is way after the fact, but they might not be able to recover the health costs, hopefully they will have a sympathetic judge/jury. “What if I wreck?

    You are responsible for your health insurance. You are financially responsible for all damage caused to the car due to driver error. A Vehicle Protection Plan is available for $60.00. If you purchase this plan the maximum repair cost you would be required to pay is $1000. All payments for damages must be paid at the track at the time of the incident. Due to the quality of the training and cars, damage is rare. Drive participants may opt to purchase the Vehicle Protection Plan in advance, or at the track the day of your event.”

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Wow.

    Any thoughts on a HANS vs NecksGen Rev for my first on-track experience?

    • 0 avatar
      kyleck

      I can’t speak on the differences between the two, but keep in mind you must have a seat with 5 or 6 point harnesses to be able to use a HANS.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick 2012

        Right – this is for a Lemons race, so cage and approved seat + belts will all be in place.

        • 0 avatar
          Jack Baruth

          The HANS has been tested at the highest level in thousands of crashes.

          Nobody else can say that.

          So I’ve used a HANS Pro since 2007.

          Someone else can be a guinea pig for other systems. The HANS is not the best possible system, but it works every time.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Nasty – the poor dude hit the froward part of the cage hard enough to contribute to the failure of the A – pillar.

    Takes some decent force to cause a basal skull fracture.

    I thought that the primary protective effect of the HANS device was to keep your head from separating from your spine with severe deceleration? A hangman’s fracture would be another issue.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    “…because photos show the shoulder belt was routed next to it, not over it,”

    Wow. That’s… Yeah, I don’t even know what to say to that. Un-freaking-believable. That single thing would be utterly damning; when you add the rest of it in? Jesus.

  • avatar
    JMII

    YIKES! I too have though of sending my father to one of these things. I know several people who have done them and always speaking highly of the experience. Still… you are going very fast in a vehicle: bad things can and do happen. However this sounds like all kinds of basic safety procedures were skipped entirely. Since I track my car I’m responsible for its condition, getting into someone else car is always a bit iffy.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Poor dude just wanted a track day experience and ended up with massive internal injuries, a week of suffering and then death. Would have almost been better if he’d gotten it over with at the track. I hope they pay for this, particularly the nitwit who strapped him in, with steering wheel apparently backwards! I mean, WTF??

  • avatar
    northshorerealtr

    Absolutely horrifying.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Cox. After an ending like that, you deserve that.

    Not being a racer, was surprised to learn that competition seatbelts have an expiration date. I’m assuming this is due to stresses that naturally occur during racing, which end up eventually “stretching” the webbing, and reduce their effectiveness in the event of a crash. Also assuming that sun damage could come into play, as well as any petrochemicals that might end up on them.

    I’d also assume that the window nets have expiration dates because of sun damage (primarily) and petrochemicals (secondarily), so an expiration date on them would make sense.

    Are these assumptions correct?

    And more questions: Who tests/establishes these expiration dates? Are the belts/netting tagged to show expiration dates? If not tagged, how would a driver know they’d expired? On an old(er) consumer car, are seatbelt replacements recommended? I’d understood that replacement was only necessary if the car had been in an accident.

    Enlightment, please, Best & Brightest!

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      northshorerealtr – I know children’s car seats have expiration dates. It makes sense that seat belts and nets in race cars would have expiration dates.

      I don’t think helmets have expiration dates but I do know that manufacturers recommend destroying your helmet after “ANY” blow or strike to it. Even a drop to the ground is supposed to be justification to replacement. I had a conversation once with an X-Ray tech that had worked in a place where they studied helmets. Externally or even looking inside at the liner often visually helmets looked okay but fissures, cracks, and deformation showed up under imaging. The foam in a helmet is supposed to collapse when hit hopefully minimizing head injury. That also comes into play.
      IIRC manufacturers of safety harnesses and restraint devices recommend replacement after a fall or incident where extreme stress has been placed on the device.

      Just like crumple zones, these devices are designed to stretch and/or deform to reduce the transfer of force to our bodies. We aren’t built to withstand forces much more severe than running and hitting a fixed object. That is why school zones have 20 mph (30kph) speed limits. That is the approximate threshold at which a person will survive.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Seat belts do have an expiration date. It is based on the date installed, I’ve always assumed it was for environmental degradation, since the limit is in time installed since installed rather than hours used. Helmets are indeed “one and done”, if they’re involved in an impact they need to be replaced. They don’t have an expiration date, but since the Snell standards are revised every five years, and most sanctioning bodies require you to have a current helmet, their effective life is five years. I’ve never seen a date on a window net or a drivers suit. The NASCAR style window nets are super stout, I’d guess they’d have a long useful life.

      • 0 avatar
        hawox

        seat belts alwais had exp. date, the material should be quite resistant to common solvant. i think major issue is the consumption caused by use, and maybe the sun (in cars with no windows).
        after a major crash the belt must be replaced.

        but 99% an expired belt is functional, usually expired belts are used as ropes to lift heavy objects.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I think ol’ Rusty should be more careful about what he lends his name to.

  • avatar
    readallover

    Did the Derek Daly school in Las Vegas years ago. The instructors would tell us about the drivers who would go straight in the first corner as the wheel came off in their hands. One of the first things we were told was ALWAYS shake the wheel to make sure it locked. They frequently would come by before the warm up lap and check the wheel and the belts.

  • avatar
    oneday

    There is no doubt a lot of negligence on behalf of the proprietors of this event but some of these claims are pure media hype for hysteria sake. I’m a little surprised that you aren’t pointing out more of these, Jack.

    “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.”
    It’s not uncommon for multi-driver teams to use a foam bad under or behind a shorter driver. If the belts are on tightly and properly, it poses minimal risk.

    “The cage failed and the A-pillar cracked, possibly because it was hit that hard by the driver’s head.”
    His helmet hit the cage, not his head. I’d wager the number of hours and amount of abuse that car had before it was a three-lap joy rider had more to do with the failure than the helmet to A-pillar impact.

    “The head supports on the seat were rendered ineffective by the placement of the spacer pad behind Cox.”
    As in the halo’s? Was this guy sitting on the dashboard?

    “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,”
    It’s fairly common knowledge that shoulder belts will slip off a HANS during an impact. That’s a good chunk of the reason many club racers loathe HANS so much and why newer versions of the device have winglets.

    “Although Cox had a HANS device on, it didn’t work…
    …possibly because the individual who strapped Cox in has a “long history of drug abuse”.”
    WTF, so do I and half the rest of the US….more important, was he high when he strapped Mr Cox in? Had he been high recently? What did the drug tests say?

    “The seatbelts in the car were expired and not legal for competition.”
    “The driver’s suit was not competition legal.”
    “The window net was from 2006.”
    This wasn’t a competition. Just because they are beyond their SFI date doesn’t render them unsafe.

    Again, not excusing the negligence or saying Mr Cox’s estate doesn’t have a pretty clear case but these items are’t that surprising.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      There’s a photo that shows the HANS was misrouted PRIOR to the impact.

      And the pad was four inches thick. That’s a lot.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      The filing says the following about the foam pad:

      “NASCAR requires that padding materials used on a seat must be half-inch thick or less; a four-inch thick non-SFI pad was used on Stephen D. Cox’s seat, placed on the seat back by Defendants.”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Jack – thanks for bring this to our attention, and for including the original filing.

    It’s a compelling read, and I think the plaintiffs have a very strong case. The “spoilation of evidence” is quite concerning, as is the one week delay of police involvement.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    The take home message from this is do your homework and if the voices inside your head aren’t happy then back away.

  • avatar
    dougjp

    As an ex driving instructor, all I can say is, holy crap. I hope that outfit is put out of business. I’m glad I’m out of it all too.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Here’s a data point. Watch this video of Jan Magnussen crashing the Corvette at LeMans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGChqdoMeWc That’s a savage clout direct into a guardrail. The end result of this was a destroyed car, while the driver was checked and released from the track medical center. That’s what the correct use of racing safety equipment can do. Mr. Cox hit a SAFER barrier, at what I’d assume was a lesser speed, and he died.

  • avatar
    LectroByte

    Truly sad and horrifying. This was probably Mr. Cox’s dream experience, and then to have this happen. Not in favor of lawsuits, but if corporations are truly people as that Romney fellow told us, then this one deserves to be bankrupt to pay the survivors and then spend the rest of its life in solitary.

  • avatar
    jesse_ohio

    I was coworkers with Stephen Cox’s father up until his recent retirement. I never met Stephen, but I was absolutely shocked and stunned when I heard the news of the accident. Now to learn about the utter negligence that led to such a tragedy is truly heartbreaking. My thoughts go out to the family. I am sure it is awful for them to have to face these details.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    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.)

  • avatar
    racerxlilbro

    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.

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