A close friend of mine was once married to Michael Conrad who is best remembered for his Emmy Award winning portrayal of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus on the police drama Hill Street Blues. In his role as the soft-spoken squad leader, Conrad was known for his parting words to his officers at the end of each briefing – “let’s be careful out there.”
Last year as part of a writing assignment I visited the Richard Petty Exotic Driving Experience Orlando at Walt Disney World to drive several high-performance sports cars on the small track located adjacent to the Happiest Place on Earth. My visit was coordinated through the headquarters of Petty Holdings in North Carolina and I was told that upon my arrival I would be shepherded by Facility Manager Gary Terry.
Like many of the driving instructors at the Exotic Driving Experience, Terry was a former stock car driver and he exhibited an enthusiasm for sharing the thrill of driving in a high-speed environment with the paying customers. While I was there I met a special 13-year old girl who adored Lamborghinis and knew details about the company and its products that would embarrass most automotive writers. Another special young man was wheel chair bound but was, nonetheless, carefully placed in a Ferrari 458 Italia and given the ride of his young life.
What were my impressions? I think that for the average person, a day behind the wheel of a Lamborghini or Porsche on the race track would be a once in a lifetime experience and would be the perfect gift for the person that wants to go as fast as possible in a controlled environment behind the wheel of cars that few of us will ever be able to afford. My instructor was friendly, competent and experienced in several of NASCAR’s feeder series and the biggest thrill was finding out that I was only 2/10ths of a second behind his own best lap times on the track. The track itself was odd – we ran it in reverse configuration – and narrow but the extreme competence of the car made up for it with its wide tires and traction control (most of my experience is in vintage cars with bias-ply tires and drum brakes) not to mention stopping power that would put most racecars to shame.
The day was great fun and Terry was a great host who worked hard to ensure that I saw everything that there was to see and that my experience was typical of what a visitor to the facility could expect. That’s why I was particularly saddened to learn that Gary Terry was killed this past weekend while instructing from the right seat of the same Lamborghini that I drove when the person behind the wheel lost control at speed and made hard contact with a concrete barrier.
The driver, Tavon Watson, was celebrating his 24th birthday at the track and earlier had written on Facebook – “Guess who’s driving a Ferrari 458 Italia LSTRF today? That’s right, that’s right. I’ma drive all the cars they have in one day. Because I’m gangsta like that. Lol. In Jesus name.”
I’m not going to pass judgment on the wisdom of handing over the keys to an exotic car with 543 hp to someone who may or may not have the skills or restraint necessary to safely pilot such a vehicle at triple-digit speeds, but Gary was no doubt doing his best to see that Tavon both enjoyed and survived his exotic driving experience. Tavon likely ran out of talent on the track (understandable given his complete lack of experience) rather than having run out of car. Like most of us, he undoubtedly believed his skills could correct for any mistakes he made behind the wheel.
I have served several stints as a driving instructor at various racing schools and have seen things happen behind the wheel that would make a brave man blanche with fear. The fact of the matter is that all driving is dangerous. A friend of mine was charged several years ago – and later convicted – when his Austin-Healey was involved in a fatal accident with a motorcyclist that had been traveling in close proximity to the caravan of Healeys that was out on a club event. I was also at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana when an owner of a Porsche Carrera GT out on a track day event exceeded the limits of adhesion at high speeds and impacted the wall causing his death. I was also there when two friends from my local club where out on a lunchtime track tour at Buttonwillow when their Austin-healey rolled over causing their deaths. Was poor judgment involved in these accidents? Possibly. Was over confidence in either the car’s abilities or the driver’s skill a contributing factor? Undoubtedly.
The bottom line is that almost all of our small British sports cars can be out braked, out handled and out performed by most SUVs on the road today and are all but invisible to the traffic around them. Am I advocating for us to drive our cars less often? Of course not, I have always urged us to drive our cars more often for the sheer joy of doing so and the moving history that they represent. I do, however, want us all to take a moment and remember Gary Terry and to think about him next time we go out so that we’re all just a little bit more careful out there.