It’s one thing to see the man you’re dating lurking in the shadows with another woman. It’s another when the woman is dead.
I walked up the fire lane behind Siebkens Tavern and Inn, my goal, the bottle of ibuprofen in the glove box of my car. As I reached the street at the north edge of Siebkens’ block, a noise caught my attention. I turned my head to see what looked like two moving bodies on the ground next to a building.
Two people and a dark space away from the bustle of the courtyard indicated drunken assignation—even if the participants were next to parked cars and mini-dumpsters. I almost averted my gaze and left them to it, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I understood more details of the scene ten yards away. If it was a romantic encounter, it was one gone wrong. The woman lying on the ground was limp and unresponsive. The man bending over her was the guy I’d been dating for five months, Stuart Telarday.
I gasped, and Stuart looked up, the weak light from a street lamp showing me his stricken face. I froze.
He spoke, hoarse with shock. “Kate. It’s—she’s dead.”
I ran four steps, weighed down by the knot of dread in my stomach, then sank to my knees next to him. I could barely draw breath for the sadness blooming in my chest.
I looked at Stuart. “What did you do?”
My world started going to pieces at 120 miles per hour. That’s when I lost control of my racecar and ruined my team’s race at Road America. It wasn’t clear if I’d also ruined our season in the American Le Mans Series…or another driver’s life.
My co-driver Mike Munroe qualified and started the number 28 Corvette fourth in the Road Race Showcase at the famed track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He moved the car up to second in his hour-and-a-half stint, and then I took the wheel during a full course caution. In my first thirty minutes, I did everything a professional driver should do: hold my position, put pressure on the car ahead, and stay out of trouble.
The car felt so good, balanced in the braking zones and powerful on the long straights, I forgot my concern about the slate-colored clouds that had teased us with sprinkles all day. But the heavy, swollen skies were ready to unload.
In minute thirty-three of my stint, I got a radio call, “Rain starting, Turns 8 through 10.”
I didn’t respond. Focused on braking for Turn 14. Clip the apex. On throttle gently. More. Unwind the wheel. Don’t run off the outer edge of the track into the grass. Stand on the throttle. The Corvette’s 491 horses pushing me up the hill.
Hold the car steady. Foot to the floor. Over 170 mph. on the front straight. I relaxed for a second. Considered slippery track ahead, took two deep breaths. Pits flashing by on my right, cars in for wet tires already.
Then hard braking for Turn 1. Downshift to third. Wheel right. Apex the corner. Feed throttle back on. Braking early for Turn 3. They say “slow in, fast out” to a corner, and I wanted all possible speed down the Moraine Sweep. Right through 3, on the throttle quick. Up to sixth gear, flying. Big, fat drops of rain on my windscreen. Dive past a Porsche from the slower class. A wiggle as my slick tires struggle for grip on the damp track. Brake hard for 5. Down to second gear, slower than my usual 60 mph. Tires holding, turning left. Only a little curb on exit. Up to Turn 6, still light rain. Through Turn 7—into a downpour. My single exterior wiper blade barely made a dent. I was blind, slowing, trusting the blue LinkTime Corvette five lengths ahead of me wouldn’t stop. Trusting I remembered where the track was. Brake slowly, carefully. Pray my tires hold. Search for my marks for Turn 8—there. Turn left, unwind the wheel.
Throttle gently out of the turn.
The deluge was over at the turn-in for the Carousel, Turns 9-10, a single, sweeping, 210-degree right-hander. Barely sprinkling there. I shook my head as I held the car steady through the first apex, then the second. There was no way to tell how wet the track was from one corner to the next. Any minute, I knew I’d be called to the pits for wet-weather tires.
I played the next moment over and over in the hours, days, and weeks to come, analyzing split-second impressions and trying to determine the cause. I still didn’t know what I should have done differently. How I could have saved it.
I’d followed a blue Corvette for some laps, always a few car lengths back. Coming out of the Carousel, my momentum carried me forward and the other Corvette faltered. I was right behind him.
“Miss a shift there?” I muttered under my helmet. I wasn’t looking to pass yet, but I didn’t want to be behind a car in trouble. I knew to be careful. We were headed for the Kink, one of the toughest corners in racing—not much of a turn, but flat, blind, and fast. With concrete walls on both sides. Everyone knew taking the Kink flat out took guts.
Midway between the Carousel and the Kink, I pulled my front wheels ahead of the blue Corvette’s rears, laying claim to the inside line for the right-hand bend of the Kink. I saw a few drops of rain, but the track wasn’t very wet.
The problem started at the apex, where it was clear he wasn’t slowing. Wasn’t giving me room. Was squeezing me off the track. In a heartbeat, our racecars, clinging to the limits of adhesion and speed in a turn—pulling one and a half Gs at 120 mph— touched, rubbed, and broke loose. At the limit in a racecar, any change in grip can be disastrous—and it was.
We crossed paths: me going left, him going right. I felt the balance of my car changing through the steering wheel. I felt contact with the track slipping away through the chassis and my seat. Sliding. I tried to point the car down the track as I headed for the outside wall. Stomped clutch and brake to the floor. Once I’d lost traction, there was no regaining grip. No ability to stop or turn or control the car in any way. Only desperate prayers to scrub speed.
The car didn’t respond to me. The wall was too close.
Save it. No. Spin the other way—and I hit the wall. I turned the steering wheel left at the last minute and caught traction somewhere, tipping the car around, softening the impact because the Corvette hit concrete with the right front corner instead of straight on the nose. But it was still big.
Wham. I slumped right against my belts, legs lifted off the pedals, arms curled to my chest so I didn’t break a wrist when the wheel jerked around. Tried to breathe after the impact. A helpless passenger as my car rebounded onto the track, still moving. Speed maybe cut in half. I closed my eyes against the dizzying blur outside. A second to consider reaching for the wheel to control the car—then another crunch. I was tossed right again, collapsing against my belts, arms tucked to my chest. For the second time, my helmet smacked against the high side of my seat.
I opened my eyes, gasping for breath, and discovered the world was still. My ears rang and my vision cleared with the smoke around me. I uncurled my arms, set my feet on the floorboards. I faced forward in the middle of the track—a terrible location, proved immediately by a Porsche whizzing past, kicking up debris that thumped my car. I knew yellows were waving, and I hoped subsequent cars wouldn’t hit me. I looked down. No visible blood. I flexed toes and fingers, squirmed under my belts. Nothing felt broken. I looked right and saw the other Corvette in the grass against the wall.
I knew I’d gone left. The LinkTime Corvette must have gone into the inside wall. We’d obviously bounced back onto the track and slammed into each other, stopping our momentum.
External sounds percolated through the dull roar in my head—which I realized was more than my thundering heartbeat. I looked at my dash. The engine still valiantly turned over.
Two prototypes and a Ferrari swept between our cars and ran through the debris field. The outside world returned in a rush. “Get out of here, Kate, keep going!” I shouted. I needed
to follow those cars, to limp back to the pits. To reverse time. Anything to fix the car and salvage points, a finish, some pride out of the disaster. The power of my rage alone should have been enough to move the car.
I put the car in first gear and engaged the clutch, hearing the engine labor to respond. I only moved a few inches. Through the misty rain I saw safety workers appear, and I waved at them to help me. They paid little attention.
My radio squawked. Not for the first time.
“Kate, repeat, are you all right?” Jack Sandham, team and car owner, spoke.
I pressed the transmit button. “He squeezed me. The car might be OK, I’m not sure. I’m sorry.” My voice came out higher than usual, in short, gasping breaths.
“Are you hurt, Kate?”
“I’m fine. Why won’t they help me?!”
I pounded the wheel in frustration as I watched more safety workers arrive and ignore my car in favor of the other Corvette. Finally, a safety worker opened my door.
I waved a hand and yelled, “No. Clear my front wheels!”
He shook his head. “Front right’s gone. Rear suspension’s broken. Better get out.”
I wanted to argue with him, but he was impatient and unyielding. I shut down the engine and unbuckled myself, feeling shame heat my face. If I couldn’t get the car back to the pits on its own power, we couldn’t finish the race. Our day was done. Dammit. Why did I let that happen? Why didn’t he leave me room? That asshole.
I stood on wobbly legs next to my car studying the other Corvette. My anger at the other driver for wrecking me was tempered by a fizz of unease in my gut. The blue car was in shreds, the hood buckled, both sides caved in, the rear crumpled. My own still looked car-shaped in comparison. He’d gotten the worst of the accident by a long shot.
A medical worker held my shoulders and watched my eyes while I shouted answers to his questions. “Yes, I’m OK. Nothing hurts,” “What happened is he squeezed me and we wrecked here in the Kink,” and “I had a turkey sandwich and some barbeque potato chips for lunch.” After that, he started pressing against different parts of my body—my upper and lower back, my sternum and abdomen, my shoulders, my legs—to be sure nothing was broken or causing me pain, indicating internal damage.
I was unhurt, and the medic was distracted, glancing behind me to the other car. I followed his gaze to see a half-dozen safety workers clustered around the crushed driver’s side of the racecar. I couldn’t see which of three blue Corvettes it was, but one of six men was undoubtedly hurt.
I should have been moving to a waiting ambulance for my obligatory trip to the medical care center, but instead I watched the paramedics painstakingly extract the other driver, strapping him to a back-board, then a stretcher. The driver gestured weakly with his left hand as five workers wheeled him to the ambulance, each one busy over his body.
I could barely breathe for the frustration I felt. My car was wrecked. I was angry at myself and furious at the guy on the stretcher. But it was hard to be mad at someone while being worried he was seriously hurt. It might also be hard to be mad at that driver.
I’d recognized the helmet as belonging to the crown prince of racing, our version of the Beatles, Mickey Mouse, and Dudley Do-Right, all rolled into one attractive package. The nation’s favorite driver was guest starring in our ALMS race on a rare weekend free from NASCAR duties. No one, anywhere, didn’t like Miles Hanson.
Except maybe me.