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Featured Article
Automotive Mistakes
By Matt Boatman

2014 Year End Awards Banquet
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HELMET REGULATIONS
Snell M and SA helmets of these years will be allowed for 2014:
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Snell 95 are no longer legal


Automotive Mistakes
By Matt Boatman

Anybody who has been around cars a long time has made a few mistakes. One category of my mistakes could be called “Ditches I Have Known.” I have made it into the ditch at least three times, with surprisingly few consequences.

The most spectacular was driving an old '79 Chevy pickup with some Army buddies in it. We came around a corner on a dirt road in Pennsylvania and I managed to get the right wheels of the truck in a shallow ditch, but we were still moving along at a pretty good clip. No problem, right? Wrong? A milk-can mailbox suddenly appeared right in front of me. Fortunately, the all-steel construction of the bumper just sent it flying out of our way. My fiends were drop-jawed for a minute, and I was hoping no one had seen me, but other than a dent on the already beaten bumper, there was no damage to the truck or to us.

Years later, I was driving a Datsun 210 from California to Pennsylvania, towing a U-Haul trailer. I was determined not to stop for a hotel, and it was January, too cold to sleep in the car. So I just kept going, but finally exhaustion got the better of me. I decided to pull over and try to sleep for a few hours in Virginia. This was during the blizzard of 1996, and I had already caused a traffic jam in Atlanta by crawling along a slick freeway with a line of cars waiting to get out around me.

I pulled off a freeway somewhere in Virginia a searched for a suitable place to snooze. I finally located a side road with a wide shoulder that appeared to have been just plowed. So I eased over to the side and the entire right side of the car and trailer suddenly dropped. I'd forgotten about the big drainage ditches in Virginia. The recently plowing had appeared to make the shoulder all level, but it was a trap. What I was seeing was level snow on top of the ditch.

I was now fully awake and figured I was screwed for a while. So I set off for the nearest house. Voila! Problem solved. The guy had a hugely jacked-up F250 that had no problem yanking the car and trailer out of the ditch. I tucked my tail between my legs, offered the guy $20 (which he declined), and headed back to the freeway, not to be delayed again until a particularly steep hill on a snowy, spaghetti-like Pennsylvania back road stopped my momentum again. A quick pull over the top from a passing Dodge pickup set me on my way.

But easily my most embarrassing moment on going in the ditch was in France just a couple of years ago. I know this sounds pretentious, but I had driven laps on the Nurburgring with a friend of mine just two days before, and then had split off from him to explore the French countryside in a tiny rented Renault Twingo. The rental had been the personal runabout of the kid who played gofer at the rental agency, and so he had marked down every scratch, swirl, and nick in the paint of the car. The car was what the Europeans called a “city car,” not really designed for long trips, but I had already taken it from central France up into Germany and back. (Its top speed was 103 mph, downhill. I checked it out on the autobahn).

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I'd had my fill of high-speed driving. I was tootling along a back road when a black BMW came up fast behind me. I looked for a shoulder to pull off, and selected a grassy spot just past an intersection. Bad idea. It was Virginia all over again. As I pulled off the road, the entire car tipped to the right. Except this time the car wasn't a beat-up Datsun. It was a shiny rental car in a foreign country, and of course I hadn't gotten the extra insurance coverage. Again, I figured I was screwed. The car was high centered, and the side of the ditch away from the road appeared to be a stone wall covered with blackberry bushes.

I was pretty angry with myself and not a little bit embarrassed; the invincible Nurburgring driver had just plonked a car into a ditch at 15 mph.

The BMW pulled over (not in a ditch) and the guy and his wife got out to talk to me. My French isn't that good but I managed to get across to them that I needed a tractor. (We were surrounded by farms.) Just then a helpful woman with decent English stopped, and upon finding out it was a rental, offered to call the rental company for me. “Non, non, non.” There was no way I was talking to them until I saw the extent of the damage. If I could get away without telling them, so much the better.

The BMW driver was apparently a local. He and his wife coaxed me into their car, and we set off down a dirt road. After a bit we pulled up to a large house on an immaculately kept farm. We knocked on the door and were called in by an anonymous voice. We went in to find the farmer and his wife enjoying lunch. Some quick French flew through the air and the farmer got up and shuffled towards the front door. BMW guy motioned me to go along with him. We went to the barn, but instead of getting a tractor, the farmer loaded a tow chain into a Toyota Hilux four-wheel-drive pickup (with a diesel engine!). We followed the BMW back to the scene of the stupidity and they assessed the situation for a bit before deciding how to attach the chain and which way to drag me out.

It was the work of a moment; I was out of the ditch and the car was parked on flat ground. We  examined the car closely and found one scratch very very low down on the right front fender in front of the wheel. I drove the car up an down the road about a quarter mile, and it appeared to drive just fine. I still have no idea how I got so lucky. I offered the farmer 20 euros for his work and his “gazoil,” but he declined. After thanking everyone, I again fled with my tail tucked between my legs.

Later that afternoon I happened to look under the car. It appeared as thought I had scooped up an entire football field when I high-centered it. I located a car wash and spent many euros trying to get all the sod off the steering/engine/suspension. I was dreading taking it back to the rental agency and having Boy Wonder go over it thoroughly again, so I called and extended my rental for two days and dropped it off at the airport in Paris, the theory being that they would be so busy that they wouldn't notice some clumps of grass under the car. It paid off, plus the car return was in a dingy, poorly lit parking garage. The attendant barely glanced at the car and signed off on the sheet.

I hope that one of these days I learn from my mistakes. Maybe only pull off when I can see actual pavement.  Or buy a four-wheel drive with a winch, so the next time I can get myself out of the ditch.



 

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