Ambulances, Helicopters & Duct Tape: A Desert Race Gone Wrong

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T here I was, lying flat on my back in the southern New Mexico desert with some pretty serious injuries, looking at what remained of my brand new desert bike. Talk about intense pain (looking at my damaged bike, not the injuries)! Thankfully, I was able to rally what little common sense I possessed and didn't try to stand up before the paramedics arrived to duct tape me to a backboard and cart me off to definitive medical care. I did, however, immediately jerk my helmet off. In retrospect, that wasn't too good of an idea. 

The weekend of the first dirt bike desert race of the season started great. I arrived at the course in time for the Saturday pre-ride, which consisted of one lap around the 20-mile course for familiarity and machine setup. The pre-ride was uneventful, the course layout great, and although I was a little uncomfortable on my brand new bike, I felt really good about the next day's race. 

Sunday arrived and the race kicked off as scheduled at 8 o'clock. I got a good start and was having the time of my life. I hit the first checkpoint at the 12-mile point, got my visor card marked, and made a left turn down a section of high-speed single track. It was at this point I made the transition from "having the time of my life" to "it sucks to be me." 

I got out of shape going good and fast, and high-sided huge. If you're unfamiliar with motorcycle lingo, by "high-side," I mean being pitched upward off the bike in a graceful arc, resembling a 180-pound lawn dart. I landed on the right side of my head and my right shoulder. Total damage: four fractured vertebrae, fractured collarbone, heavily flexed rib cage and a pretty good ding on the head. I got an ambulance ride to a community hospital, a medevac helicopter transfer to a larger military medical center, 10 days in the hospital, and a bunch of titanium holding my spine together. Talk about intense pain (removing all that duct tape, not the fractures)! 

After more than two years as an Air Force Safety Center aviation-mishap investigator, I couldn't help thinking of my current plight in terms of the "what," which was immediately obvious--I fell off my dirt bike doing the national speed limit, and the "why" or "root cause," which took a little more percolation. Oh, and yes, the irony of my being a "Safety Center" staff officer went unnoticed by very few (sorry, boss--at least it was the Ground Safety stats I pushed up). 

I came up with two factors that undoubtedly contributed to the crash. First was my unfamiliarity with the bike, and second, an inadequate bike setup. 

Riders on new or unfamiliar bikes are highly overrepresented in accident statistics. Guilty on that count! I had planned on getting a bunch of seat time on my new desert bike over the winter, but things got busy at work, and time went by. I found myself breaking in this new bike less than a week before the race. 

I'd been looking forward to this race all winter and wasn't going to miss it. Starting the pre-ride, I had only about 45 minutes ride time on it; I used the pre-ride to finish breaking in the motor. Although this bike was similar to my previous bike, it had its differences. My unfamiliarity with those differences was undoubtedly a factor in this crash. 

In any sort of racing, setup is critical to performance and safety. I fell below the line on this count, as well. All the normal Motorcycle Safety Foundation recommended pre-ride checks, such as tire pressure, spoke tightness, and chain adjustment are critical, but in racing, the bar is higher. A combination of not enough seat time and getting a little lazy led me to fail to accurately adjust the suspension damping, adjust the spring sag, set the bars, etc. I also hadn't gotten around to mounting a critically important steering stabilizer on the new bike. These were all factors that could have prevented the crash. The bottom line is that motorcycle racing has plenty of inherent risk. There's no need to add risk by inadequate preparation. 

Now a little bit about my experience with helmets. I feel lucky that out of more than 20 years of riding and racing motorcycles, I've never had a life-threatening injury. That would not have been the case if I hadn't worn high-quality, full-face helmets religiously. 

This crash and one I was involved in 20 years ago, road-racing at a track in Wisconsin, were very similar in impact characteristics. The first thing to hit the ground on both occasions was my head (this should clear up some questions from my co-workers). The central impact on both occasions was very low on the helmet. In my recent crash, my state-of-the-art carbon/Kevlar matrix helmet was severely fractured where the chin-bar transitions into the main shell. This impact occurred just in front of my right ear lobe. In the earlier crash, the impact occurred at the base of my skull, centered on the back of my head. 

The reason I think it's important to highlight these impacts is two-fold. The first is simply that both likely would have been fatal without a quality helmet. The second is due to the number of Airmen I see wearing barely DOT-legal half-helmets. Both of my impacts occurred below where these style helmets provide any protection. Not going to preach here, just giving the bottom line: If I had been wearing a half-helmet in either one of these impacts, I wouldn't be writing this article. 

As simplistic as it may sound, the biggest lesson I learned from this crash is that it could happen to me. Twenty years of riding and racing with no major injuries had me in a major state of denial. Serious injuries happened to other people. I was never going to be the guy leaving in the ambulance or helicopter. I now know it did happen to me, and it can happen to you. Please gear up and ride safe!