**Update 4/10/15: If you like this post, be sure to check out my post on the Importance of Paul Walker.**
Sad news came over the weekend of the death of actor and car enthusiast Paul Walker. He will be missed, and I’m sure many people will want to know exactly what happened.
The circle shows is the exact location of the crash.
Unfortunately, I think this is a pretty open and shut case and we don’t need to wait for a police investigation to find out what happened. Like many other single car accidents involving fast cars, it is clear that Paul and his friend were out pushing the limits of the Carrera GT they were in… And on a public road.
I have looked over the photos of the accident and area on Google Maps and I think I can give a very accurate breakdown of what happened in the split seconds before the crash. The location of the crash can be seen in Google Maps here: Google Maps
An overview of the accident site
When I first looked at this area, I could see right away that this is a known spot for ‘performance’ driving. This was evident due to the skid marks found on a sharp turn just east of the accident site.
These skid marks are even clearer from the street view:
Paul was traveling in a clockwise direction around this industrial park which forms a circle. I have learned that this area is known locally as the “Hercules Loop” and is a place where kids test their drift skills.
The turn with the red arrow in the above picture is where the car lost control. It is quite clear from the map that this would be a very high speed turn if pushing a car to the limits of traction. I do not know for sure since I have never driven on this road, but I would estimate that if I was pushing my stock 350z on this road to 10/10ths, I think it would be in the realm of 120mph* (*please see notes about how I got this speed at the bottom of the page). It’s not that my Z is anything special, it’s just that the turn is that fast. If I was in a super-car like the Carrera GT, imagine how much faster I could be going. I believe at the speeds their car was traveling at, the aerodynamics and downforce of the car were coming into effect and were able to push the car to speeds beyond that of any typical sports car. I don’t really want to makes guesses about how fast they were going, but I can say that the equations police use to determine vehicle speed from the crash scene not only don’t apply in this situation, they also don’t apply to a car like this. It should also be mentioned that this turn is a little tricky as it transitions from a shallow left into a lower sweeping right as the road becomes Hercules Street.
The Carrera GT started its life as an aborted race car project which was resurrected and made into a super-car. This is unlike many typical sports cars (and even not so typical ones) which are clearly designed for the street from the moment of inception. Many cars claim that they have a racing heritage, while the Carrera GT can genuinely claim that it is a race car (or at least were).
The car has been known to be very difficult to handle – this typically doesn’t mean that it’s a bad handling car, but instead that it has snappy oversteer and is hard to reel back in when it loses traction. From what I have seen, the car looks like it has gobs of traction until the moment traction is broken. Jeremy Clarkson famously refers to this condition as ‘blowing your head off’, I sometimes refer to this as a ‘cliff’. These cars are very precise and don’t recover well from sliding, especially if it gets sideways at high speed which causes the ground effects and wing to stop working.
We will never know exactly why the car Paul was in lost control, but there are only a few things that could have happened. I always condemn pushing your car to the limits of traction on a public road. Public roads are not like a race track no matter how many times you have driven on it. A race track is a controlled environment where you typically do multiple laps going faster and faster with each lap, a little bit more each time. When people speed on a road, they typically make one fast pass and are done with it for the day. Therefore, you are never ‘warmed-up’ on the street. Furthermore, you can be fairly certain that the conditions of a track do not change with each lap where on a public road, anything is possible.
The road Paul was on was not totally smooth. Unlike roads where I live, the one Paul was on has raised reflectors or bumps (called Botts Dots) to warn drivers they are leaving their lane. These bumps might have been enough to upset the handling of the car when it was at the limit of traction – which doesn’t take much to do, especially on a low car with a tight suspension and stiff sport tires.
You don’t want to be cornering across bumps like these…
It is also possible that the car entered the sweeping right with a little too much speed. This is a big problem with this car. With many other types of cars that have a good balance, if this mistake is made, its possible to scrub off the excess speed by putting the car into a slight 4 wheel slide. Typically, this action happens quite naturally, but this seems like a maneuver that could be hard to pull off in this car.
Another situation that is highly likely is that they made it through the turn just fine. But on the way out of it going into the straight, Roger Rodas, the driver, just gave it a little too much gas too early and caused the rear to kick out. This seems very plausible because the car crashed to the inside, where it would be more likely be on the outside if they were going too fast for the corner.
So, it is quite possible that Roger simply over drove the car and had nowhere to recover, or was forced to go over those bumps in the road. If you have ever been on a race track and pushed a car hard, I’m sure you have experienced a time when you puckered up a little when you knew you over did it – I’m sure this happened to Roger…
Most likely, one of these reasons led to the rear of the car losing traction. Once this happened, the nature of the car took over and it went into an off-throttle slow spin or a long uncontrollable slide. Depending on the angle of the car, from the outside, it might have looked fairly uneventful. The angle of the drift might have been so minor that tire marks were not left behind. But from the drivers perspective it was a panic situation. I’m sure Roger felt the back end slide out and naturally turned the wheel to opposite lock.
Unfortunately, the Carrera GT has a very large turning radius which means it has a small amount of steering angle. This is typical of race cars due to the large amounts of caster they have in their suspension and also due to large tires in tight wheel wells. If you talk to any serious drifter, they will tell you how much steering angle matters in keeping a car under control when going sideways. I am positive that this is one of the major factors in why these cars are so hard to recover, but it’s not something that can be easily designed out of a car of this class.
If you watch the old Top Gear review of the CGT and see the scene where The Stig spins the car, this may be close to what happened to Roger. If you take a look at the clip, you will notice how the car, once it starts sliding, nothing can be done. Though, compared to the Stigs drive, Roger and Paul didn’t tie the car up as much due to the corner being much faster. It looks like Roger was doing his best to bring the car back in due to the car crashing almost head on (maybe hitting the curb or light pole straightened the car out), but he just wasn’t able to save it in time. Public streets are a very unforgiving place to make mistakes, and even professional race drivers are known to have accidents. It goes to show that street is a terrible place to push your car.
Paul and Roger, you will be missed by many.
*Note on corner speed.
I came up with this speed as a best guess based off of a known corner I take. Below is an image of turn 4 at the autobahn country club which I take at around 65mph or so.
I zoomed Google maps to the same level and then overlaid this image over the ‘Hercules Loop’ turn in question:
You can see how much faster the Hercules Loop curve is compared to the one at Autobahn. I think 120mph might be pretty close to the max speed I could do… But, if you are familiar with this turn in real life and know a more accurate speed, please let me know.