Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crash!

Nothing like hitting the wall to change one's perspective

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It was a rainy day in 1979. My Suzuki RM 80 dirt bike buzzed like a chainsaw as I ripped around the hills on the outskirts of St. Norbert. I was 12 years old and riding alone on the makeshift motocross track we local speed demons had carefully cultivated.

It was as though the big jump was calling my name. I could easily clear the first hill but the second one was testing my nerve. I'd seen other older kids do it. "More speed," I thought to myself as I approached the jump, "I need more speed." With a twist of the throttle, I pulled up on the handlebars and sailed through the air like Evel Knievel.

The back tire cleared the second hill, just barely, and the rear shocks bottomed out as if the bike had been dropped from outer space. As I let go of the bike, I remember watching it bounce, then crash to the ground as the yellow plastic bits busted into pieces.

"This is going to hurt," I thought to myself as things moved in slow motion. A split second later, I crashed to the ground face-first. Stars filled my head and the air left my lungs. It wasn't the first time I'd had the wind knocked out of me, but this time was different. As I lay there alone in the dirt, whimpering like a wounded dog, it occurred to me that I might actually die.

Moments later when I finally caught my wind, my arm hurt so much I wished somebody would put me out of my misery.

After he was done wrapping my arm in a plaster cast, the doctor used tweezers to pluck the pebbles from my chin. Back then, we wore open-faced helmets. "These will heal" he said, "but there will be scarring, you really should be more careful." My friends signed my cast. They thought it was cool.

You always remember your first time. After that it's all pretty much a blur.

A couple of years later when I was about 14, a nice lady from child and family services stopped by our house for a visit. It was the third cast I'd had that year, and one of my eyes was usually black from a crash, or a fight. My file at Victoria General Hospital was as thick as a phone book.

"I tell him to be careful, but he just doesn't listen," my beleaguered mother told the concerned woman. I was in the backyard building a BMX ramp. Considering I was already twice Mom's size and Dad wasn't around much, the lady knew the only abuse I received was totally self-inflicted. She offered my mom a knowing nod and a caring hug and went on her way.

Bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, snowmobiles... if it propels you, I've probably crashed it. You'd think by now I would have learned my lesson.

It was raining last month, just a sprinkle, as I hammered a pre-production 2013 Cadillac ATS into turn two at the famed Canadian Tire Motorsports Park near Toronto. Things were going great until without warning, the left rear tire caught a slick strip of pavement on the otherwise asphalt-covered track. In the slow motion I've felt far too many times before in my life, the car swung hard sideways and the left front tire caught the grass that surrounds the track. Now, I was merely along for the ride.

Although I certainly never looked at the speedometer, it's a good bet I was doing about 140 kilometres per hour. Sliding on the grass normally isn't of huge concern, but the cement wall that was quickly approaching was.

At the last instant, I managed to get the car slightly sideways, just enough to avoid hitting the wall head-on, but not enough to stop it from slamming sideways into it. "This is going to hurt," I thought.

The side airbag exploded into my helmet as I made contact with the wall and the glass from the side mirror sprayed the windshield. I'm not sure how, but the car came to a stop back in the middle of the track.

"This is On-Star," an operator with a southern accent bellowed through the cars speakers. "We have a report that an airbag has been deployed. Do you require emergency services?"

"I'm OK, I replied, I'm on a racetrack."

She stayed on the line. Somewhere in the annals of On-Star, there is an audio recording of me swearing profusely, followed by the sound of me kicking the door open while an ambulance siren wails in the background.

Following the crash, I was horrified. Embarrassed. Humiliated. "Don't worry about it Willy, cars can be replaced," George Saraltic of General Motors repeated to me several times in a reassuring voice. "As long as you're OK, that's all that matters."

After spending a few minutes in the back of the ambulance, the first thing I did was phone my wife. "I'm OK," I told her, just a bit banged-up, but I crashed pretty hard at the racetrack today."

"Oh Paul, thank God you're OK." I think she was crying.

Later, on the plane trip home with my ribs aching and my shoulder throbbing, my mind wandered and I imagined someone else calling my wife earlier that day and telling her I'd been killed in a crash. It made me shudder, and briefly cry. The lady beside me asked if I was OK. "It's been a long day," I told her, "A really long day."

To blame the new Cadillac ATS for my crash is ridiculous. I take complete and utter responsibility for what happened.

About the only solace I can take away from wrecking their shiny new car is that it was a pre-production model that would have been scrapped in the future. That does very little to ease my conscience.

There isn't much else I can say about this car that reviewer David Booth didn't already note here on these pages last week. It is a beauty of a car that defines sports/luxury and I was really, really excited when the invitation to test it out on the track arrived. It was all I could think about for days before.

Once strapped in I let my exuberance get the best of me and clearly took it too far. I'm lucky, really lucky, that my ego had the biggest bruise. It could have been worse, much worse.

My life has been full of thrills and spills. On a chilly fall morning like today, I limp until noon as my battered body reminds me of football, hockey, fist fights and crashes.

"Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death." It's a quote from my favorite writer, Hunter S. Thompson, and for many years I've lived by the gonzo mantra he penned.

Lately, however, I'm second-guessing his wisdom.

A couple of weeks ago, days after the crash, I turned 45 and we went for dinner with family and friends to celebrate my birthday. I wasn't myself, and my mom knew it.

"Honey," she said to me with pain in her eyes, "it's finally time to slow down."

For the first time in my life, I finally heard her.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2012 F9

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