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Kenzie's race comes to a crashing halt

Jim Kenzie crashed out of the annual Targa Newfoundland rally this week, totalling his car and landing him in hospital.

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Our mantra for success in the Targa Newfoundland rally was:

1. The car, a 2004 Mini Cooper S JCW with four complete Targas under its belt, won’t break.

2. My navigator, Brian Bourbonniere, won’t make a mistake.

3. The driver (me) will be too chicken to drive fast enough to crash.

The mantra has been good enough for two overall Open Division wins and a third place in the last three years.

This year? Well …

On the long stage coming out of Leading Tickles Tuesday afternoon, I did indeed drive fast enough to crash. Big time.

On a left-hand bend that has claimed a few other victims in previous years, I ran a bit too wide, and we were launched down an embankment and into the trees.

Eyewitness accounts from spectators in cases like these are notoriously unreliable, but estimates of the number of flips we did range from one to four.

At 160 km/h, you have a lot of momentum on your side.

Looking at the damage, it looks like the right front wheel caught in the gravel, dug in, flipped the car end-over-end in the air, and it landed on the left rear corner, turning it into a replica of a Mini El Camino.

It came to rest wheels-down in a grove of saplings, each maybe three centimetres thick.

The good news is that these kept us from rolling even farther and into a river.

That could have been ugly, not to mention wet.

The not-so-good news is that we dropped right into the middle of the grove, meaning we were still hidden by the trees.

At least one following competitor drove right on past, not even knowing we were there.

In a Targa rally, you are obliged to stop and render assistance if you see a disabled car at the side of (or off) the road, unless you see an “okay” sign held by one of the competitors.

If assistance is definitely needed, a Red Cross sign would be displayed.

If there is no sign, or any visual indication of a car off the road, you carry on.

Brian could hear my breathing in the intercom headset, but apparently I did not respond when he called my name and asked if I was okay.

So he handed the Red Cross sign to a spectator and told him to stand on the side of the road and flash it to the next car.

That would be the Mitsubishi Evolution driven by pro rally driver Andrew Comrie-Picard and Jen Horsey.

They stopped and leapt out to help.

Brian said, “We have to get Jim out of the car.”

“What car?” said Andrew. He still couldn’t see it, and thought it must indeed be in the river.

Brian led them to the remains of our beautiful little Mini, and they undid my belts and helmet. Apparently I got out on my own steam, although the first thing I remember was sitting on a rock, with Andrew handing me a water bottle.

I didn’t – still don’t – remember steering into the corner, or really, the last four or five kilometres of the stage. I do remember realizing we were about to go off, and calling a few choice epithets into the intercom that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.

But unlike my crash in a first-generation Mini at Mosport in 1971, I do not recall the somersaults themselves.

Odd.

The paramedics arrived quickly, and assessed us. Brian was alert and fine, but because I had obviously been unconscious for a few moments, they decided to take me to the hospital in Grand Falls for evaluation.

Apart from the siren making way more noise than was necessary and the hint of nausea I was feeling, we got there in short order with me in decent shape. The staff was very quick, efficient, and – as you would expect from Newfoundlanders – friendly.

They did a brain scan and, as the old joke goes, found nothing.

So I was released and driven back to the hotel in Gander.

The remains of the car were being dropped off at the towing company’s compound, so the crew and I went to recover various articles that were still in the car (if anybody found my Bell helmet bag, please let me know).

When they took the tarp off the car, I honestly had tears in my eyes.

Even before this incident, I have never been so emotionally attached to a vehicle in my life as to this one (no, not even my Hornet).

I feel so badly for having wrecked it, and for having let the team down. Everyone, including team members, my fellow competitors, Targa officials, friends and family – said variations on “that’s racing,” and that the car was metal, glass rubber and plastic. The important thing was that Brian and I were okay.

True enough, I guess.

But our goal was to finish and finish well, and we did not, because I made a mistake.

We drive these events without full pace notes, like most high-speed rally competitors use.

But that’s the whole point of a Targa-type event: You’re supposed to drive the road that you see, and not into the trees.

Among the amazing things about the result was how strong the car is, augmented for sure by the incredible roll cage built for us. Despite the terrible pounding the car took, the cage didn’t budge a bit.

The five-point harnesses held. The helmets did their job, although they’re toast now (after a biggie like this, a helmet has to be discarded). The HANS devices, which protect against basal skull fractures – well, we’ll never know if they came into play or not. But you only get one such crash per lifetime if you need them and don’t have them. We both had them, and how anyone races or rallies without one escapes me.

Both doors on the car still open and close, and latch properly too.

As with most modern cars, the windshield in the Mini is glued to the body shell, so in effect it becomes part of the structure. Despite the terrifying impact, the windshield itself and the two front windows were not even cracked.

The left front fender and headlight are good usable parts.

So our rally was over way too soon. The entire team stayed to help the finishers celebrate their success.

My heartfelt thanks to so many people on the team, the Targa organization and medical staff

As they say, “human exhaust emissions” happen – the purpose of precautions like these is to turn a potential tragedy into a mere incident.

And thanks to countless fellow competitors, friends and family who sent their best wishes.

Damn it all to hell anyway.

As the Leafs, Argos and Blue Jays all say, “Wait ’til next year.”

Wheels’ chief auto writer Jim Kenzie can be reached at jim@jimkenzie.com

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