Last time you saw me, I had just picked up a brand new, salvage-titled Corvette Z06 and had less than three months to turn it into a Pikes Peak Hill Climb contender. I know you are all chomping at the bit to hear about all kinds of engine mods that will make 80 gazillion horsepower, but I have something more crushing to address.

Full Disclosure: This is a story about building a race car for the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Some, if not all, of the companies involved have sponsored this build in some way, shape or form. Without their support this build would not be possible and therefore there would be no story. If you do not want to be exposed to these companies and think that somehow, in some way, sponsorship is bad, then please do not read this article…. and give yourself 1,000 lashes for thinking impure thoughts about being unduly influence by your exposure to sponsors. Shame! Shame!

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Also, I am bringing back the deal that I did for the 24 Hours of Nurburgring a few years ago where you can get your name/logo/personal life motto printed on the wing or splitter for the hillclimb itself. Head over to my site SalvageSupercar.com to sign up. We’ll have swag for sale, too. 

Again, I’m sure you are dying to hear about big power and some massive carbon dual element wing that will keep the rear end “grounded to the ground.” But I’m going to run this car up the side of Pikes Peak, one of the most dangerous courses in the country, at an insanely high rate of speed. The first thing that I’m going to do is make sure my ass is safe, if I manage to run out of talent and road at the same time.

I know that racecar drivers have a reputation for living life on the edge and taking massive risks. But honestly, while risk taking is part of the job description, most of the racecar drivers I know and race with, are the most safety conscious people you could ever meet. I think that facing the prospect of death (or worse) on a daily basis makes you appreciate life all the more.

(Oh and yes for most drivers there are much worse things than being dead)

“Speed has never killed anyone. It’s suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”

Now that we confirmed that I like my life and I would like to keep liking it, it’s time to make this Z06 the toughest thing since Chuck Norris was born and he slapped the doctor. Which means its roll cage time. And for that I turn to my good friends at 3R Racing for a little of their fabrication wizardry.

3R Racing’s fabrication wizard Brian Nightengale hard at work

If you read my disclaimer at the top of this post I said most of the companies mentioned here have sponsored this effort in some way. 3R is one of the ones that haven’t. That’s right, the team that I have spent the better part of my pro career driving for haven’t given me so much as a two cent discount on fabricating a roll cage for me. You know what? I am totally OK with that because the roll cage is the first and most important line of defense if I get it all wrong. I want the best guys building mine, even if it does chew through a good chunk of my budget to get it built.

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I can list three separate and distinct times that a 3R Racing roll cage has saved my bacon. First time was a 95 mph off in turn five at Road Atlanta in a Dodge SRT-4. The second two were in a single Volvo at the same race weekend at Sonoma. The first was a 100+ mph broadside hit from a GT car. The fact that the car was able to make it back on track to take a second hit should tell you all you need to know about my faith in 3R’s cages.

The Z06, however, has one major issue that was going to be a bit of a challenge to overcome. Any guesses? Yeah took me a minute to realize it too.

Roll cage, steel. Corvette, aluminum.

Trying to weld together two metals with completely different properties is, well, basically impossible. The simple solution? Bond and bolt.

Long story, short, 3R welded the cage to a steel plate (which the main hoops of the roll cage are welded to) and then used the same type of stuff that held the Space Shuttle together to bond that steel plate to an aluminum plate welded to the chassis. For added safety, those plates were then bolted to the chassis, making them a fairly permanent addition to the car.

Bond & Bolt

Engineering problem solved, now on to the stuff the 3R is really good at. I’ve seen a lot of homebuilt roll cages in my time and more than a few of them looked like they were build with the “Putting some metal tubes in my car will make me safe” school of thought.” Which is like saying “Putting some books under my pillow will make me smarter” (I don’t know why I keep trying that, it clearly hasn’t worked for me so far)

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Roll cage design is one of those things in life where experience counts for everything. This isn’t just about the ability to do a good weld. (I’m looking at you, Caswell.) Knowing what has worked in the past and, more importantly, what hasn’t is absolutely critical. This cage needs to hold up to crashes that would turn most road going cars into something resembling a discarded soda can.

Photo Credit Youtube

Pro-level cage building usually involves something called Finite Element Analysis or FEA for short. Software company Autodesk develops FEA software and offers the following definition on its website:

Finite element analysis (FEA) is a computerized method for predicting how a product reacts to real-world forces, vibration, heat, fluid flow, and other physical effects,” as software company Autodesk explains on its website. “Finite element analysis shows whether a product will break, wear out, or work the way it was designed. It is called analysis, but in the product development process, it is used to predict what is going to happen when the product is used.

EA works by breaking down a real object into a large number (thousands to hundreds of thousands) of finite elements, such as little cubes. Mathematical equations help predict the behavior of each element. A computer then adds up all the individual behaviors to predict the behavior of the actual object.

(Where is Neil DeGrasse Tyson to simplify things when you need him damnit.)

As much as I would have loved my cage to have been built using all of the maths, the maths cost money, money we don’t have. That mean I had to go with the next best thing: educated guessing. Actually, very educated guessing.

If it can be crashed into, someone has crashed into it already.

To start the educated part of educated guessing, the first thing we need to look at is the type of crash the car will most likely be involved in. Most incidences in road racing are car to car or at worst, car to a wall. Pikes Peak is not like road racing. Pikes Peak is not a purpose-built race track. Pikes Peak is a mountain in Colorado and it has a whole different set of ways that it can kill you.

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Crash type number one is driving off the side of the mountain itself. Ask Randy Pobst and Jeremy Folley. Actually, until Jeremy survived his crash at Devils Playground, I was convinced that going off there was fatal. You can watch him crumple his EVO below.

Next on the list of unpleasant things that can ruin your day are rocks. I’m not talking about the little pebbles that roll off the side of the mountain and cause you to lose traction. Those are followed shortly by much swearing and then crash type number one. No, I’m taking about the rocks that actually make up the mountain. These are the ones that haven’t moved in a few million years and aren’t about to start moving when your puny 3,000-pound race car decides to hit one at 90 mph. Remember ,“it’s suddenly becoming stationary what gets you.”

The last thing we need worry about is actually one of the first things we see off the start line: trees. Yup, trees. While they aren’t as old as their Igneous cousins, most of the trees on the mountain have been around for at least a hundred years and aren’t looking at going anywhere fast. One Mr. Paul Dallenbach did a fair job in trying to persuade a few of them that they would be better off relocating to the forest down the road.

Hit one tree and it’s bad. Hit several and you’ll most likely be coming off the hill in a much different vehicle than you came in, one with flashing lights and sirens.

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Once I figured out what I’m up against, I asked Dax Raub at 3R Racing in Denver, Colorado to set me up with a sufficiently strong cage. He also explained to me the top things that looks at when he’s designing a cage: “The main thing we start with is the proper geometry of the cage. While the primary function of a roll cage is driver protection you also want to make sure you have the correct tube placement to increase chassis rigidity. Also the side impact bar placement is very important in driver protection. You want to make sure that they are placed well into the door structure and as far away from the driver as possible so that in the event of an impact they have more room to absorb and disperse the force before reaching the driver.”

With all that protection designed into the roll cage you’d think that’s all I would need to walk away from all but the biggest hits. The truth is that the roll cage is simply the first line of defense; there is a full system of components that are designed to increase the chance of survivability in the event that I decide I need to use one of the mountains famous vertical runoffs.

The FIA (Federation International Automobile) is the world’s main governing body in motorsports, and it has done a huge amount of research into the anatomy of a racing crash. This includes fitting drivers in top tier championships with Accident Data Recorders that measure a variety of forces during a crash.

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According to the FIA, “accident analysis of the many championships fitted with Accident Data Recorders (ADR) has shown that very high G (>70g) crashes are now survivable with good vehicle crashworthiness and cockpit environments together with best practice safety equipment. On this basis, the performance levels for FIA approved safety equipment have been newly defined to manage the forces and energies generated during 70g accidents.”

(For reference Robert Kubrica’s F1 crash during the Canadian GP measured out at 75 G)

Dog is my co-pilot

There are several manufacturers that are currently manufacturing the various pieces of motorsports safety equipment (seats, belts, driver suits, fire extinguishers) to this newly defined standard. However there are very few companies that manufacturer all of those components under one roof designed from the start to work together as a system to protect the driver. Italian company OMP is one of those few.

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This is my first time working with OMP (even though I have used some of their products sporadically over the years), so took a minute to sit down with OMP USA’s Director of Motorsports Mike Magree and Technical Director Erik Skirmants. I needed to know how their equipment is going to protect me if worst comes to worst, so I asked them so fairly direct questions.

My first concern was if OMP’s gear would protect me if I drove off the side of the mountain, and Mike explained that, again, it’s the system that’s important:

Every crash is different and Pikes Peak obviously presents some unique “worst case” scenarios but if it is a survivable crash then absolutely we can protect you, as long as our equipment is put together in a system (seat, belts, window nets, and fire suppression system) that is installed properly in the car. Meaning that the seat is properly attached to solid mounting points, seat belts installed correctly with the proper angle on the upper belts (in a 6 point harness).

Erik Skirmants pointed out that installation is key, but race organizers set things up so you don’t screw yourself over:

Every sanctioning body has rules to prevent you from doing it (safety equipment install) wrong. That’s a huge help to making the system work together. Tech inspectors are important to making sure it’s right. Every individual component exceeds what it needs to do but needs to be installed right to work as a system.

What are advances in modern racecar protection systems?

Erik went on to point out that head containment halos (those are those weird horn things poking out of the top of new seats) and better-fitting seat designs are big steps forward in protecting ribs and hips. Also critical is getting drivers to actually use their gear, as Erik pointed out:

The main thing is that driver comfort has substantially increased for the same level of safety. As things have become more comfortable drivers stopped cheating and started wearing all the proper gear. Wearing all the nomex underwear all the time and not just the tops on hot days.

As much as I’m happy about OMP’s safety gear, the awesome thing for me is I can finally say that I have a custom-made Italian suit.

As a few of you astute readers have posted out, I did leave out one minor detail in my first post about this salvage-title race car project: what in the hell my new Z06 actually cost me. The oversight was very much intentional. I plan on tallying up what this whole crazy project costs and including it in the last write up before I head up the hill at the end of the month. Partly, I want to keep you guys in suspense and partly I really don’t want to know that I’ve spent most of my retirement savings on a 10 minute run up a mountain road.

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See you next week for the part where we add lightness (and maybe break a bit of wind).