It has to be every driver’s worst nightmare.
Imagine you’re behind the wheel of an Unlimited Class R35 Nissan GT-R and you’ve just started accelerating onto the longest straight of the course. You’re absolutely pinned, and pulling gears like they’re going of fashion. Limiter, shift, boost, limiter, shift all the way towards the braking point of the downhill right-hander.
Except you’ve passed the braking point and the brake pedal has just gone to the floor. You’re driving an extremely valuable race car with over three years of development in it, and you now know that the only thing that’s going to stop you is the tyre wall. What do you do?
This is the exact situation that Cole Powelson found himself in at the recent Speed Ring event in Detroit.
The grey, black and orange GT-R of Lyfe Motorsports has proven itself to be one of the fastest GT-Rs on the planet around a circuit. Last year, it sent the HKS R35 GT-R, driven by none other than Nobuteru Taniguchi, packing at the inaugural Speed Ring event.
In the process, the team collected a $20,000 bounty that the organisers offered to anyone who could take down the famous Japanese team.
The car has seen action at countless events around North America, including the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. This is far from an amateur operation, although it is a privateer entry from the Utah-based outfit.
I’d been stood at the end of the back straight for about 10 minutes, slowly dropping shutter speeds in an attempt to capture something abstract when the Lyfe GT-R took to the track for its touge battle.
Having watched the previous Unlimited cars, I had a rough idea where the braking point was. With one eye through the viewfinder and the other open to maintain an awareness of my surroundings, it was immediately obvious that something wasn’t right and the GT-R took off across the grass on the in-field at huge speed.
The car bucked and bounced across the grass, before pitching sideways across the track and then disappearing into a cloud of dust at the far side of the last rumble strip. The silence was deafening.
There was a brief moment of optimism as the silence continued, before a sickening bang as the car finally came to an abrupt stop. Alongside two other photographers, I waited for the dust to settle. Slowly the GT-R reappeared, showing itself resting sideways in the tyres. With no safety marshalls stationed nearby, we headed over to the car as the driver began to climb out.
As we got there, Cole already had the bonnet (at least what was left of it) off and was searching for a cause as to what had just happened. “Well, that was the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he casually announced from behind his helmet. “I tried to put it in backwards once I knew what was happening. Funny the things you think of in the moment,” he continued, in the most surreal conversation I’ve had with someone in quite a while.
Later, Lyfe Motorsport would diagnose a failed brake pressure switch as the cause of the accident. The car lost complete front brake pressure and only retained around 40% at the rear when Cole pressed the brake pedal at 135.6mph (218.2km/h), according to their own data-logging.
No matter which way you look at it, 136mph is fast. The fact that Cole walked away from the crash, completely unharmed, is testament to the three months of chassis preparation that went into the GT-R. When cars are built to this level, you always hope that the relevant safety devices are never needed, but when they are, that they do their job above and beyond expectation. The car was still able to roll and be towed back to the pits, which should tell you everything that you need to know.
For Lyfe, the goal remains unchanged for their GT-R. It will be the fastest time attack GT-R in the world, although their timescale for that has been extended slightly. Still, at least they have a car and driver to work with thanks to quick thinking and proper chassis design. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s to never cheap-out on something that might save your life.