When in Doubt, Flat – Out!
CARandDRIVER: That era (Group B rally racing) was insane, right?
ARI VATANEN (rally legend): By whose definition was it insane? …To find out where the limit is you have to go too far and then come back. That’s what the world is all about.
If I were on drugs during those years, I would had driven my car way slower. Driving drunk and being reckless while showing off would had slowed me down even further. From my reminiscent perspective, any reasonable explanation has to engage zen in order to be credible. Honestly, I don’t think there is a reasonable explanation: those days were beyond sanity and beyond logic, and trying to classify them would be the same as trying to paint Mozart’s music. I’m not even talking about rally racing, that was simple enough: you take the closed course, whatever the surface might be at the moment – gravel, tarmac (asphalt), ice, sleet, rain and fog, night and mud – you try not to kill yourself while shredding everybody else’s time in the process, then you repeat the same procedure on and on. Here I’m talking regular, city driving.
Always, and I mean every single time – no exceptions – it would be either full throttle or full braking. The only theoretical abbreviation were milliseconds when I was pumping brakes to avoid skidding. Nowadays, just envisioning that era gives me goosebumps.
As soon as I prepped my car race ready, with YU Rally approaching, I took my co-driver to Avala for my practice and his pace notes. It’s a mile and half long, steep and extremely narrow tarmac hill climb; an obvious one way road: you drive this way up, then you come down on the other side of the mountain. Vatanen would probably, and properly ask: obvious by whose standards? It was early summer, and thick woods made most corners vanish in the lush; not an issue as long as you have precise notes, or good memory. As I was sliding the car out of a tight, blind right-hander, through my side window I caught a glimpse of a horse carriage slowly travelling down the hill and taking the entire road for itself. If I were to touch the brakes, I would had spun into it, if I didn’t, I would had flown off the road and down the ravine. The only solution was exactly the one I couldn’t do: to let the monster slide its way through.
Few days later, I had to take my grandmother to doctor’s office in Belgrade, and back to Zemun where she lived. Everything was going as planned, we were a mile away from her home, when I made a half left turn into one way street (do I see a pattern developing here?) and spotted a guy walking in the middle of the road, his back turned to me. It was kind of too late to brake considering my speed, so I kept the full throttle and tapped the horn aiming to the right. As it turned out, two bad ideas at once. The fella jumped in the air and to his right, as if my hood had magnetic powers over his ass. Thank God I didn’t have time to get concerned, otherwise I would. With fun gone and forgotten, I slammed on the brakes and turned further right, just catching his elbow before grinding to a halt. With danger gone, I got pissed and jumped out of the car to teach him a lesson for (possibly) harming my racing shrine. No damage to the windshield, the guy is pissed himself, but I win the shouting contest and drive away, grandmother screaming in my ear.*
One week later a great buddy of mine, Nikola Cirovic, needed my car for his driving exam. We were on the way there, when I decided to take a slight detour around the Delta course (delta of rivers Sava and Danube), which in late sixties twice hosted the Grand Prix of Belgrade for European Touring Championship, both won by Dieter Quester in BMW 2002 Alpina. During the year that was an open road with very light traffic. I noticed on TV that when driving on closed circuits, those cars didn’t slide around – the scenario was obviously different – so as a good copycat I planned the same technique, approaching the very first ninety degree left turn few miles too fast.
Abarth went on two wheels instantly, I saw my friend’s worried face below my right shoulder, and the only thing I had to do is let the car come back on all four before doing anything stupid. Eventually it did, but at that time I was already zigzagging among the trees, barely missing each one of them, until I finally ‘collected’ a commercial water pipe sticking straight in the air. The only damage was to the front left quarter panel, pushed onto the tire. As I’m trying to yank sheet metal out, the policeman in charge of the bridge comes across and offers to help. I think his name was Teofilovic, not sure though; a mountain of a man, former boxer. He rips it away no sweat, and we leave immediately, before he gets any lawful ideas.
That incident bothered me for a while, it was piercing a whole in my confidence, so a month later I picked up another buddy of mine, Nikola had enough, and drove straight to Delta . Same speed (some lunatics never learn), same curve, and the same outcome (the same pipe). My only hope was that the policeman was different – and he wasn’t.’You look familiar to me,’ Teofilovic was scratching his ear – obviously a well placed hook from his fighting past took out a chunk of his memorizing capabilities. ‘Same with you,’I said,’I think we’re members of the same boxing club.’ ‘Ooh, you box too…’
Trying not to embarrass myself with every single person I know, the third time I drove there alone. I increased the speed for a notch, out of principle, and just slid around the corner like an ‘iron’, never lifting off and barely touching the grass with my right rear tire.
* I am aware of the fact that those days probably look savagely ridiculous to you, an innocent reader, but people used to realize the consequences of their acts: even that guy knew he was at default, not me. Place yourself in my Recaro seat: I wasn’t brought to this world to spend my life watching out for all kinds of idiots around me: my job was to drive as quickly as I could, and screen the oncoming view for children – simple as that.*
*Almost like Catcher in the Rye.