After the months of hard work, heat exhaustion, and the tinnitus from the harsh buzz of a Miata’s motor, it’s rough when a race goes awry. Even a Fourth place feels like a failure at times, so when one gets their Spec Miata into a crash that leaves the car totaled, it’s only natural they feel disillusioned. Joe Kou was one of those unfortunate drivers whose strong race-start quickly transformed into dismay.
Going into this year’s SCCA Regionals at Sonoma Raceway, he was riding high on a gilded cloud. He was in a strong position — second overall entering the weekend — and he already snagged one pole position and one Third-place finish. Gridding up for the weekend’s second race in Third, he felt optimistic. “The car had finally been perfectly dialed-in for me and had made the podium for me the last seven races in a row. I wanted to keep the momentum going and for a win in this race,” Kou begins.
A Frantic Start
After the chaos that attends a rolling start at Sonoma, it almost seems like the field gets away with a minimum of carnage. Rolling over the hill underneath Turns 3 and 3A, Kou has to keep one eye on the two Spec Miatas nipping at his heels and one eye on the slow RSX ahead. With all the uncertainty at the start, aggressive drivers can make up a position or two by going for gaps before tire temps are up and the race’s rhythm is established.
As they approach Turn 4, the RSX ahead turns into the turn far too early; appearing to take a defensive line. This throws Kou’s rhythm, forcing him to brake early and dither at turn-in. Capitalizing on this break-in-pace, the former Runoffs Champion in the white Miata behind strikes.
“I saw Car #36 attempting a late-brake divebomb coming into 4, so I left him some space at the apex. Then came the hit, and it was all over,” he describes dejectedly. In just a few seconds, Kou’s Miata pirouettes down into the inside of the corner and out of sight from the field of drivers behind. As the race is still in its most frantic state, with drivers jockeying for position, looking for any opening, and trying desperately to capitalize on any opportunity, our man is faced with real danger.
Obviously, gravity and limited real-estate worked against Kou here. As the rest of the field streams by like a school of screaming salmon, he’s hit twice in just a few seconds. “After the second hit, I had tweety birds circling my head,” he recalls. Between the crunching metal, flying car parts, clouds of dirt, and Kou’s voice, we can vicariously experience some of the carnage and horror while sitting comfortably at our desks.
Once the dust settled, the flag-waving marshalls could peer down at the aftermath. Four cars were damaged in the incident, including Kou’s Miata. Dazed, but apparently unscathed, Kou trudged back to the pits, where the driver of Car #36 found him. “After the race, he came over and apologized. He acknowledged I gave him space, and he thought we could make it through the turn side-by-side, but it didn’t work out that way,” Kou adds diplomatically.
The Frightening Aftermath
The day after, Kou noticed some stiffness in his neck, which eventually subsided, but was replaced with noticeable weakness in his shoulder. “I noticed that my left shoulder was getting progressively weaker to the point where I could only lift half of what I normally can, but thankfully, there was no pain. I surmised that I sustained a very mild brachial plexus injury. If you watch the video, my neck gets twisted hard to the right, which likely caused a traction injury to the nerve plexus. It took over two months, but my strength eventually returned.” Even when recovering fully, those are the situations that can leave a driver pondering the possibility of hanging up their helmet.
Even among hardened racers, there is a category of people who can take a knock or two and proceed on. For them, the love of driving is worth the risk, the heartache, and the occasional weakened arm. Kou fits comfortably into that rarefied category. Within a few months of this horrifying event, he scrapped the NA chassis, picked up an NB chassis, and returned to the track. “I’m going to stick with Spec Miata until this car gets destroyed,” he laughs.
You can’t keep some people down.