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What I Learned About Tactical Driving from Crashing Into Cars 50 or 60 Times by Mark Hatmaker

So, my wife enters some paintings in the Country Fair and I’m flipping through the brochure and see among the Fair’s offerings a Demolition Derby, and right there in the small print is “Wanna drive?

The idea had never crossed my mind, but when the curiosity-devil beckoned my answer to “Wanna drive?” was a hale and hearty “Hell, yeah!”

I give the good folks at Tennessee Slammers & Bangers a call and they could not be more accommodating to a rookie.

Being the inquisitive sort, I ask, “Any words of advice for a first-timer?”
“Yeah, don’t wear shorts, wear jeans in case there’s a fire.”
Me: [Pause] “Um, does that happen a lot?”
Them: “Kinda.”

(In fact, two fires on my night, neither of them mine.)

I asked a few more questions and most of the answers returned with “Back brace this, neck brace that,” “It hurts” “Man, you’re gonna feel it”, that sort of thing.

My hale and hearty “Hell, yeah!” was still “hell, yeah” but my hell was now lower-case and I dropped the exclamation mark.

Since I was going to put myself (and hopefully others) through repeated car crashes I thought I’d settle down and school myself with some advice from experienced Derby and Tactical drivers.

First, I want you to picture the car interior. These are non-modified cars, meaning no roll bars, no reinforcements, no driver’s harnesses—Nada. The concession to safety is…some glass has been removed–some. Other than that, it’s you and a factory seat belt.

So, with that in mind how do we stabilize ourselves inside this perilous environment?

Here are a few tips from the pros who crash into other pros for a living and live to limp away to crash again another day.

The Bootlegger Grip– When you grip the steering wheel, grip it in a thumbless-grip just as if setting up an Americana or Kimura submission. To the non-submission players out there, keep those thumbs on the same side of the wheel as the rest of your fingers; as a matter of fact, it’s a not a bad idea to press those thumbs tight to the sides of the index fingers until you get used to it.

Why the Bootlegger Grip? Two main reasons.

  1. It reminds you to use push-pressure on the wheel to control turns and allow it to spin instead of you tugging on the wheel and man-handling your turns.
  2. If (when) you take a hit, particularly to the front wheels and that wheel jerks (and it will jerk like a mutha) the wheel will spin in your hands as opposed to dislocating or breaking your thumbs. (That get your attention? I drive with a Bootlegger Grip everywhere. Too many texters in the world and I’ve only got two thumbs.)
    1. The Command Position – This refers to how you “sit” your vehicle, or position yourself in the seat in relation to all that is around you.

      Here are the basics— Seat Upright/Head Perpendicular. Skip leaning that seat back in a comfy position. We’ve got to be upright, aware, and better prepared to brace the body and the neck for impact. (BTW-At least half the seats in the derby cars cracked their back-supports and slid on the slider-rails upon multiple impacts. We’ve got to be prepared to be in “control” even when conditions are not optimal.)

      Shoulders Against Seatback– Settle back, allow that seat to support you, you’re gonna need all the support you can get upon impact.

      Move that Seat forward until wrists lay over the steering wheel—This puts us close enough to control and not so far away that minor impact whips our hands off of the wheel.

      Left foot flat on the floor goes to Dead-Pedal position, meaning you want to be able to push into the floor to keep your torso braced. This left foot is not inactive, not at all, you’re going to want to push to keep yourself upright for tactical driving to diminish as much bouncing around during impact as you can. BTW-You WILL bounce.

      Soft-hands on the wheel, don’t death grip it—control it.

      At least one hand on the wheel at all times.

      Pedal Heel on the ground—Pivot on the heel to use toe-pressure on both gas & brake pedal. No lifting that entire leg. Too much energy, too much time, and impact will fly that leg around more than you’d imagine. Always use the heel pivot and never lift the leg to make pedal transfers

      Look at where you want to go not where you are going at the moment, in other words don’t look at the hood of your car. This holds true even (particularly) in a spin. Sight where you want to go and steer/aim for that sighted goal.

      There are many more tasty tidbits from the Pros that came in mighty handy, ideas from Threshold Braking, Successful Slalom, Inertial Cornering Strategy, Accelerating Out of Corners, the “Ease & Squeeze”; every single one of these I find useful in every mile of day-to-day driving, but we’ll leave that info to another day; we’ll keep this article within limits.
      Let’s end with a little Crash-Survival.

      Beyond the fundamentals discussed regarding bracing in the Command Position section, if/when an impact is imminent and we have choice of where to take the shot—rare, but if we do…

      Take it broadside in the passenger doors (if traveling alone, obviously.)

      If accelerating and escape after an impact is considered vital, we want to avoid taking a hit to the wheels perhaps cracking an axel, and we want to avoid taking it on the front end so we can protect the radiator and drive-train.

      You can flip all this advice around to know where to wisely impair a vehicle if need be.

      And it wise to always be moving. Just as with good footwork, and upper-body evasion in boxing if you take punch while moving you take much of the stink off of it more often than not. Same thing with moving vehicles—as long as it’s not head-on, movement is a wise-tactic. Movement allows you to dissipate impact.

      Keep in mind that my staying on the move will keep the tires spinning, this allows for greater dissipation of force than taking a hit on non-moving tires.

      Also by staying on the move you keep the revs up and reduce the chances of stalling your engine, anathema if escape if a priority.

      One more Derby Tip for collision survival.

      If you are in a vehicle that you’ve got to use for escape/evasion but you know impact is a likelihood.

      First, remove any obvious frou-frous, that is, things dangling from rear-view mirrors, clutter on seats that will go flying and distract or more embarrassingly disable your vision or injure you on impact.

      Snap off any non-necessary hardware, door-handles, knobs, anything that might pierce flesh or make an un unnecessary impact bruise.

      You’ve got to disable the airbags so that the impact does not detonate the airbags and thwart your escape plans.
      Once the airbags are disabled, pull out your tactical folder and slash every seat cushion that is not being sat on. Now take all that foam and stuff it between you and the driver’s door. Pack it in there tight, you can never have too much.
      Now, you’re ready to go.

      Whether derby driving, tactical driving, evasion driving, or day-to-day driving the true key is being alive, awake, and aware. Practice good awareness even on your quick trip to the store, because unlike a derby which is a scheduled car crash [well, more like 50 or 60 car crashes], the real world doesn’t follow a schedule.

      Be ready.

      Oh, and if you ever get a chance to drive a derby—Do it! Destructive fun in spades!

      PS-If you’re wondering how it went, lost the right front tire on a front-wheel drive–around minute 15 of heat two; tried to run on the rim but rain and mud and physics being physics…Missed making the elimination round by 1 slot and lack of a pit-crew. To the future!

      Click here for more instructional material from Mark Hatmaker

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31 thoughts on “What I Learned About Tactical Driving from Crashing Into Cars 50 or 60 Times by Mark Hatmaker”

  1. Been there, done that. My opinion, everyone that thinks they can drive should run in a derby, at least once, if for no other reason than to show them how wrong they’ve been doing it.

  2. I drive Uber, and these tips are great…I don’t use my Uber sticker, cuz I don’t want to advertise… I’m gonna get my Riders to their destination and I’m gonna make it home every night, no matter what other folks plans might be…and ‘alive’ is better than any dumb star rating…I keep it real in my big city…real fast!!

  3. I work in the liberal Democrat run cesspool know as Milwaukee Wisconsin, car theft capital of the nation. These little punk thugs that steal cars can drive so they are constantly smashing in to things, and other people. Some valuable information, thanks.

  4. It’s interesting how much can be adapted or applied from one hobby or activity to another. Something as simple as proper dress was the first layer (No pun intended) in self preservation. Another principal I can see at work is that you have to be relaxed and roll with the punches or crashes as it were. If one remains tense and on edge they sacrifice the ability to absorb a shock and if they are thrown or tripped.
    I also see a lot of understanding in the way of ergonomics and bracing the body, adapting where the machinery fails to provide the support, safety or functionality normally called for or expected.

    What I take from your story is that:
    In a fight, one must be adaptable to the opponent’s size, strength, number and strategy. And in a crisis situation, being able to make on the fly decisions, reacting quickly while attempting to follow a plan or plans, and making effective use of resources and gear can result in surviving the event. In any situation it all boils down to accepting, dealing with and adapting to the situation to overcome potential hazards. We look for advantages, capitalize on our strengths and try to avoid, eliminate or at least minimize the weak areas. The execution of good decisions will solve or at least brings us close to controlling some elements, but by adapting, thinking, and reacting we can manipulate or bypass the situation for a positive outcome.

  5. Useful. Here in UK we’ve got snow and ice now. Plus awhile ago I got into a skid, probably because it rained after a hot dry period, leaving an oily film on the tarmac. To me, safe driving is a form of Self-Defence.

  6. Mark, I used to play “Destruction Derby” on the Play Station, and it was great fun, but at the age of 78, I think I’ll give it a miss, bit too long in the tooth for that kind of sport now.
    However, if YOU like that sort of sport, may I wish you better luck NEXT time.

  7. Great article. Will be doing the thumbs thing as of tomorrow! Derby sounds fun, will only be able to watch and dream though! Looks great fun!

  8. Really good advice, I’m an ex-cop and have used the PIT stop, (pursuit intervention tactic) a few times. Its highly effective but hurts, and you have to try and override your brain that says WE are NOT crashing on purpose, when you most certainly are. Thumb tip is especially true.

    If you want to go out a deliberately get into car crashes, enjoy it theres some rush lol

  9. We used to win these all the time, I used to jam rebar thru the tail light or head light, (which ever was easier)all the way down the side to the other end. Thru the fender, door, other fender, as many as I could get in there and then weld ’em into place. Couldn’t see them so, no foul and the car would take one hellufa punch. A couple times I got some angle to go across in front of radiator but most of the time it’s too noticable. Man that was some fun times. Before you say something about cheating, we all did that stuff, most of the time it was to see if the other drivers would catch it or who was going to come up with something different.

  10. A lot of good information, and common sense stuff that we all know but doin’t keep up front all the time. I enjoyed the reading,thanks.

  11. Being in the UK I tend to drive a manual so both my feet are doing something, I’ve always positioned my seat so as my ankle’s are resting 90° same as my knees. Seat back upright, so as my wrists can be placed on the starring wheel & still have a bend at my elbows, with my shoulders not coming away from the seat. Head restraint against my head. I where gloves so for most of the time you don’t actually need to rip the wheel, simply allow the leather to leather to adhere.
    There is a book called the Operators, about Unit 21 of the British army intelligence(the unit who did all the infiltration work against the IRA), it has a good bit on driving tech, well worth the read!


  13. Use an older year car. A 1970’s boats work great, they’re heavier, more room in the engine area, and can take one hellofa beating. Just a tip from an old smash’em fan.

  14. I lent my younger brother my recently dented car for a county fair demolition derby. He didn’t win either but had a good showing nonetheless. This was in the ’70’s. Thanks for the memories.

  15. I survived two total wrecks. The first one was front head on, a seat belt kept me in the vehicle. No injuries but dead vehicle.
    The second, a roll over, again a seat belt kept me in the vehicle. Nine staples in my scalp. You are correct about bouncing around.
    Another place to avoid collision if you can, the gas tank! Not only are you going nowhere you might be roasted.
    The forefinger and thumb contribute little to your grip they do allow precision. I agree don’t risk your thumbs.

  16. When you know what to do, it’s FUN to do the Debry or Movie Stunt Crashes! That thumb thing is absolutely correct! I still have both of my UNFRACTURED Thumbs!

    Seriously, this is all good advice, especially for rush hour traffic on any major highway of busy city streets.

  17. This is a good defensive topic, if a accidents going happen there are things you can do, if not evade, than change the impact position to better your chances.