By Martha Maglone:
The abruptness of Ronnie Davis’ crash and subsequent death will live with Ian Tocher forever.
Tocher, the most delightful of men, has survived horrendous injuries, but happily, his appetite for life remains undiminished. The noted scribe and photographer for the acclaimed magazine Drag Illustrated says, “It was ironic that of the 150 racecars at Rockingham that weekend, the one I wrote press releases for is the one that hits me!”
Davis, 66, was an experienced race driver, a five-time IHRA and reigning PDRA Top Sportsman champion, who would normally have qualified among the top runners. But that weekend in April he had not yet qualified because his 1963 Corvette was not running up to potential and, not surprisingly, it was on his last qualifying run that the catastrophic accident occurred. “The car shook immediately, meaning Ronnie’s run was likely ruined in the first 60ft,” Ian says. “But he tried to salvage it, which turned out to be a fatal error for him and catastrophic for me.”
Clearly it was more than an unfortunate accident and remains mysterious for several reasons. “It was a perfect storm,” recalls Ian, “everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”
When the car crossed the one-eighth mile under full power it didn’t appear to slow, according to observers. If the throttle had jammed you might have expected the ignition to be switched off, yet it seemed to remain under full power until it crashed. Also, activating the parachutes is a proven practice that stabilizes the car but they weren’t deployed either. Was he incapacitated in some way on that fatal day? Was it a moment of instinctive bravery or the result of an over confident and ill-advised frontal assault? We shall never know.
“The wind picked up the car from the left lane and carried it over to the right, across the track and over the wall,” says Tocher. “When it landed, instead of carrying its momentum, it came straight down the wall another 150ft or so where it hit me. If its trajectory had continued a further three feet beyond the wall it would’ve been close but probably would have missed me entirely.”
From the Internet video of the event, one initially assumed that exploding car parts struck Ian but there were none near him. He had been standing against the wall about 250 to 300ft beyond the quarter-mile mark to capture open parachute photographs. Mercifully, he sustained no harm to his internal organs, upper body or head, but the crashing race car did strike him in the groin, breaking his pelvis in two places and destroying his lower left leg.
Some years ago, drag racer Tom “Mongoose” McEwen summoned an aerodynamicist to Columbus, Ohio. McEwen was eagerly soliciting a solution to counter high-speed lift at the front of his 1957 Chevrolet. “There was a curious moment when the car threatened to black-flip,” recalls the veteran drag racer. “A potentially destructive force, I was staring disaster in the face.” The aerodynamicist concluded that the car’s aerodynamic balance had been acutely disproportionate caused by excessive down force at the rear. He also devised a formula for the evacuation of accumulating air from the front wheel arches.
Five years early the aerodynamicist first approached McEwen. It had been a chance encounter at Indianapolis. “There is lift on every surface of your Corvette,” he informed—comments so profound they saved McEwen’s skin.
“The Corvette had a short rear deck and when coupled with the adverse aerodynamics of the remainder of my body shell they induced negative pressure at the rear. Lift at 150mph was the grim reality,” admits McEwen. Introducing a high spoiler on the trailing edge of the back deck seemed his best prospect. Alas, it couldn’t generate sufficient down force on the rear wheels at 800ft. The solution came when the aerodynamicist advised McEwen to add end plates to the Corvette’s rear spoiler. End plates completed the formation of a large capacity air box on the rear deck. Without them, adequate down force could not be generated at the rear of the car. “At that time,” says McEwen, “there were about six Corvettes competing on the national circuit and all of them crashed except mine.” Today, end plates integrated with a rear spoiler are in universal use with some of the best examples demonstrated on NHRA Funny Cars.
Severe rear lift on Tom McEwen’s Corvette was eradicated by adding end plates to the rear spoiler.
Davis, a Suwanee, Georgia golf cart dealer, died of injuries sustained in the accident one day later on Sunday, April 10, 2016. Not always an easy man to know, he was a tireless worker and there were many times in his outstanding racing career where he reflected a magical luster of invincibility. An adept and dominant figure in Top Sportsman racing, Ronnie Davis did not acquire his title “King” without good reason.
“I really hate what happened to Ronnie,” Ian concludes. “He was a great racer and did a lot for the sport of drag racing, but more importantly he was a friend too.”