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Car Crash TV: Mike Austin’s dragster

Any man who sits with his back to a several-thousand-horsepower, methanol-burning V8 deserves a very big shiny Top Gear medal. Especially when, the last time he sat in his car, the monstrous engine overboosted and flamed half the cylinders. That’s what happened to Mike Austin. And it’s why, during the night before this crash, his crew rebuilt the block in a rush to get it ready for this blast down the strip at Pomona, California.

But the grenade behind his head was just a distraction. Something wrapped in a special ballistic blanket can do that to you. What he didn’t know was that, further down the car, beside the front wheels, something more serious was going on. In the transporter, on the rough road from the workshop to the track, his dragster’s suspension had cracked. So when Mike performed the burnout, the front-left upright snapped. The only thing stringing the wheel to the car was the steering cable. And a bit of wire is not the best way of holding things in place when the whole frame is being shaken with the force of a huge magnitude earthquake.

“When I made the burnout, I felt something funny,” he said in an interview with a local paper. “I backed up, thinking it was odd.” Undeterred, he rolled forwards. In five more seconds, he’d be doing 270mph. Or so he thought. “When I launched, it put so much pressure against the cable that it broke… and when that happened, the front end turned,” Mike said. “The car made a funny move to the centre. I tried to pull it back straight, and it didn’t really do anything.” With it swerving to the middle, risking a direct strike with the machine in the adjacent lane, he pulled a little harder… which caused the car to snap over onto its side.

With downforce lost, the car floated up and over the guard rail, 10 feet in the air. He landed between the track and the grandstand and skidded the rest of the quarter-mile on his side before slamming into a wall. He smelt smoke. His helmet was caught between the roll cage and the ground. And then the Safety Safari crew arrived to pluck him out. A few minutes later, he was on his feet. Later that week, he was back at work, figuring out how to make £50k for a new car… when most of us would be brewing a pot of tea.

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