Racing with Destiny
January 31, 2012
"I was leading the pack because I was the most experienced one out of everybody," Whiteside said. "I was wearing all of my protective equipment -- all my basic stuff that I wore on the track when I raced."
Behind him were a dozen riders who'd met that morning at a motorcycle shop in Renton. It was a chilly 45 degrees as they headed out. They'd been on the road less than five minutes when they hit the interchange from Highway 167 to I-405 North. Their tires, relatively cold and hard as they started the ride, hadn't yet warmed enough to reach their optimal "stickiness," or traction, with the road. That would take a bit more time -- time Whiteside didn't have as he pushed the Yamaha's performance.
Going between 65 and 75 mph as he exited Highway 167 onto the onramp, he flashed past a 45-mph speed limit sign, followed shortly thereafter by a sign recommending drivers slow to 35 mph for curves. But such recommendations, Whiteside considered, didn't reflect the agility of his R1. Leaning left coming out of a switchback, his rear tire suddenly broke loose, sending his bike into a counterclockwise spin. He fell back on his training and racing experience.
"If you lose traction with the rear tire, you're supposed to maintain and (if needed) increase throttle to help pull you out of the corner," he said. Braking or slowing down, he explained, would cause the motorcycle to stand up and go straight, running off the road.
But he couldn't regain control.
"My rear tire began coming around," he said. The bike quickly spun until it was nearly 90 degrees to the road. The rear tire, rapidly heating as it slid and spun against the road, suddenly gained full traction. What happened next, Whiteside will never forget.
"It shot me over the top, and that was the end of it," he said.
The motorcycle had "high-sided," flipping to the right and violently throwing him onto the road ahead.
"After I went over the top of the handlebars, I flipped and landed on the back of my head," he said. "When that happened, it basically compressed my spine to the point it caused a compression fracture to my L1 vertebrae. However, thanks to my safety gear, that was all that happened."
Despite his injury, Whiteside was conscious. Pumped with adrenaline, he got up and ran off the road, collapsing into a ditch. Fortunately, one of his fellow riders was a Navy corpsman. He stopped and immediately assessed his injuries while Whiteside complained of pain in his left foot and back. The corpsman and the other riders stabilized Whiteside as they awaited the ambulance.
"I was able to maintain consciousness, but I don't remember a whole lot of what happened after that," Whiteside said.
An ambulance picked up Whiteside to take him to Madigan Army Medical Center, located about 35 miles away. However, en route he lost consciousness and was transferred to another ambulance that took him to Harbor View Medical Center in Seattle. En route, he lost consciousness again. When he regained consciousness, it was several hours later.
"I woke up that night in the hospital with a brace and X-rays from all over my back showing I had broken it," he said.
Doctors monitored him for three days to ensure his fractured disc didn't shatter. They then put him in an extensive brace with bars running down his rib cage and across his chest and stomach. He wore the brace for three months to stabilize his back while his damaged vertebrae healed. He discovered his tightly fitting racing leathers had performed an important function.
"The doctors stated that if I hadn't been wearing my leather suit, I'd have probably been in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down," Whiteside said. The leathers, he explained, kept pressure on the damaged vertebrae, protecting it. He added had he just been wearing a loose-fitting jacket, the disk would likely have shattered or blown out, damaging his spinal cord.
Whiteside's personal protective equipment protected him in many other ways.
"My gloves were completely shredded, but there was not a single scratch on my hands," he said. "My glove's Kevlar knuckle protectors prevented my hands from being shattered."
The impact tore a chunk out of the back of his helmet, an expensive Arai model. However, a damaged helmet beat the alternative. He said his insurance company gladly paid the nearly $5,000 to replace his riding gear, noting it was cheaper than paying for a coffin.
Surviving the accident provided him some valuable lessons learned. Although his bike could've easily handled the curves on a well-groomed racing track, riding on the street was a different matter. He lost control on a grooved road surface designed to promote rain runoff -- a situation he never faced on a racetrack. Also, before racing, riders use electric heaters to warm their tires for maximum traction. Without those, it could've taken 10 to 15 minutes of riding before his tires would enjoy the same level of grip on the roads. And he didn't have that long.
Whiteside learned the street was not the place for riders to explore the performance of modern sport bikes. There are too many variables, any of which could suddenly send a rider out of control. And smart riders know that riding gear is no place to skimp or save money. When things go wrong, quality riding gear may be more important than a rider can imagine.
"It doesn't matter if it's five feet from your house or a 100-mile trip; you always need your gear because you can't predict what will happen," Whiteside said.
It's also important for the rider to stay ahead of the machine.
"I tell riders to always drive a mile ahead of themselves," he said. "Expect others to pull out in front of you, expect there to be something as you go through every corner. Expect the worst because, when you don't, that's when 'it' is going to happen."
Whiteside learned from his experience and is committed to helping protect fellow Army riders safely enjoy the sport of motorcycling.
What's Between You and the Road?
Staff Sgt. William Whiteside knows how important good personal protective equipment is to a rider. After all, he got the chance to wear out $5,000 worth of it in just one accident. That said, he's still alive, can walk and count to 10 on his fingers.
If you're going to ride, it's wise to put something durable between your head, your hide and the highway. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has the following suggestions about good riding gear.
• Helmets -- Make sure they meet DOT standards and consider a full-face model to protect your nose, cheek and chin should you hit the highway face-first. Novelty helmets shatter like cheap plastic cups, splattering their contents on highways, jersey barriers, guard rails and other objects that don't give.
• Footwear -- Boots with oil-resistant, rubber-based composite soles will give you a strong grip on the pavement and help keep your feet on the pegs. They can also protect against foot and ankle injuries.
• Jackets, Pants and Riding Suits -- Gear purposefully designed to protect riders will better resist wearing through when sliding down the road and will also be cut to match the motorcyclist's riding position without binding.
Gloves -- Full-fingered gloves protect hands from blisters, wind, sun and cold and help prevent cuts, bruises and abrasions in a crash. This is especially important as the skin on the fingers is comparatively thin