RACING WITH DESTINY - Soldier's racetrack skills didn't translate to highway as he crashes and breaks his back

  • Published
  • By Bob Van Elsberg
  • Editor and writer with Knowledge, the official safety magazine of the Army, Strategic Communication
It's hard to resist rolling the throttle when you're straddling a motorcycle that can go from zero to 100 mph in less than six seconds. But that's what Army Staff Sgt. William Whiteside's potent 2005 Yamaha YZF-R1 sport bike could do.

In 2007, the Soldier had been racing on a MotoGP track in Jerez, Spain, close to his assignment in Rota. Fastforward to Nov. 1, 2008, stateside. He exited Highway 167 North in Renton, Wash., onto the onramp to Interstate 405 North when he encountered some easy curves and a decent straightaway. With 165 horsepower at his fingertips and an agile bike, the onramp didn't have to be boring.

At least that's what he thought as he entered the first curve.

"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 dangerous 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 him 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."

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. Along the way, he lost consciousness again.

When he opened his eyes again, several hours has passed. "I woke up that night in the hospital with a brace," he said.

X-rays showed he'd broken his back.

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.

Despite his traumatic injuries, 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 disc would likely have shattered or blown out, damaging his spinal cord.

Whiteside's personal protective equipment protected him in many other ways, as well.

"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.

Whiteside 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.

He simply 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, the Soldier said.

"It doesn't matter if it's 5 feet from your house or a 100-mile trip; you always need your gear because you can't predict what will happen," Whiteside said.