Acid Burns and Crewing at Sebring, A Year Later.

You know the feeling when, you read an old letter you wrote, and you get nostalgic for the hope you felt back then?

For example, how about that time when you started to recover your strength a week after surgery, and tried to prepare your house to sell? Only this crazy, crazy thing happened next where you accidentally dipped both hands in concentrated Sulfuric Acid? And you thought you’d recover in a week….

Here is a note I wrote to my Mother-in-Law and my Dad.

February 1, 2016:

Saturday evening I was alone at the old house getting it ready for the
painters who are coming today.

While cleaning the boys’ bathroom, I found what appeared to be a
container of liquid drain opener recumbent in a cabinet. I couldn’t
see the label, but it was in a Ziploc bag, half-full. Using a paper
towel to protect my hand, I gingerly lifted it by the tip of the bag’s
corner, placed it into old bucket for hazmat disposal, and went back
to removing junk and wiping the cabinets down with a wet scrubbing
sponge.

I was trying to clean out this white powder that was all over the
shelves. I felt my fingerpads begin to feel very slippery. Assuming
it was powdered soap, I found a nail-brush and tried using hot water
to scrub off the “soap”.

But that just made it worse and my hands got VERY red and swollen,
looking like bulgy red rubber oven mitts. Burning was
crazy-bad and was moving up my wrists.
Figuring I had somehow touched the drain liquid (but not knowing HOW)
I called poison control while I flushed my hands with cold water.

I watched my hands fumble, slipping on the phone screen which felt squishy and cloud-like. Weird that I could not control my fingers, but the pain screeched for my attention.

As the water ran over my skin, I could see red meaty blossoms blistering:
SECOND DEGREE BURNS. I still had no clue what this liquid
was, or how it had “invisibly leaked” from the container.

Anyway, Poison Control told me to take Ibuprofen and keep flushing with water
until the burning sensation got better which I did for over 30
minutes.

Of course, I had no Motrin in the empty house. Called Big T, who
very sweetly brought me some. When he arrived on the scene, he remembered using concentrated sulfuric acid to de-clog a drain several years ago. It’d sat there
(right next to the children’s first aid kit and hot water bottles) in case it was needed again.

It dawned on me then: that white powder I had
been cleaning with my bare hands and sponge was anhydrous acid. The bottle tipped over, began a slow leak, resulting in flaked crystal.

I can function okay, since only a couple tiny blisters popped. Still
hurts though. And I drop things sometimes.
Chaos.

This was just five days before I’d planned to fly down to Sebring for the 48 Hours Club Race. I’d planned to crew for a friend who was resuming racing after a 30+ year hiatus. There were no hotel vacancies in town, so I’d booked a campsite at Highlands Hammocks State Park. There was no way that’d work now. He suggested I called a small family-owned inn (“she’s an Indian Beauty”) and book a room, which I did. Surely by then my hands would feel better and I could travel and wrench and be THE best crew chief ever!

When I called the ER (Ha! For what? I don’t know…just in case there was something ANYONE could do to help me?) they suggested I calm down, stop exaggerating, and take more Motrin.

The first day after the burns, when I wrote the above paragraphs, I had some hope. The next day, I looked up the sulfuric acid entry on poison control websites. Here is what I discovered:

Health Hazard

2016-02-01 20.58.35
Stay away from Sulfuric Acid if at all possible

Carcinogen, Corrosive, Reactive – 2nd degree
from NJDOH RTK Hazardous Substance List
Corrosive to all body tissues. Inhalation of vapor may cause serious lung damage. Contact with eyes may result in total loss of vision. Skin contact may produce severe necrosis.

Fatal amount for adult: between 1 teaspoonful and one-half ounce of the concentrated chemical. Even a few drops may be fatal if the acid gains access to the trachea.

Chronic exposure may cause tracheo-bronchitis, stomatitis, conjunctivitis, and gastritis. Gastric perforation and peritonitis may occur and may be followed by circulatory collapse. Circulatory shock is often the immediate cause of death.  

My hands continued to swell and burn over the next five days. Typing patient notes was impossible, wearing gloves was torture, turning a key in a lock was excruciating. I spent all my days carrying a frozen plastic water bottle despite the February cold. No amount of tears or Ibuprofen stopped the pain.

Sympathetic friends tried humor: on the bright side, wasn’t it good that I’d not licked the cabinets clean? Kind and concerned family members suggested: could my post-op state be worsening the pain? I personally scolded myself: Don’t be a baby. Smile. Suck it up. Move on.

So I did.

Except at night. I couldn’t sleep because the hands would swell up into these giant spongy lobster claw-like thingys. Blinding pain. I bit back the urge to scream uncontrollably.  I had to protect my family from that. Each night, after finishing clinic, I’d pick up the kids, figure out dinner, do laundry or whatever and then, after the kids went to bed, I’d return to the empty house trying to sleep on the wooden floor. I felt used, hurt, enraged. And, I did scream uncontrollably one night.

But there was one person I knew I could always call. I dialed the number with oafish finger

2016-03-12 14.16.21
Chris S, Vader, racing again after a 12 year hiatus. SCCA SAARC at Virginia International in March 2016.

pats on my phone.

Vader answered, only to hear me sobbing.

Vader listened. Vader spoke sense. In retrospect, Vader probably saved my marriage.

I tried to keep my chin up.  This would not rob me of Sebring. Sebring was supposed to be my reward for “abstaining” from track for two months. I missed my friends! Lady Lambo, Mr. LeMans, SCDon, and Swami.

Swami had crashed his race car 6 months before, and suffered some serious injuries. I worried terribly, constantly, about his health and his spirits. From October through January I had tried every day to hold space for my friend. To hold peace, or hope, or whatever. I tried joshing him and goading him to keep his eye on the prize. Through these months, I pored over car ads to find his next steed, and shared any good ones to keep his spirits going. During those pre-dawn paroxysms when injury took over, I thought it was my job to dream his dream for him.

Eventually, he did fall in love with a little car that I’d found online. This would be his return to racing. I absolutely had to be there, cheering his return to health and to track for his sake. Plus, I hadn’t seen him since before the crash. I needed to know he was OK.

SCDon would be there….racing his lovely Isabella, the 944 for the first time at Sebring. And the one and only lovely LadyLambo and her husband Mr. LL would be there: I’d never met him! And I hadn’t seen her since back in August at Indy. And, of course, the always pragmatic, ridiculously funny, and completely wonderful down-to-earth Monsieur LeMans would be there too!

Nothing could keep me away.

I arrived at the airport Friday at 5:15am for my Orlando flight. The temperature was 18 degrees F at the parking deck.  My nail-beds turned white as the cold numbed the pain. Wearing gloves was impossible. I’d packed my helmet, but there was no room for my gigantic hairbrush, so I pulled it out to repack it. Shards of stinging pain electrocuted my raw skin as the sharp bristles scraped my blistered hands. I gritted my teeth, gave the hairbrush a final shove, and carried my bags in.

At the desk I discovered my flight was rerouted to Tampa. I texted Swami and LadyLambo the updated news. I was at the end of my rope. I had nothing left to give. “I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag for 4 nights. Be nice to me.”

Changing terminals in Atlanta, I ham-fisted the luggage clumsily, as both hands spitted thick globs of pain like fat from steaks sizzling on a hot summer grill. By the time I reached the gate, I was hiccup-ping. To avoid curious glances before boarding began, I stood facing a wall.

In Tampa I picked up the rental car and unsuccessfully tried using my fingernails to drive the remaining 103 miles. I found some ice at a gas station and took turns to cool one hand while the other hand steered.

Arriving at Sebring was chaotic. I drove around aimlessly after entering the main gate, and needed to ask directions for how to get to the bridge. Driving over the iconic arc with palm trees flanking both sides I giggled with giddy anticipation.

I was at track. I could forget my surgery, my mitts of torture, my stifled scream.

The paddock sizzled with a carnival of color and noise and people and thrumming unmuffled engines. I’d never seen SO many Porsches all at once. The air was guzzled in high octane gas fumes. Excitement and frustration smashed together in a palpable haze of Nomex clad racers amid corner workers furiously flagging.

Giant 54 foot stacker car-haulers festooned with flags, canopies, tire-stacks, tech crews. Volunteer retirees ogled the girls with windswept hair and skimpy shorts as their fluffy-haired wives adjusted their elastic waistbands and charm bracelets.

Kaleidoscope colors crowded around: people drinking water, people rolling tires, people taking photos, people barking orders and pointing, people adjusting radio headsets, people going in and out of the shabby looking restroom buildings. I remember smells of cooking–it wasn’t just the Snack Shack. People in the paddock had grills going even in the middle of the afternoon.

My rental hatchback and I trundled around slowly gazing at the scene slack-jawed. HOW on Earth would I find LL and SCD? No need to bother phoning Swami since he refused to speak (with me) by phone. I called LL and Mr. LM but no calls went through. The track has lousy signal.

Finally, from the wrong end of the paddock, I was able to spot the TuneRS banners and drove toward them slowly. The throngs were disorienting and I saw nobody I knew.

“HEY!!” A white haired dude popped his face into my car window. It took a moment for me to realize it was Swami. His boyish grin and crinkly eyed smile were the same as ever, and so good see after months of worrying about him. Hugging him, I happily parked the Kia and hopped out. I pulled on my rainboots and the only coat I’d brought (an outrageously pink rain parka) to guard against the sharp breeze.

I looked up to see LadyLambo deep in conversation with Miguel aka Mike from Tune RS! It had been too long since I saw her, and it felt refreshing to see her there. Her kind eyes, warm smile, sincere hug made my trip worthwhile.

And….OOOOOOHHHH! I admired the new race car! What a little beauty–an eye popping Riviera Blue Boxster! She was SO cute!

With all my flight changes, I ended up missing Swami’s last run that day. The next day was race day. And I had brought all my notes for how to be a good crew chief. He’d bought these expensive racing radios and I felt obliged to do my part. Wasn’t quite sure if my hands would cooperate, as by then it hurt to even open the truck’s door. “What’s wrong granny?” I was chided.

Swami took LL and I for a perimeter tour in his truck. What a sight it was to see the GT cars racing at the infamous HairPin (Turn 7) at Sebring. I tried to pull myself up on the fence for a better view, but the wire cut into my blistered hams and I gave up. Luckily, Swami had a step-stool in his truck for me to use so I could see the action on track.

2016-02-05 17.11.44
Lady Lambo who is an amazing, fast, accurate driver. A woman who serves as a role model.

While we were there, Mr. LL drove up and I finally got to meet him!  AND the magnificent panther-like black Panamera! She and I finally got to have a mini-girls’ chat up in the club-house and just catching up on news and track stuff. Back in the paddock I almost literally bumped into SCDon. What a great treat–it’d been over a year since I’d seen his cheeky dimples and merry-with-evil-humor eyes. Making introductions was immediately followed by having to say goodbye to LadyLambo: they’d had a long day at track and had a long drive home.  I was sorry we could not have dinner together, but I understood. SCDon had said he’d be at Chicanes later with Mrs. SCD  so we agreed to be on the lookout for each other.

The breezy sunny afternoon drifted into cold windy darkness, and I made my way to the little motel to shower. Afterwards, pulling on my shirtdress and fumbling with the tiny gold buttons, I sank into a nap on the threadbare coverlet. I awoke, startled, at a knock. SwamiMike had arrived to drive me to dinner at the Inn on the Lakes. My hands sat in limp relief.

In the parking lot, I spied a track modified 356: a TOTAL DREAM BOAT. Out of common decency, I controlled my urge to caress it’s chrome bumpers. Swami could not resist grabbing it’s headlights with both hands. He took a photo of me standing next to it grinning like a happy, well dressed, but slightly deranged woman.

2016-02-05 19.31.08
Possibly the hottest car I’ve ever met in person.

 

Once inside, I got a tour of the vintage photo display showing the winners of each 12 Hours of Sebring race since it’s inception 50 years ago. We managed to squeeze two seats at the bar. My resurrected-racer friend was especially nice to me, bought me dinner, and didn’t make any snarky comments when I kept dropping my fork. I tried to explain why I needed to stay away from home to protect my sweet Big T from my tidal fury. I’m not sure he understood.

After a happy evening of delicious food, drinks, chatting, and catching up, SwamiMike very sweetly drove me back to my ornithological motel room and said goodnight. I’m not squeamish about six legged creatures, which helped. My short pj’s were freezing, so I covered up with my raincoat as I brushed my teeth and got into bed. My eyes closed with a smile: How wonderful to be with dear friends! It was good to see SwamiM was OK. Best of all: race day!

The next morning, the paddock was crackling with electricity and promise! Monsieur LeMans and I met up during Swami’s warmups and took some photos (Mr. LeMans looks handsome and distinguished and I look like Jimi Hendrix, thanks to the Florida humidity).

2016-02-06 07.46.24
Warm-ups on Saturday, 48 hours of Sebring 2016

Needless to say, I was a failure as a crew chief. But I made up for it by being a good photojournalist and attended the drivers meeting, shooting Swami receiving his rookie racing license, despite the unwelcome glances from Swami’s mentor.

We had lunch together, by which I mean Swami ate my lunch (but that was OK because it was too big for me and it was free.) Later on, Swami came to find me in the paddock.

2016-02-17 18.16.46
Bunny ears while Swami ate my free lunch.

He was carrying a gift bag: Inside it, a gorgeous dress shirt for Big T with a Sebring 48 logo (I’d wanted to buy it but thought it was too expensive) and Porsche Club Racing decals for my beloved 911. I hugged him.

Afterward the plan was for Swami and I to go out on parade laps together in the Kia, following Mr. LeMans.  But instead of 15 minutes of parade laps, Mr. LeMans and I endured a 45 minute ordeal waiting at the grid. There was no way SwamiMike could be on time to grid for his next race so he had to opt out. On track, my Kia following Mr. LeM’s rental Camry, I felt intimidated and terrified.

When it was all over, I was perspiring buckets of upset that I wasn’t by Swami’s side to help him buckle in for his next race. He was gridded up and I only saw him once again for that day. Mr. LeM had to leave to catch his flight out of Orlando, we hugged and said goodbye.  I said goodbye to SCDon who was already packing up his trailer: car trouble had forced an early departure.

image1
Mr. LeMans looking dapper in the wind. Notice how tightly I’m grabbing the ice water bottle? Oh, and I DID get to use the radio headset after all…as earmuffs!

I had to rush over to my volunteer position, the flag station at Turn 17a. Forecasted rain came in right on time. From 1pm to 5pm I stood semi-soaked under the flimsy plywood canopy. My only joy was seeing the adorable little Riviera Blue SpecBoxster go mere inches past my knees. She was the ONLY car whose brake lights stayed off even deep into turn 17b. My Swami wasn’t making it up: he didn’t brake at 17, even when all the others did. This happy thought kept me warm, even as my parka succumbed to the rainy onslaught soaking my jeans all the way through my panties and dripping down into my galoshes.

Around 4pm I needed a ladies room break. I rushed over to the grungy outhouse and in my hurry almost missed Swami heading toward me. He told me he’d loaded up and was heading home. He seemed annoyed  but that was nothing new. Returning to my post, I continued getting soaked for another 90 minutes until track went cold.

There was a banquet that night. They let me in when I promised to pay the next morning. I sat with the TuneRS guys and a lovely couple who had manned the corner station at Turn 17b for the 4 hours with a golf umbrella as their only shelter. United in rain-drenched misery, we chatted excitedly about vintage racing.  I happened to be wearing a unique Tshirt from a Roebling Road event, and as I stood in line to get my drink a tall man came over. He looked like the cartoon on my Tshirt. He explained that it was, in fact, a caricature of him. The conversation started out friendly, but ended abruptly after he said “I think my face looks good on your right boob.”

Sunday, it had stopped raining. I paid my banquet fee, painfully loaded my bags into the Kia, and made it back to Tampa in time for my flight home. Big T and the puppies were home when I arrived. He kissed me and offered me dinner.

Why bring this all up now? Over a year later?

I was reminded of this all last month when I attended part of the Sebring 48 hours. I arrived late Friday night, and ended up missing dinner with the AtlantaSpeedwerks crew even though CrazyTodd had saved me a margarita.C5jGBDyWYAAMuo0Pulling into the paddock late at night, I met two very very special people: M & M of Chin Track Days. We hugged and cried over our loves and losses: skin contact with track asphalt and Daisy. As a newly minted Chin VIP I joyfully received a Chin Goody Bag. The perfectly sized track gear bag containing a perfectly sized T-shirt, a coozie, and a Chin decal.

I walked around the dark paddock and noticed that SwamiM’s car was pitted with Zotz Racing. He’d made the right choice of friends at Daytona last October, and was now part of a larger operation.

The next morning, track visibility was poor. The races were delayed. I didn’t see the tall guy who had commented on my chestlast year. LadyLambo and Mr. LeMans were each at their homes in the snowy north.  SCDon had survived Isabella ripping up her body panels at the Summit races, and was nursing her back to health in Virginia.

Swami and his beautiful Riviera Blue Boxster were there with a far superior crew chief than I’d been. Good for them! They deserved it. Meanwhile, I photographed a nearby gaggle of air-cooled spec racers, and a Canadian racing team welcomed me into their tent to give me an “engine tour” of their Porsche 991 GT3 Cup cars. It was a foggy morning.

So what, you ask? What’s the problem?

My hands.

They hurt.

Every single day.

Still, I remain mostly happy. I have the best prize: My  handsome sweet T and my lovely babies.

And, after an entire winter season from 2016 to 2017 driving there, Sebring is no longer a mystery. He is now a cherished friend. I miss him dearly and will be back again to revel in his bumpiness, his entry speed at turn 1, his hard braking zone at turn 7, and his concrete-walled Fresh From Florida tough love.

Turn 17, I’m coming for you.

SebringBridge4cones
Under the 1st bridge at the front straight.

 

3 thoughts on “Acid Burns and Crewing at Sebring, A Year Later.

  1. Read every word….and miss my friend.
    Funny…cleaning out a drawer yesterday, I ran across this note (yes, I saved it) written on paper with a painting of artist Francesco Hayez “Il Bacio” ar the bottom.

    It read, “Dear Pam, Thank you for being such a dear friend. I hope you won’t mind being my co-PCA member this year? Take care, A”.

    That note, from my friend, and the gift it contained, made me smile at a time when I needed it most.
    I love you A!!

    Liked by 1 person

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