The Truth Behind What Caused Paul Walker’s Fatal Crash

The likely cause is so mundane we never talk about it. Let's change that.

Paul Walker Tires
Mallory Short/Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/Flickr.Com

Your tires are the most important part of your car. They can make you faster, they can save your life, or they can get you killed, even if you’re the star of a major car-centric action franchise, and even if you aren’t driving. (Spoiler alert: the driver dies too).

Considering how important tires are, they aren’t given nearly enough credit in the media or in car-guy circles. Sure, every racer talks about tires, and a lot of canyon warriors will sit on top of the snake talking setup, but on the internet and in casual conversation with casual enthusiasts, tires are a dull topic. You certainly can’t brag about them on a forum the way you can with your upgraded turbo and fresh dyno chart. You have to go into the Grassroots Motorsports catalog, or to a very specific sub-genre to see a tire comparison test for your desired application, so most people just end up reading reviews on TireRack.

Tires are a dull topic even when we’re actively shopping for tires. They have insanely complicated naming schemes like GoodRubber GoodGripper Pro XGV25, which makes them even harder to discuss than Infiniti’s current lineup. In all seriousness, I have a set of tires on my Mustang at the moment called “Continental ContiForce Contact.” That’s a real name under which a real set of tires is marketed. Most people don’t have the luxury of actually testing tires before they buy either, making decisions based on either anecdotal evidence, a roll of the dice, budget, or a combination of the three.

Nevertheless, the four small patches of rubber connecting your two-ton manslaughter machine to your city’s lowest-priced asphalt are, if you ask me, the best way to improve your car, or, the quickest way to fuck it up, crash, and even die. Even if you should know better. And I’m going to give you one piece of advice—advice I learned the hard way, but not as hard as my friends Paul Walker—who would have celebrated his 43rd birthday this week—and Roger Rodas did.

In November of 2012, I entered my modified C5 Corvette in the “Optima Batteries Ultimate Street Car Invitational,” a multi-discipline driving event held the day after SEMA ends in Las Vegas.

[Disclaimer: I have done promotional work at events for Optima Batteries unrelated to this event or to my column at The Drive.]

I could not have been less prepared for this event if I had left the car’s targa roof at home in the garage—which, by the way, I did. Think it never rains in Vegas? Never snows? Go there in a car without a roof. I guarantee both will happen.

Though the car was in mostly good nick, with around 25,000 miles on it. The engine makes 400 horsepower to the wheels with some mild bolt-on upgrades, and it has a Stoptech Big Brake kit, Pfadt coilover suspension, racing seats, harnesses, and more. All of it worked.

The bad news? It also had six-year-old Goodyear F1 Assymetric tires on it. They had less than 5,000 miles on them, so they looked nearly new. But looking new and gripping like new are two different propositions entirely.

A tire, for those as unfamiliar with this concept as I was back then, does two things: it sticks to the road by nature of its rubber chemical compound, and it disperses water using the tread pattern cut into the tire.

On a street tire, most people will notice their tread has worn down after several thousand miles of use and decide it’s time to get new tires. If it rains, the worn tread won’t disperse water as well and you will have poor wet-weather performance, as well as a tendency towards hydroplaning. With cars driven frequently, you will wear out your tread before you age-out your rubber, which is the problem I want to address.

With collector cars, especially cars driven less than a few thousand miles a year, the problem is that while your tread may look good, the rubber is old and dry, and simply will not work properly. The chemical compounds in your tires will degrade over time, significantly reducing your available grip, or worse, blowing out a sidewall under load.

With sport tires, colder weather and harsh weather will exacerbate this. In general, five years from date of manufacture (stamped on the tire) is about as old as you ever want to go in a car you plan to drive quickly. If that car (or the tires themselves) are stored in a climate-controlled facility under perfect conditions, maybe you could squeeze an extra year or two out of them. But the fact is, if you have a few cars, some maybe that you only drive a few times a year, replacing tires can easily become a dangerous afterthought.

Which brings me back to Las Vegas on a chilly November morning. I arrive in the paddock at Spring Mountain to find out that, as usual, every other person at the track has taken this event much more seriously than I have. Most have prepped their cars specifically for this event, whereas I have pulled my car out of storage, driven it to Las Vegas without a roof, and parked. Some “Ultimate Streetcars” are pulled out of full-size race haulers, lifted up on air jacks, and fitted with electronic tire warming blankets.

My Goodyear Eagle F1 Assymetric tires were decent, not great, when new. Now, six years later they look fine, and felt OK on the highway, so here I am—the first car out onto the track for the morning’s run group. Ambient temperatures are in the 40s. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see track temperatures lower than that.

I make it three corners. At less than 45 mph, all the controls in the Corvette go light, and I find myself doing a four-wheeled slide off the track into the gravel. After punching myself in the face a few times, I creep back onto the track and black flag myself for being a moron, but don’t even get that far. Four corners later, it happens again, on the slowest corner of the entire track. Off into the gravel I go.

My wheels looking like rock tumblers and my mint Torch Red paint now covered in a chalky fine layer of dust, I hang my head and limp back to the paddock. I had gone off twice during my warm up lap.

Now, I’m not saying I’m the greatest driver in the world and would have won the whole thing; far from it. I am saying that if I had bothered to actually do the proper maintenance on my car, I would have been able to set something resembling a lap time, instead of doing a piece of terrible performance art.

More importantly, what I had done was really fucking dangerous. Had the track layout been different; had it been a cold morning in Daytona, or Wisconsin, rather than Nevada, I may have hit a wall at 100 mph rather than some gravel at 20.

Fast forward a year. In November of 2013, Paul Walker and Roger Rodas were hanging out at an open house and car show in front of the business they owned together, Always Evolving. I had the pleasure of both their company on several occasions; though we weren’t close, both Roger and Paul were always a pleasure to be around, especially at the track, where they spent a lot of time. Both were excellent drivers and upstanding citizens. Neither of them would live to see the end of the day.

Roger, an avid car collector with more than 50 cars to his name—including what I believe is the largest collection of Saleen cars in the world—had just bought himself a Porsche Carrera GT out of a long-term collection.

The red-over-black Carrera GT was the right color combo and had a famous owner in its history: Graham Rahal. It also had only 3,500 miles on the odometer, making for a highly desirable example. He had just taken delivery of the car that week. Paul, as big of a gearhead as he was, had never been in a Carrera GT before. It was a Sunday, so the large office park was all-but-deserted save for AE’s small section of parking lot.

“Just once around the block.”

Once around the block was all it took to kill them both. The 3,500 mile Carrera GT was shod with its original tires. They, like the car attached to them, were 9 years old.

Roger lost control of the Carrera GT at an estimated 90 mph, and hit a tree.

The mainstream media, and indeed many automotive-focused web sites, simply couldn’t wait to report on the irony of the situation, that someone known for playing a character who drives crazy is killed in a supercar doing double the speed limit in an office park.

I was distraught the first couple of days, but honestly, all I could think about was how the crash happened, and I just kept going back to that day at Spring Mountain. This was a super low-mileage car. Roger was a really good driver. There were no other cars around or last-minute obstacles to avoid. It had to have been on original tires.

No one talked about the tires. Everyone wanted to hang Paul and Roger out to dry as their speeding scapegoats. The tires were a footnote to an exaggerated story, and it became a missed opportunity to teach a very real lesson. The LA Times reported one article on it nearly 5 months after the crash, and that was it. The cause of the crash was still ruled “unsafe speed for the conditions.” And not “tires, which may as well have been made of paper mache.”

I’ve been to that office park, and I know that corner, and you can take that corner at 90 mph in a fucking Prius, as long as you have tires that aren’t 9 years old. In a Carrera GT you could take it at 90, one-handed, while sipping a Venti Latte. I’m not saying you should be legally allowed to rip around an office park at 90, but from a technical sense, the actual cause of the crash was trash old tires. “Unsafe speed for the conditions” may have been the ticket Roger would have gotten if a cop stopped him, but that’s not what caused the accident.

I know no one wants to hear this, but I’m going to say it: Roger was a great driver, and actually quite conservative. And if he had a new set of tires on the car, that crash wouldn’t have happened, because 90 mph on that corner is nothing for a Carrera GT. With old tires, it’s not like you get oversteer or understeer, and you then correct, and back it down. They seem fine one minute, you hit the brakes or turn the wheel, and then they are just gone. You’re a passenger. Or, at least I was, back at Spring Mountain in 2012.

The Carrera GT was a handful when it was new, which gives it an edge as a collector’s item; an edge you don’t get from a Bentley. Leno spun one out, so did Seinfeld. It’s got a notoriously grabby clutch, a manic engine, and no electronic drivers aids whatsoever. It’s known for being nasty, sharing its legacy alongside the Ford GT as the last of the truly analog cars, discontinued because the government said we need stability control now.

Sort of like the Porsche 550 Spyder, a beautiful and successful racing machine far overshadowed by the young, handsome actor who happens to have killed himself in one.

I haven’t driven a Carrera GT in years, but I’m told that fitting a new set of Pilot Super Sports or Cup2’s on them really improve the drivability and dial back a bit of the sketchiness. The original tires, even when they were new, weren’t great. At 9 years old, they are absolutely worthless.

After the dust settled, I got a phone call from a lawyer claiming to represent Meadow Walker in a lawsuit against Porsche. He wanted me to testify that I thought the Carrera GT was a dangerous car, an opinion that he presented to me, and not the other way around.

I do not think the Carrera GT is inherently dangerous; I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a car to save passengers in a 90 mph broadside crash, nor to expect that the lack of stability management, rather than the old tires, caused the crash. And of course, the car passed all the necessary steps when new, and had now been out of production for nearly a decade. I say this with a straight face after losing two friends in that crash.

[UPDATE: Representatives from Meadow Walker’s law firm contacted The Drive with this statement: "No one from Meadow Walker’s legal team ever contacted the writer or asked for an opinion. While he has a right to his opinion, we note the writer is not an engineer, has no scientific credentials or degrees, and we don’t believe he would qualify to testify as an expert witness in a court of law.”]

As badly as I feel for both Paul and Roger’s children, it is my opinion that the wrongful death lawsuit against Porsche is a greedy lawyer cash grab and has very little to do with the Walker or Rodas family, both of whom have plenty of money to live off.

The point, kids, is if you have a car you don’t drive very often; or if you buy a car from a collection and it has low miles; or if you buy a car that has been sitting for any period of time, or used sporadically: check the tires, and change the tires. They may look like they are in good shape with not many miles on them, but if they are out of date and you don’t check, you won’t know anything’s gone wrong unless it’s too late. Learn from my stupidity in this situation, or from poor Roger and Paul. As they say, the life you save, may be your own.