I had a claustrophobic panic attack in a rally car

This year was the first time I attended the Velocity Invitational at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California. It was a fantastic weekend full of cars straight out of my dreams. As part of the event, I got to ride in a rally car driven by freeride mountain biker turned rally driver, Brandon Semenuk. However, things did not turn out exactly as I thought.

photo: Mike Noga Velocity Invitational

One of Velocity’s vendors this year was Dirty fish. If you’re not familiar, Dirtfish is a rally driving school in Washington state. One of their partners is the Subaru WRC team, who are at Velocity this year with a trio of WRX rally cars, one of which is the latest based on the current generation WRX.

Image for article titled I Had a Claustrophobia-Induced Panic Attack in a Rally Car

photo: Mike Noga Velocity Invitational

I and two other writers were invited to ride in that car with Semenuk. We were pushed, of course. My time was last, so I had to see what to expect as the others went before me. While I waited, I picked up a racing suit and helmet.

I’m not the smallest person, both in weight and height, so they had to do some digging to find the right suit size for me. What they thought would be a baggy suit was actually roomy and comfortable enough, especially considering I had other layers of my own clothes underneath.

Image for article titled I Had a Claustrophobia-Induced Panic Attack in a Rally Car

photo: Mike Noga Velocity Invitational

After receiving an equally large helmet and being equipped with a HANS device, I was fully equipped and ready for my turn. Getting into the WRX rally car took some effort. Again, I’m not the smallest person and while the car had regular opening doors, the full roll cage meant I had to step over it onto the seat. They claimed to have made the seat a little wider for media devices, but there was no lateral movement in the seat.

After settling into the seat, I began to feel strangely uneasy. I chalked it up to the excitement of driving, but things got worse after I was snapped in the racing seatbelt and fitted with HANS. I was going crazy inside and I realized that I had to get out I kept my composure and politely asked if I could have a minute to step out and get some air; in my head I was actually screaming. The Subaru team obliged.

Image for article titled I Had a Claustrophobia-Induced Panic Attack in a Rally Car

Image: Mike Noga Velocity Invitational

I tried strapping in again and it was a little better this time, but the claustrophobic anxiety was still there. I tried to stay calmer after the belt was ready to go, but in the end I couldn’t. Semenuk was super cool about it the whole time, as was the entire Subaru press team.

The whole ordeal made me wonder if what I had just experienced was something else that any other rally or racer had gone through. I have come to understand that in a way it is.

Our Editor-in-Chief Rory Carroll put me in touch with Kate Stevens, a friend who happens to be a rally car navigator. She is unique in that despite doing what she does, she suffers from motion sickness. I need to talk to her and ask her about the ins and outs of sitting in the right seat.

She told me it was necessary a lot of mental discipline. If she focuses on getting sick, she will be sick. She told me that she was able to handle it because something like getting sick and throwing up can derail an entire rally. Although she hadn’t heard of or known anyone to experience anything like a panic or claustrophobic attack, she told me she wasn’t surprised it happened given the limitations of the car and all the equipment. Despite all that, she said if you’re into motorsports and want to be a driver or something, you can’t let any of that stop you. If you love these things, you will find a way. She said she hoped someday I would try to get into another rally car to try it out.

Even though I didn’t actually end up riding and it was sickening to experience such a panic, I came out of it with a different perspective. It was great to get insight from someone who actually does this stuff all the time. It made me feel better and I’m starting to think I’ll actually try it again someday.

Image for article titled I Had a Claustrophobia-Induced Panic Attack in a Rally Car

photo: Mike Noga Velocity Invitational

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