I learned this weekend that racing drivers wear fire retardant clothing for a reason. Unfortunately for me, I learned this the hard way during a “carbeque” which sadly was my racecar. Smore’s anyone? Yup, it turns out our racing suits are not just billboards for sponsors while we stand on the podium next to the good looking trophy girls. These Nomex suits are designed to keep us alive, and for good reason, because living is awesome!
Before it happened I certainly didn’t know I was going to be involved in a car fire situation. There was absolutely no warning. In fact, I was having an outstanding race weekend with no issues. On Saturday, I started from the front row and won the NASA SoCal Honda Challenge 4 race, setting the fastest race lap, and earning crucial points for the regional championship.
On Sunday, I broke the H4 track record for Buttonwillow Raceway during qualifying and was on pole for the race at 11:25 a.m. Life was good, the crew at Double Nickel Nine Motorsports was happy. I hadn’t bent the car and we were hoping to win our second race of the weekend . . . if all went well, of course.
During the Sunday race, I ended up in an epic multi-lap battle with fellow H4 driver Carlos Valenzuela who was driving a CRX. I was trying to pull away from Carlos, but he was on me like glue using the chrome horn to give me love taps on my rear bumper.
He and I were running within 38 thousandths of a second of each other pushing each other to the limit. He finally got by me and I was hell bent on re-passing him, but my motor wasn’t quite revving like it had been in qualifying. As soon as I recognized something might be wonky with the engine . . . KABOOM!
My spotter at this part of the track, Austin Fowler, jumped on the radio and said clearly and calmly, “You‘re on fire.” I heard him and believed him. The car was on fire. This was not a drill, this was not a joke. I realized I needed to start working on getting myself disconnected from the racecar.
That meant 7-point harnesses, window net, radio wire, helmet air tube, cool suit tubing, water hydration tubing to my helmet, it all needed to be disconnected quickly. I needed to hit the kill switch to turn off the fuel pump and I needed to find a safe place to park the car off the track, preferably where I wouldn’t catch dry grass on fire. I also didn’t want to just slam on my brakes on a hot race track and get rear-ended by another car while I was trying to climb out of a burning racecar. A lot of things were going through my mind but I was calm, I had already planned for this scenario knowing someday it could be a reality.
When the fire entered the cockpit, things went from bad to worse. This was not just another blown engine situation with a little burned oil from the scattered motor. The car was on fire — a lot on fire — and I needed to exit quickly!
I started going through the many things that I needed to do, ripping stuff off of my helmet, as the cockpit began to fill with more and more smoke. I was thinking, “Wow, this is really happening. My car is legit on fire!”
There was one moment where I was climbing out of the car and my HANS device got caught on the wing of the containment seat as I was coming out of the window (I didn’t bother to open the door or remove my steering wheel to save time). For a millisecond I was stuck in the car because of the narrow opening between my A-pillar and the containment seat, and that was holding me in the car near the fire.
I’ll be honest, that scared me a bit. I knew I had disconnected everything. Why wasn’t I already out of the car and clear of the fire? The smoke was getting crazy thick in the interior so I knew things were bad. I leaned back and then rolled out again and this time I cleared the HANS. It was just a moment, but it was the moment where I thought, “This isn’t good!”
I got out fine, was uninjured, and the whole event really wasn’t that big of a deal, only because of all of the safety gear and practice. I felt comfortable jumping out of the car because of my previous endurance racing experience, where I practiced fast driver changes for races like The 25 Hours of Thunderhill. All that practicing was done for quicker pit stops, but the process made me comfortable with being able to manipulate all of the devices I needed to exit a car with gloves on.
As I sit in the racecar before every race, I close my eyes and touch everything I need to remove to exit a car: seatbelt latch, cool suit lines, radio wire, window net, driver water, and helmet air. I make sure I’m comfortable defeating those devices even if I buy a new pair of gloves. The video shows all of that practice was effective in helping me exit the car smoothly and quickly.
There were certainly many lessons learned here. The first being practice how to get out of your car. The second was ensuring the firewall is sealed, like REALLY sealed, so fire doesn’t come through. The third, and I think most important, is the design of the fire system. My Honda Challenge Acura Integra has a handheld fire extinguisher on the right side of the transmission tunnel within reach of me while I’m buckled into the seat (per NASA rules). I chose not to pull the extinguisher to try and put out the fire. My priority was to get out.
I can replace a 1993 Integra, I can’t replace my body. NASA recommends a fire suppression system, a charged bottle with metal lines and nozzles routed through the car to put out a fire, however NASA doesn’t require the system (other sanctioning bodies, like Lucky Dog Racing, require these systems). If you know racers, if it isn’t required and it doesn’t make you go faster, it probably won’t get installed. I’m guilty of that line of short sided thinking.
These fire systems come with an easy-to-access activation button to extinguish a fire. If I had this type of system in my car, I may have saved the wiring harness and all of the sensors on the engine, and I probably wouldn’t have had to jump out in such a panic. These systems are only around $400 and may have saved me thousands in fire repair. The next time this car hits the track, trust me, it will have one of these systems installed. I am now a believer!
This column is called “Beyond the Redline” for good reason. I like to blow stuff up. But, hopefully other drivers can learn from my experience without getting their feet held to the fire, literally. Be safe out there and remember to practice your driver exits! It certainly helped me.
A big thank you to photographers Herb Lopez, Reginald Legaspi, and Austin Fowler for photos.