I had the unfortunate experience of being involved in a car fire during a road race. Things got toasty very quickly. In the end, my race car was destroyed leaving just a charred version of its once fantastic and fast self. The good news is all of my driver’s safety equipment and the emergency crews at the track both worked as designed and I walked away from the incident unscathed.
Even though I was uninjured, my wallet was not so lucky. It sustained major trauma as I had to completely rebuild my car in six short weeks to make to the National Championships. That was not a cheap lesson learned.
A fire suit is only good for about 12 to 14 seconds, it gets hot and it gets hot quick. You know how quick a fire can travel. When you have gas or alcohol, and it gets away from you, it takes off. — Sam McLane, ESS
Feeling The Need (Literally)
Like a child who has to touch the stove to believe it is hot, I had to have my ass on fire before I was convinced that a fire suppression system was a good idea. Captain Obvious speaking here: “Obviously, it is a good idea.”
The moment I got burned, I started researching different fire suppression systems. I spoke to Ken Myers, the owner of I/O Port Racing Supplies. Ken is a long time champion endurance road racer and technical inspector for the National Auto Sport Association (NASA). First, Ken scolded me for not already having a system in the car prior to the fire. I explained that I didn’t have one because in the NASA rule book a fire suppression system was “highly recommended,” but not required. Since it wasn’t required, cost money, and made the car heavier (thus slower), I filed it away as W-GAS? (Who Gives A S***?). Big mistake.
After Ken schooled me on not having a system (a lesson I already learned when flames were licking my toes), he nudged me toward a system built by Emergency Suppression Systems (ESS) out of Oakridge, Tennessee. I/O Port Racing Supplies sells an ESS fire system for a little over $400. Even though NASA doesn’t currently require the systems, other sanctioning bodies like The 24 Hours of LeMons, ChampCar, and Lucky Dog Racing League already require these systems in order to pass tech.
Before I decided on a system, I called ESS to ask a few clarifying questions about the chemical used for fire suppression. Would it destroy the electrical system or rubber in the car if it was used? I spoke to the owner of ESS, Sam McLane. Sam was great to talk to and a wealth of information regarding fire systems. After chatting with him for a while, I was sold and made the decision to use his design.
Features Of The ESS System
One of the things I really liked about the ESS fire system is the fact that it isn’t pressurized while sitting in the interior of the race car during races. Who wants a small bomb in their race car? Not me, or ESS. The ESS fire system is ingenious in its design. It has an aluminum bottle filled with 94-percent water and 6-percent AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam). The bottle has a CO2 cartridge threaded into it.
When there is a fire, a driver pulls up on a T-handle near the driver’s seat which uses a cable to activate a pin to puncture the CO2 cartridge. That pressurizes the system and pushes the fire suppressant through pre-routed aluminum tubes with spray nozzles pointed at the driver, the engine, and the fuel cell. According to Sam, “Our claim to fame is we don’t put out the fire, we suppress the fire, that way it doesn’t come back.”
The chemical AFFF isn’t harmful to driving suits or engine components. Sam says, “If you pull the handle all you are going to get is wet. It’s like a Dawn dishwasher liquid, it isn’t going to harm anything. Just wash and go on.” AFFF isn’t harmful to the driver either, unlike Halon which will give you “one hell of a headache,” according to Sam. “If you watch NASCAR, when the guys are clamoring to get out of a car, it isn’t to avoid the fire, it’s to avoid getting hit with the Halon extinguishers.”
One of the other selling points for the ESS fire system is the ability for a team to recharge a system at the track after it has been used. All you need is some more AFFF, water, and a new CO2 cartridge. Other pressurized chemical systems, like Halon, have to be removed from the car and shipped to the manufacturer to be recharged. If a team pulls the handle on one of those during a weekend, they may be done racing. That isn’t the case if a team has an ESS recharge kit at the ready (around $50).
For my Honda Challenge car, I opted for the ESS 2.3-liter system which includes three nozzles (two to the engine, and one to the driver compartment). The full system weighs only about eight pounds. My recommendation is to order some extra lengths of aluminum tubing for your installation. You can also request a longer actuator cable if needed.
The correct installation of the fire system is paramount in its success when you need it (and during a fire, you are going to want it to work correctly). Sam said he has seen people kink tubing or forget to mix water with the AFFF in the bottle (complete fail).
“You want the system to work properly when the fire comes,” said Sam. “A fire suit is only good for about 12 to 14 seconds, it gets hot and it gets hot quick. You know how quick a fire can travel. When you have gas or alcohol, and it gets away from you, it takes off.” After my fire experience, I can personally attest to that as a true factual statement.
Emergency Suppression Systems Inc. was started back in 1998 and received patents for its design. The fire system later received SFI certification in 2008 and is approved for numerous sanctioning bodies. One fact Sam is proud of is all products that make up the system are made in the United States.
Installation Of The System
The installation process of the system wasn’t complicated, especially if you read the instructions first (which I know many of you won’t). I had Double Nickel Nine Motorsports mechanic Everett Knott help me with the install. He is much more mechanically inclined than I (not that the installation took that much mechanical expertise). The whole process only took us about four hours (with me interrupting numerous times to take photos and be a general pain in the ass about my race car).
The most important step-by-step process is remembering to slide the AN nuts and sleeves over the tubing prior to flaring it. This isn’t a hard thing to comprehend or do, it is just important to remember to do it when you need to while you are sifting through a pile of parts and trying to bend the tubing to the perfect angle for the best fit. It is easy to forget while you are playing with the flare tool or the tubing bender.
The biggest challenge Everett and I faced while installing the ESS fire system was bending the aluminum tubing so it curved and negotiated the interior of the car perfectly. There is some art to that process. Turns out, neither one us are artists.
As we strategically routed the aluminum lines through the car, we were careful not to have them near any moving parts that would conflict or damage the tubing. We also tried to ensure we could still remove mechanical parts from the engine without having to remove the ESS fire system tubing. This could pay big dividends later at the track when a quick repair is needed.
The nozzle placement in the car is crucial, as the nozzle is specifically directing where the fire suppressant will spray. According to Sam, he likes the nozzles as high as he can get them in an engine bay. On a V-8 design, he places one on each side of the engine. On a front-wheel-drive design, like my Honda Challenge Acura Integra, he suggested placing one in front of the engine and one behind the engine.
One of the things I liked about the system’s design was the “pull” feature, as opposed to a “push” feature, to activate the system. Sam said that was key in his designing of the system, “Push is too easy to activate, lots of accidents. If you need to pull it, it’s more of a specific motion.” The lever does have a safety clip for doing working inside the car and towing, however that clip should be removed right before a race. For my car, I’m going to add an embroidered “Remove Before Flight” tab on it to remind the crew to yank it out on grid. We attached a metal cable tether to the clip so it wouldn’t get lost.
Peace Of Mind, Like An Insurance Policy
The installation was a success and we had it in our cars at the Circuit of the Americas during the NASA National Championships. Did the system work? I didn’t have the unlucky scenario where I had to test it. But the system stayed in place and gave me enormous peace of mind while I was hammering down the long back-straight at COTA doing triple digits.
Don’t be an idiot like me and burn your car to the ground before realizing the immense benefits of a fire suppression system in a race car. Learn from my mistakes and put one in your car before you actually need it. It not only can save your life, but it can save you money, too (yeah, now I got your attention). A $400 fire suppression system is a lot cheaper than a race car or a trip to the ER. So, this is the formula: I do dumb things so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Long story short: get a system.