Five Things You Won’t Expect When Your Race Car Catches Fire

Categories: Short Track Racing.

Stephen Cox Blog Presented by McGunegill Engine Performance

It was exactly one year ago that my race car caught fire at Circuit of the Americas during an endurance event. You can read more about it here. Suffice to say that as fires go, this one was bad. Perhaps the following thoughts from that experience will be helpful to my fellow racers.

1. You won’t be able to see a thing, and it’s worse than you think.

If you’re racing in daylight, your eyes will adjust to the ambient outdoor light as you drive. When you glance down inside the cockpit, you will be blind for a few critical seconds while your eyes adjust to the darker interior of the race car. Those seconds will seem like a lifetime.

Wearing a darkly tinted helmet visor makes the situation worse, not better. When you look down to unfasten your belts, it will seem as if someone turned off the lights in a dark room.

I solved this problem by raising my tinted visor. It worked, although it is certainly not a recommended solution. My face suffered 3rd degree burns, but I was able to exit the car faster than working by feel alone. I located and released my safety harness by touch and located the window net latch by sight (thanks to my crew for putting bright red tape on the latch).

I’ve always practiced my egress protocol with eyes closed, holding my breath. Just remember, when the time comes you’ll crave sight in ways you can’t possibly imagine, but you won’t have it. 

2. You won’t be able to activate the fire suppression system when you want to.

When a fire breaks out while you’re barreling down the race track at full speed, you’ll realize that you cannot hit the fire suppression button because this will happen. Fire extinguishing material will burst in every direction and potentially coat everything – including your face, visor and eyes – while you’re still at speed. If your car is equipped with a traditional, pressurized bottle system, the results will be even more dramatic.

Depending on the type of system in your race car, activating the fire suppression at full speed could cause a crash. If that crash prevents you from exiting the car in a timely manner, the effects could be disastrous.

With the right side of my body on fire and flames completely engulfing the cockpit, I had to guide my car from about 110 mph to a controlled stop. It seemed like an eternity. Once the car stopped there was no point in activating the fire system. The car was a loss, I was on fire, and even an action as brief as throwing the suppression switch was just two more seconds that I didn’t need to be inside the inferno.

The fire suppression system can be very effective in saving the car. Not so much the driver. Use it if you can, but remember, your best tool for staying alive is not a fire suppression system. It’s you.

3. Trust yourself. You will act as you train.

The rest of your life is an accurate gauge of how you will act when your car is on fire.

Did you stay cool as a high school quarterback during the game winning drive? Were you the first person to grab a bandage to stop the bleeding on someone’s badly cut finger? Were you able to calmly drive your wife to the hospital when she went into labor? If so, you won’t panic in a fire. Be confident. You’ll perform better than you think.

I was certainly in a hurry to exit the car when I was burning, but I didn’t panic. I followed the egress protocol that I’d committed to memory the night before the race, skipping the fire switch and removal of the steering wheel to save time. My egress didn’t win any beauty contests, but it worked as planned.

I have no special athletic abilities or mental faculties that you don’t. If I survived, so can you. Trust yourself.

4. You already know what it’s like.

It’s common to hear people from all walks of life refer to an experience they’ve had and say, “You can’t possibly understand what I went through. You haven’t gone through it, so you can’t understand.” That is victim-speak. The truth is quite the opposite.

Everyone has had some sort of minor burn. Extrapolate that experience and imagine that you’re surrounded by flames, choking for breath, in unbearable pain with only moments to live if you can’t get out. The mental picture in your head right now is precisely what the actual experience is like.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t understand. Being trapped inside a burning race car is just what one would expect it to be. I hope this never happens to you, but if it does, it will be exactly what you anticipated. If you’ve prepared your mind and memorized your egress, you’ll be fine.

5. Blame the victim.

If you are unfortunate enough to be injured, have your family screen all online material (including email) before you read it. It is vital to keep a positive mental attitude during recovery, and computer keyboards just seem to bring out the worst in some people.

The vast majority of input will be supportive. But every now and then someone decides to blame the victim. They’ll pontificate endlessly about your mistakes and tell you exactly what you should have done. Of course, the closest this person ever came to being on fire was when he blew out the candles on his birthday cake, but he’s an expert on the topic nevertheless.

Give your family access to your email and any online forums you frequent, and be satisfied reading only what they choose to show you. If your story makes the motorsports press, don’t read it. Ask them to screen everything you send out as well, because heavy medication and trauma change the way you speak and act. Stay positive and trust your family.

Stephen Cox

Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions

Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN

Driver, Electric GT Championship ~ Super Cup Stock Car Series ~ World Racing League

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