TRAPPED IN A BURNING RACE CAR, Part 4: Unanswered Questions

Categories: Short Track Racing.
March 9, 2016
 
 
Questions continue to pour in regarding my February 13th accident at Circuit of the Americas. I'll do my best to answer them here and be as honest as I can about the mistakes I made during the incident in the hopes that they'll help someone else.
 
What caused the car to burst into flames?

I don't know. I was flown by lifeline helicopter straight from the track to the hospital and was unconscious for the next 46 hours. I assure you that mechanical malfunctions were the last thing on my mind during my hospital stay. I did not own the race car. I am racing driver, not a mechanic, and am unqualified to deduce what went wrong.

 
I trust my team, I trust my team owner and I trust my teammates. I didn't see the car again and woke up the following Monday in intensive care. I was told that it was a fuel pump malfunction, which matches everything I know of the incident. Other than that, I truly don't know what caused the fire.
 
 
Did you smell fuel in the cockpit before the fire broke out, and if so, why didn't you stop?
 
This is a very good question, and yes, I smelled fuel in the cockpit and immediately began trying to locate the source.
 
I was following the car in front of me quite closely while preparing for a pass. I noticed that a bit of fuel was coming out of his overflow valve. A few drops even splashed onto my windshield. Slightly overfilling the fuel cell of a race car is a common practice in the opening laps of an endurance event. It is not unsafe or a cause for concern.
 
Of course, I spotted the fuel overflow coming from the car in front of me and logically attributed the scent of fuel to this source. It was a rational conclusion, but it was misleading and gave me a false sense of security. Seconds later my car burst into flames.
 
 
Why didn't you pull the tab for the fire suppression system?
 
Because when I reached for it, I saw that my entire right arm was on fire from my fingertips to my shoulder. Trust me, this has a funny way of altering one's decision-making paradigm.
 
Every act takes time. Even if pulling the tab took only two additional seconds, that was two more seconds that I was not inclined to sit there and burn. There was no reason to. I've experienced on-board fires before, but this fire was already hopelessly out of control and burning with a fury that I'd never seen. It started in a microsecond and was out of control instantly. The car was a loss and I was on fire. 
 
No, I didn't take the time to pull the fire suppression tab, and under these specific circumstances I don't believe it was a mistake. I realize there is room for debate here, but if you've never watched the skin melt off the back of your own hand, I humbly ask you to extend the benefit of the doubt. 
 
 
Why didn't you practice your egress from this car prior to the race?
 
Because I made a dumb decision. I sat in the car the night before the race and went through all emergency protocols in my mind, step by step with my eyes closed, feeling for each switch, catch and release lever. I relied on my experience as a racing driver and my mental protocols to save me in an emergency.
 
The bad news is that this was a mistake and I will never make it again. The good news is that it worked quite well. I got out of the car in record time and made a near-perfect egress with no errors or hangups whatsoever.
 
That does not mean that I condone the habit of not practicing egress. On the contrary, I have learned my lesson and will never make that mistake again. But in this case, experience and mental practice was sufficient. 
 
 
You were driving with your helmet visor down. Why did you raise your visor when the cockpit became engulfed in flames?
 
 
Because I couldn't see. The fire was everywhere. Even the air itself was burning as fuel vapors inside the cockpit ignited.
 
I was wearing a dark tinted visor and the day was sunny and bright, creating a real problem of contrast with the interior of the car. No, it wasn't bad eyesight inhibiting my vision. I do not wear glasses. My eyes were good enough to pass my Indycar driver's medical two years ago, so my vision is fine.
 
When I glanced from the track to the dash of the car (looking for the fire suppression tab) my vision was inhibited because the human eye takes a brief moment to adjust from light to dark. I didn't have a brief moment to spare. So I raised my helmet visor and I was able to see for a few critical seconds when I needed to most.
 
It actually worked. I could see better. No, I do not advocate this practice and I would not do it again. It was the wrong thing to do and directly contributed to the 3rd degree facial burns I suffered. 
 
 
What safety gear were you wearing?

Everything I had. I wear Impact Racing Products safety gear exclusively, and my fire retardant clothing performed extremely well under severe circumstances. I have publicly thanked Robby Pierce and Kelli Willmore of Impact on several occasions and do so again now, because the quality of their products may have actually saved my life.

 
My safety gear was not outdated. In fact, everything I had was less than one year old.
 
 
My suit was a 2015 Impact Racer double-layer, single-piece fire suit. My underclothes were 2015 Impact Nomex long underwear (no short sleeves, full length bottoms), with Nomex socks with Kevlar stitching. My footwear was 2015 Impact M/T Sprint driver's shoes. My gloves were 2015 Impact G4s. My helmet was a 2015 Impact Charger. Yes, I wore a neck restraint, but since there was no crash it was obviously not a factor in this incident.
 
I was not wearing a balaclava. This was entirely my mistake. I did not take delivery of a balaclava when I received my 2015 safety gear (my 2016 gear was not yet delivered since the COTA race was in February). It was understood that I would order a balaclava separately later, and I failed to do so. As a result, I was without a balaclava at the COTA event. Chalk this up as another error on my part.
 
Have you ever wondered just how good your gear was, and how well it would perform in a true emergency? Well, I have, and now I can tell you.
 
First, here is what my gear had to stand up under. I estimate that the time period from the start of the fire until the flames on my body were extinguished was about 20-25 seconds. Please understand that this is my best guess. Our on-board cameras were destroyed and I have no objective data to go by, but I believe this to be a good estimate.
 
My entire right arm, from my fingers to my shoulder, was on fire for the duration of the event. I don't mean it was hot, or feeling warm. I mean there were flames several inches high all along my arm inflicting 2nd and 3rd degree burns.
 
 
My right leg was on fire from about 5 inches below the knee up to my hip. And my helmet was on fire on the right side of my head and on the front, near the chin, due to fuel spray.
 
Miraculously, not one single piece of my gear burned through. Due to the severity of the burns, I initially thought that it must have. But after examining my gear weeks after the incident, it became apparent that neither my gloves, my fire suit or my Nomex underwear burned through. The seams and the fabric remained intact even after an extended fire.
 
The only facial burns I have were in the eye/nose area, where my visor was up and I failed to wear a balaclava. The rest of the my head was 100% protected and suffered not even the mildest burns despite the clear evidence that the helmet itself was on fire. My hair was not even singed.
 
My right shoe was on fire very briefly. Some damage to the shoe is visible, but my feet were 100% protected and suffered no burns at all.
 
The gloves remain a total miracle to me. I was literally watching my hand burn, yet the gloves never so much as lost a stitch. Heaven only knows how bad my hands would have been if I'd been wearing cheap gloves.
 
Yes, I admit that I am trying to get you to buy safety gear from Impact Racing Products. I was severely injured in this fire, but I was not disfigured and I did not need plastic surgery. I am certain that the results would have been far worse had I been wearing anything less than Impact safety gear.
 
But if you don't buy Impact, please, find another quality gear supplier. Just wear good stuff. It is money well spent.
 
 
Are you retiring from racing?
 
No, no, and for the last time, no.
 
I am honored to compete in the World Racing League, and am fortunate to be driving the Rohrbaugh Racing entry in the Super Cup Stock Car Series in 2016.
 
This is my fourth and probably the last blog on this incident. It's a difficult memory and one that I'm tired of re-living. But I am thankful to have a few racing fans who support me and they, along with my fellow competitors, deserved to know the full story. For future updates on my health, see my Facebook page.
 
Please pray for my continued recovery. I have fourteen more races to drive this season and seventeen more TV shows, so I need my health back. Your prayers, support and encouragement are appreciated more than you know.
 
***FROM SERIES OFFICIALS – To help during this difficult time a Relief Fund project for Stephen and his family has been initiated. Please share this on your social media and help support the effort with any donation, big or small. Thank you.
 
Stephen Cox
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
Rohrbaugh Racing driver in Super Cup Stock Car Series
GT Challenge Series champion 
 
 
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