It was the same sound you hear when you pour too much lighter fluid on the charcoal as you’re preparing a Fourth of July barbecue. A giant “whoosh” followed by a flash of flame.
Except it was a thousand times louder. And it wasn’t charcoal that was on fire. It was me.
On February 13, 2016, I was driving an 8-hour sports car endurance race at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas. I started inside row 8 and quickly realized that our car was very fast. Within just a few laps we were in the top ten and I had high hopes of scoring my fourth straight endurance racing victory, a personal record.
On COTA’s massive back straightaway, the fastest point on the course, I smelled fuel and felt a cold spray over my right hand and leg. There was a sudden flash and my whole world turned a bright, terrifying orange. Everything was on fire.
Flames poured through every microscopic crack in the firewall. My right hand was on fire, then my arm and shoulder. Splashed with fuel, my right leg was burning as well. My helmet was on fire. Even the inside of the cockpit was ablaze as fuel vapor ignited and literally set the air on fire. I could see nothing. I could not steer the car off the track because I couldn’t see the track.
I stomped the brake as hard as I could, but it takes a while to get a Porsche from 120 miles per hour to a dead stop.
In a desperate effort to see, I foolishly raised the visor on my helmet as the car slowed down. It worked. I could see. I found the fire extinguisher switch as the car came to a stop but by this time it was useless. The intensity of the heat was indescribable. I abandoned any thought of doing anything but getting out of the car as quickly as possible.
Only then did I regret not practicing my egress from the car. Yes, I’d sat in the car and gone through the protocols in my mind with my eyes closed, faithfully, feeling for every lever and release catch many times over, while sitting in the garage the night before the race. But nothing replaces actually getting out of the car to practice a full egress. And I hadn’t.
Now, as my leg, face and arm continued to burn, I had one dominant thought in my head… “I’ve got five more seconds. Maybe ten. If anything goes wrong with my egress, I’m going to die.”
I was gripped with an overwhelming urge to panic and slap out the flames on my arm and leg. But doing so would have been fatal. I had to ignore the pain and let them burn. Getting out of the car was primary and I had to focus on that job alone.
I groped for the safety latch on my harness. I found it and my belts came loose instantly and cleanly. During this brief moment I distinctly recall watching my right thigh catch fire.
The fire continued to rage all around me. I looked for the release catch on the window net. The crew had painted it bright red, so it was easy to find. I grabbed the lever, pulled it back and threw the net out the window. The back of my right glove was on fire as well. My safety gear was doing its job and held up amazingly well.
I didn’t bother unplugging the radio cord from my helmet. With enough pressure it would break free on its own. I didn’t remove the steering wheel.
Still burning, I clambered out of the car and the upper half of my body fell free, while my feet were pinned under the steering wheel. Through the pain I remember yelling, “God, help me!” about twenty times in a row. I wasn’t cursing. I was praying. I actually needed His help. After a few seconds of wriggling I was completely clear of the cockpit, which by this time was consumed with flames coming out the windows.
Instinctively, I began rolling on the pavement and in ten seconds or so had managed to extinguish the flames on my body. Then I got up, staggered off the track to the grass and collapsed.
The EMT’s arrived in record time. They removed my helmet, then pulled my gloves off. Despite their best efforts, I watched in horror as the skin on the back of my right thumb peeled off my hand.
“We can’t move him,” one of them said. I was in shock, but I remember the other responding, “We have to. This car’s gonna blow any second.” With that, they grabbed me by the arms and dragged me like a sack of potatoes another thirty feet away from the race car, which was entirely engulfed in flames and emitting a plume of black smoke high into the sky.
They gently helped me into the ambulance and began cutting off my fire suit. The EMT’s were professional, compassionate and good at their jobs. I wondered how serious my injuries were. When I heard the engine of the lifeline helicopter warming up five minutes later, I knew.
The medical personnel in the helicopter were equally professional. The EMT attending me during the flight, a red-headed woman in her thirties, was fiddling with a big syringe undoubtedly meant for me. Barely able to speak through my burned throat, I grabbed her hand. She leaned over and asked me if I needed anything. “Yes,” I hoarsely whispered through the roar of whirling helicopter blades. “I need you to look at me and tell me I’m going to be alright.”
She stopped her work long enough to look dead into my eyes and promise me that I was going to be fine. Then she told me that we were about to land, and picked up the syringe again.
My world went black and I remember nothing of the next 46 hours.
First, second and third degree burns covered 7% of my body. The worst injuries were to my face, my right arm and my right leg. I was transported to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where I spent the next three days in intensive care followed by six more in the burn recovery unit. My doctor later told me that the injuries were “considered very life threatening” for the first 24 hours, but a full recovery is expected now.
That’s my story. In my next blog, I’ll tell you what I learned from it and what I’ll do differently before I return to racing.
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
Driver, Boschett Timepieces/Impact Racing #21