It happens in an instant. One second you're holding your line, fighting for position. The next, and often times without warning, a mechanical failure or a wreck of almost any degree turns from bad to worse as fire erupts, turning your race car into a flaming ball of metal. Are you and your race car prepared for such a catastrophe? No one is immune from the possibility of fire, and it's something every racer, and their cars should be prepared for before it happens.
The No. 22 car of Jeremy Spoonmore (pictured above) erupted into flames after a catastrophic engine failure ignited two gallons of oil from the wet-sump lubrication system. The cockpit was completely engulfed in flames, causing damage to the window net, seat, Spoonmore's firesuit, gloves, shoes, helmet, and seatbelts. We were also told his impressive goatee was significantly shorter after the fire. Spoonmore recalls the events of that day.
"There was more fire than I would have ever thought there would have been," explains Spoonmore. "The engine seized and I heard a pop. When it did, a rod came out of the block and the oil ignited on the headers. When I turned the wheel down I saw the flames. The fire started coming into the cockpit and got very close to my face so I closed my eyes so it didn't burn them."
At this point, Spoonmore should have been able to come to a stop and get out of the car, but bad turned worse. Another car slid in the oil left on the track, knocking Jeremy into the wall. "The power steering broke when the car hit the wall, igniting more fluid," Spoonmore adds. "And that just made the fire worse. I already had the window net down and was about to undo my belts. Luckily they were still on."
In the end, Spoonmore walked away with burns about as severe as a bad sunburn and a shortened goatee, but some racers aren't that lucky. "I never even thought about fire in the race car," explains Spoonmore. "I hope it will never happen again, but I learned the hard way."
Surviving a fire in a race car is a game of time. If a fire erupts, you want to give yourself enough time to safely stop the car and get out. If the fire happens as a result of a wreck and you are unconscious, you want to be protected for enough time that the safety crew can get there and remove you from the car. Racers never want to be reminded of the dangers of racing, but not preparing for the worst is silly when you think how easy it is to be prepared.
Emerging from a fire like Spoonmore's unscathed is as much about preparation as it is about luck. Racing is inherently dangerous, and taking the proper precautions greatly diminished the risk of injury, and it starts with what you wear.
We all know wearing the proper firesuit, fire retardant underwear, head sock, gloves, and shoes can be uncomfortable, especially in the heat of the summer, but the healing process from third degree burns is far worse.
Firesuits come with an SFI rating. This rating gives you an idea of how protective it will be in a fire. Your firesuit is designed to protect you, but you have to take care of your firesuit properly for it to do its job when needed. So many times you see racers jump out of the car, dive under the car, and start turning wrenches. While the ability to drive and wrench on a race car is admirable, it can be foolish if you don't remove your firesuit. Dirt, solvents, fuels, and oils can turn a piece of fire retardant clothing into an oily flammable rag—probably the last thing you want to be wearing if there ever was a fire.
The moral of the story is don't ever work on the car in your firesuit. While it's easier than changing, and takes less time, the extra five minutes could save your life the next time you go on track. The same also goes for shoes and gloves.
Most racers don't realize that cleaning your firesuit the wrong way could reduce its fire resistant characteristics. We went to G-Force Racing Gear for a little more info on cleaning your safety gear.
When in doubt, mild soap and water will work with most any product. As for racing suits, wash in cold water and hang to dry. Some manufacturers recommend dry cleaning, but to be sure of the chemicals used, you should wash at home. With helmets, a damp cloth and mild soap used to blot the inside of the liner will help remove any built up residue. Belts are susceptible to sunlight and water will speed up the aging process. Be sure to remove or cover belts when washing the inside of a racing vehicle.