On Thursday at the NASA Championships during open practice for the German Touring Series, Greg Panik was driving his blue GTS1 Porsche 944, entering Thunder Valley. Panik was having problems with his transmission and stopped on the paved portion of racecourse. Jim Pantas, driving his pink GTS2 BMW E30, was in a pack of cars exiting a corner and rear-ended Panik’s stopped 944. The impact crushed the rear of the Porsche, rupturing the fuel tank of the vehicle, which was not equipped with a fuel cell. Gasoline began to spill onto the race course, and a stream of fuel flowed across the track toward the infield.
Pantas’ BMW sustained heavy front damage, including intrusion into the driver’s footwell around his legs. His BMW came to rest behind Panik’s Porsche. Both drivers remained belted in their cars, which were partially blocking the racecourse. A passing Porsche drove through the spilled fuel, and the exhaust ignited it, causing a massive explosion and fire ball, which engulfed the driver’s side of Pantas’ BMW and the rear of Panik’s Porsche. Pantas scrambled to get his belts undone, window net down, and out of this BMW. He was fully engulfed in flames for approximately 13 seconds. Pantas wasn’t wearing a balaclava and he sustained second-degree burns on his neck. As he ran free from the fire, he felt the burns to his neck and face, and he pulled his helmet off. Then he heard screaming.
Panik couldn’t get out of his burning car. Pantas, who had just run out of a wall of fire, ran around to the Porsche to help his competitor out of the vehicle. Before the session began Panik had put his 5-point harnesses on with the buckle flipped around so his release latch was against his body. With the interior filled with black smoke, Panik couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t find the latch. Pantas opened the door of the Porsche and tried to get Panik out. But Pantas couldn’t find the latch either. Pantas asked Panik if he thought the buckle was flipped around. Panik checked, then realized what had happened and got the belts off. Panik climbed out of the Porsche as the fire raged at the back of the car.
Luckily both drivers were relatively OK from the incident. In-car cameras and still cameras captured the crash, the explosion, the immense fire and Pantas’ heroic rescue. All of Pantas’ safety gear showed evidence of the extreme heat from the fire. His suit was discolored and charred, and portions of his helmet were melted. After surviving being inside a fireball for thirteen seconds, it takes a lot of courage to run to another burning car to get a driver out. Jim Pantas truly deserves to be called a hero.
Brace for Impact
In a previous issue of Speed News, we documented a big crash at Willow Springs where Steve Butscher’s AIX Ford Mustang launched into the air during a massive wreck (Air Time, Speed News, July 2012). In that article we talked about the support bars Butscher welded in his Mustang forward of the main hoop to provide protection for his feet. The bars worked great and kept the bulkhead from intruding into the passenger compartment during his heavy impact.
Jim Pantas’ car didn’t have bars attached to his cage to provide any kind of foot protection. In Jim’s crash the bulkhead did intrude into the footwell of his BMW and heavily displaced his clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. Those same forces that displaced all of that metal also contacted Jim’s legs and feet, which were in close proximity to the pedals. Besides the injuries to Jim’s face from not wearing a balaclava in the fire, he was also limping slightly around the paddock during the Championship weekend at Mid-Ohio. If you are thinking of building a cage, look at the area surrounding the feet for both of these cars. Which one do you want your feet in?