There’s always less time and presence of mind than anyone would like to believe they’ll have when a fire erupts. Escaping a fire is something that lurks in the back of every racer’s mind, and though the rarity of a conflagration might calm us, we all know that the time may come someday. That is part of the risk we accept when strapping into a racing car.
Now is probably a good time to check to see if the fire system in your car is up to date.
Those who’ve managed to get out of their burning cars with minor injuries have been able to act decisively in the moment, but it wasn’t sheer will or courage that saved them from serious burns. We’ve picked the brains of two capable NASA racers who’ve taken the proper steps to prepare themselves for responding calmly to a fire, and, after the fact, learned how to reduce the chances of that happening ever again.
Crack Shot in the Dark
Four-time Honda Challenge 4 National Champion Rob Krider thanks his WERC endurance racing experience for helping him out of a blaze that could have claimed him. Had it not been for all those practiced driver changes in the dark, he might not have known where to put his hands when his Integra’s cabin filled with thick smoke.
While leading a regional Honda Challenge race at Buttonwillow, Krider heard a bang emanating from the engine bay. His engine had thrown a rod, but Rob pushed on, hoping that the sound was from a broken axle. Seconds later, flames burst through the dash.
The entry point was an opening in the bulkhead where Krider had run some of the engine/chassis wiring harness through. Instead of focusing on fire-proof insulation, he designed his grommet to minimize vibration so as to protect the wiring. This compromise allowed some space for the fire to penetrate.
Headed toward Sunset, he called on his practiced driver changes from years of endurance racing and disconnected everything in the correct order. In fact, the only snag was his HANS device, which caught on the ear of his halo seat. His second exit attempt went off without a hiccup. It was no picnic, but the drama-free departure went as smoothly as it did because Rob knew exactly where his hands needed to be at all times.
“I’d practiced driver changes in the dark over and over and over again — that helped us be successful at the 25 Hours — so I could do it with my eyes closed,” Krider said. “Since you can’t see when there’s that much smoke, I’d say that was what saved me.”
Undaunted and unscathed, Krider went on to rebuild the car over the next six months, and he was still in the running for the regional Honda Challenge title. It wouldn’t have been possible without assistance from friends and colleagues, but he made it to Circuit of The Americas and won the 2018 National Championship. However, before he got back into the seat, he made a few necessary changes.
Custom plug-style motorsports grommets were first on the list. Although these pieces are pricey, they help seal the cabin from fire. If they transmit more vibration and shorten the harness’ lifespan, so be it.
Secondly, Rob bought a fire suppression system — and he didn’t have to splurge. At $500, the AFFF unit was effective — much more so than a hand-held bottle, which Krider believes to be useless in the event of a big blaze. “Nobody’s going to sit in their car, drive and spray a hand bottle when they’re worried about catching on fire themselves,” he said.
His setup pointed four nozzles at vital points: two in the engine bay, one in the cabin, and one at the fuel cell. Operation is idiot-proof, he believes, “If there’s a fire, pull the lever! Simple. Just make sure you pull the safety cotter pin before getting on track or the system won’t work,” he advised.
Custom Parts Come at a Cost
Eric Magnussen’s inferno at New Jersey Motorsports Park last year has a few tidbits for the driver and the builder. Not only did he manage serious complications from the heat, but he dealt with drivers ignoring red flags and escaped from the scene with minor injuries. Well, the second-degree burns can’t be called minor, but for the severity of the incident, Eric was fortunate.
Those who have performed serious engine swaps and custom work on their racecars will take a special interest in Magnussen’s case. Adding an LS engine and a T56 gearbox helped turn his No. 330 BMW E46 into one of the fastest ST cars on the East Coast, but the realities of racing a car with a completely custom powertrain have caused him some grief.
V8 power made it easy for Eric to slot the car into ST3, where he ran dominantly for a few years. His highlights being the ST3 Champion in 2021 and 2023 as well as TT3 Champion in 2023. Eventually, he decided to make the move into ST4 in search of closer competition. After detuning the motor, all he had to do to comply with the ST4 rulebook was remove the massive rear diffuser. Unfortunately, that diffuser was the one thing managing the alarming underbody heat.
In short, the excessive heat generated by the big LS V8, custom three-clutch differential, thicker aluminum driveshaft, and twin 3” exhausts had been collecting underneath the car. In ST3 trim, the diffuser was extracting a great deal of that heat. With it removed, it had a tougher time escaping from underneath.
This harrowing weekend was his second-ever ST4 event with the car. During its first outing in ST4 trim, the diffuser-free M3 ran without issue. Things were looking normal, and Magnussen, assuming the car was under less strain due to the engine detune, was at ease. Unbeknownst to him, the rain that first weekend was likely the reason for such a calm debut.
In fact, the car had been nearly hassle-free since Magnussen completed the powertrain swap, so, over time, he grew complacent with race-to-race check-ups. “Between my weekends at Watkins Glen and NJMP, I didn’t take the car off the trailer. I didn’t even change the oil,” Magnussen admits. “That was my first mistake.”
There was another problem caused by the tight tolerances of the custom drivetrain. The larger aftermarket driveshaft had been rubbing a hole in the fuel saddle that sits directly behind the front seats. Though the standard driveshaft normally never causes this problem, the saddle had started to deform from the increased underbody heat; forcing it to droop closer to the driveshaft.
Thankfully, Magnussen was up on his exit routine. He’d been leading the driving school the day prior, teaching the newcomers how to unbelt themselves and exit their car in less than 15 seconds.
During Saturday qualifying, the No. 330 ran flawlessly, but the first race ended in horror. While leading down the back straight at NJMP, he caught a whiff of fuel. He only had a few seconds’ notice before the flames joined him in the cabin.
Vapor had been building under the car, and the pressure differential between the cabin and the underbody pulled some inside through the rear air extractor vents. Normally these vents are designed to only let air escape the cabin, but as Magnussen had routed his external reservoirs through them, they would not close to block anything directed back inside the cabin.
When he grabbed third and blipped the throttle, tapping the limiter caused a backfire, which ignited the vapor — all at more than 120 miles an hour. He stood on the brakes, careful not to hit the kill switch until he came to a halt, since hitting it prematurely would deactivate the ABS.
Then things started to melt. At that point, all the egress drills he’d practiced came into play. The burst of heat through his open visor forced him to close his eyes, and as he’d practiced so many times before, he started searching for all the familiar touch points in darkness.
He managed to undo his belts, his drink tube, and his radio in record time, but he then had to deal with a car that was quickly melting around him. Not only did the soft plastic on the kill switch melt to his glove, forcing him to rip his glove free before successfully lowering the net, the dash began to melt and the line controlling the fire suppression system went along with it.
The third item to melt was his window net, which stuck to his glove and forced him to pull it free before making a second pass at lowering the net and opening the door. Nearly free, he threw the door open, but since he was parked on a mild incline and he’d removed the door catches to save several pounds, the door closed on him. It took one more attempt to force the door open long enough to escape.
Even without seeing much, Magnussen knew enough to know he’d parked the car somewhere in the middle of the track. He’d parked in the end of the long straight and the cars behind were traveling at fourth-gear speeds as they arrived on the scene. When he saw his chance, he bolted. “I just looked behind and saw a window, then immediately ran to the guard rail and jumped over it,” he said.
Fortunately, officials were able to put the fire out quickly enough to save the basic chassis, but much of the car was left needing a drastic overhaul — as did some of Magnussen’s safety precautions.
“There are lots of preventive measures going into the rebuild: a Radium fuel cell with an internal surge tank will be mounted in the trunk with a completely sealed off firewall from the cabin. I’m also constructing a firewall behind the roll cage in front of the fuel cell and sealing it at the rear deck. This also blocks off the extractor vents from the cabin,” he added.
Start with the simplest: the second-degree burns around his eyes could’ve been avoided by carrying a second visor suited to the weather. Because that day was overcast and Eric’s normal visor is tinted, he decided to leave his visor open. “From now on, I’ll always run with my visor completely down, and that means bringing a clear visor with me,” he said.
Next, he’ll mount his window nets more loosely. Though a taut net doesn’t flap in the wind, it constricts quickly when exposed to heat, which makes it all the more difficult to unhook in a hurry. Oh, and he’ll retain the factory door catch going forward. A couple more pounds won’t make much of a difference, anyway.
With the rebuild, the fire suppression system will get an upgrade — as will its buttons’ mounting points. Instead of running a pull-line through the center of the dash, he’ll have one button welded to the rollcage by the driver’s a-pillar, and another one by the passenger’s a-pillar. Less likely to fail, easier to activate, and, since he doesn’t know which side the marshals will reach first, it makes sense to give them options.
Even more importantly, he’ll go for a more advanced Lifeline 360 system with Novec 1230 fluid. If the buttons aren’t pushed first, the Lifeline’s heat sensors automatically trigger at 356 degrees Fahrenheit and can be fitted to most electronic fire systems. Though this system might cost as much as $2,000, he considers it money well-spent.
An upgraded fuel system is one item that will help prevent a fire. Come January, Magnussen will have replaced the centrally-mounted tank with a trunk-mounted fuel cell. In addition to having a deformable bladder that promises greater safety in a crash, this will keep the fuel supply further from the driveshaft. Lastly, he swears he’ll maintain his car more diligently going forward.
It takes a certain acceptance of danger to prepare properly, and it’s fair to assume most would rather not consider the possibility at length. Magnussen has been forced to accept this. “People who’ve known how reliable this car has been are the most likely to change their tune from ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me,’ to ‘This can happen to anyone at any time.’ I used to be less concerned with the chances, but now I think a bit differently.”