When caveman invented fire, it changed the world we live in forever. Fire forges steel. Fire creates the very racecars we NASA members enjoy during a fun-filled race weekend. By this definition, then fire is good. However, fire is only good in certain situations, like for instance a campfire. C’mon, everybody loves S’mores.

Now, fire in the wrong place is not a good thing, like a forest fire heading toward your home, or when fire is bursting through the dashboard of your racecar. I think we all can agree the interior of a racecar, going 100 miles an hour down the track, is no place to make S’mores. I know this is the case because, unfortunately, it happened to me.

“Not good” is a bit of an understatement. It was during this very moment that I decided I should probably install a fire system in my racecar.

As the fireball came through my dash, I realized I was completely unprepared for this situation. I didn’t have graham crackers, chocolate or marshmallows. There would be no S’mores at this campfire. Oh, and I didn’t have a fire system installed in my racecar to put the fire out. The good news is that I was able to pull the car over near a corner worker station and the outstanding emergency team put the fire out as I escaped the flames. My car was charred, but salvageable after a lot of work to get it back to racing shape.

Emergency Suppression Systems Inc. has a reasonably priced, all-inclusive kit that is easy to install and will save your life. Everything you need for a professional installation is included and the instructions are easy to comprehend.

My fire experience landed me on the phone with Sam McLane, owner of Emergency Suppression Systems Inc. He and I chatted about my fire and he walked me through the different systems he had and why he designed them the way he did. I got a quick course on fire suppression chemicals and felt a lot smarter after the phone call was over. Four hundred dollars later — a bargain compared to replacing a car or a body part — and my new 100 percent American made, 2.3 liter, ESS fire suppression system was on its way to my house.

The ESS system is simple and clever: an aluminum bottle, unpressurized, filled with water mixed with Aqueous Film Forming Foam, a CO2 cartridge ready to pressurize the system when it is needed, lines and nozzles to point the fire retardant at important things like the engine, a fuel cell, and you. The system is activated when the driver pulls a T-handle connected to a cable, which has a needle that punctures the CO2 cartridge. It is an ingenious design.

NASA rules regarding fire extinguishers/fire suppression are found in the Club Codes & Regulations (CCR) Section 15.1 Fire Extinguisher and section 15.2 Fire System. If you take the time to read these sections, you will find there are some interesting technical bits that will get any firefighter excited, but will probably confuse most racecar drivers.

The crux of the rules is this: you need one or the other, either a handheld fire extinguisher, or a fire system. You are required to at least have a handheld fire extinguisher. A fire system is “highly recommended,” but not required. If you have a fire system, then you can delete the handheld fire extinguisher. Or you can have both.

The reality is this: regardless of whether NASA requires the fire system, you need the fire system. You can’t pull a handheld fire extinguisher out of its mount and put a fire out while driving 100 miles per hour. I learned this the hard way. For situations like this, simply pulling a handle and pressurizing the system to distribute fire retardant material throughout the racecar is what you are looking for. It can save your car and, more importantly, it can save your life.

The blue arrow is pointing to the nozzle that sprays the water/AFFF onto the engine. According to Sam McLane, you want to position these nozzles as high as possible so as gravity affects the spraying water, it will hit the engine in the right spots. We have this one aimed at the fuel rail.

The ESS system meets SFI Foundation’s certification standards and thus is legal for NASA competition pursuant to CCR 15.2. The ESS system comes with two distinct advantages over other systems. The first advantage is the chemical AFFF is not harmful to engine components or a driver suit. According to Sam McLane, “This stuff is like Dawn dishwasher liquid. If you pull the trigger on the system, you are going to get wet. Just wash your suit and get back to racing.” Other chemicals used in different systems, like Halon, will give a racing driver extreme headaches. AFFF will not do that. The second advantage to the ESS system is the ability to recharge the system after a deployment quickly and easily at the racetrack. If you order a recharge kit ($50) you will get another CO2 cartridge and more AFFF solution to mix in the bottle with water. If you use your fire system during a qualifying race and are able to resolve the mechanical issue to get the car back on track, you can replenish your fire system right there. All you need to do is put in a new CO2 cartridge and water/AFFF mix and you are racing again without having to ship your bottle to a manufacturer to be replaced/recharged causing huge delays and expenses.

Before you mount your ESS bottle into your racecar you will fill it with a mixture of 94 percent water and 6 percent Aqueous Film Forming Foam. The photo on the left is from the easy to follow ESS installation instructions.

Installation of the system was simple and was completed in half of a day. The only oddball tools you need for the installation of the system is a flaring tool, a tubing cutter, and a tubing bender. If you have ever made your own hard line brake lines, then this is a very simple process. The hardest thing to remember is the order of operations when flaring tubing. It is important to slide the AN fittings onto the tubing before flaring the tubing. If you don’t, the fittings will not slide onto the tubing because the flare is too large in diameter, and then you are screwed.

Aluminum tubing is easy to work with. A simple tubing cutter will get the length just right. A single flare tool works to make sealed fittings you can use to connect different tubes together with AN nuts and/or for the nozzle pieces at the ends of each tube. The only hard part is remembering to thread the flare fittings onto the tubing before you flare the end.

When installing the ESS system, it is good to have a plan. Where are you going to route your lines? Where are you going to aim your nozzles? Front and rear of the engine? Sides of engine? What is the best way to route these lines so you can still remove your engine? A little pre-planning (and actually reading the installation instructions) will save you lots of time in fabrication. The aluminum tubing doesn’t come in straight sticks, like brake tubing does. Instead it comes in a coil. We used a tubing straightener to get our tubing nice and linear for a professional-looking installation.

The aluminum tubing that comes from ESS to direct water/AFFF solution toward the “on-fire” parts of your race car comes in a tight coil for ease of shipping. To straighten this stuff out, we used a tubing straightener. You don’t need one of these, because aluminum is pliable, but it does make the tubing look nicer during the installation.

The preplanning also helps with where to bend your lines appropriately, so your tubing terminates exactly where you want it to. Using a tubing bender is an easy way to bend the lines correctly with a nice radius so you don’t unintentionally pinch the line and hinder the fluid’s ability to travel through the tubing. I scored a tubing bender from Harbor Freight for less than $10. For this step, take lots of measurements here and be sure you are making your bends exactly where you want them for a nice clean installation, and effective fire suppression.

A tubing bender helps to make nice 90-degree bends look slick and professional. The tubing bender also ensures you don’t pinch a line as you make your bends. A pinched line will do you no good when you want the fire retardant coming out.

Once all of your lines are routed, it will be time to lock them down. We used the mounting brackets provided by ESS to permanently mount our hard lines in the interior and under the hood of our car. Using the guidelines provided in the ESS instructions, we designed our system to have one nozzle pointing at the driver and two nozzles pointing at two points of the engine, one at the fuel rail, the other at the exhaust header.

ESS even provides these nice insulated mounting brackets so you can route and mount your tubing throughout the car. Here you can see one line continues into the engine compartment and another line goes up for the nozzle pointed at the driver.

To engage the system, there is a handle labeled “FIRE,” which needs to be placed where a driver can pull it while fully belted into the driver seat. Pulling the T-handle and cable punches a needle into the CO2 cartridge, which then pressurizes the system. We installed our T-handle near the gear shift lever, by the brake bias adjustment, for ease of access by the driver. When the car isn’t on the racetrack, there is a safety pin to keep the T-handle in the nonactuated position so the system isn’t accidentally engaged. While the car is on grid, pull the pins so the system is ready for an emergency. One added feature we upgraded to the ESS system is a small cable on the safety pin attached to the handle mounting bracket so the safety pin wouldn’t get lost while the car is on track.

To help our drivers and crew members remember to pull the safety pin before heading out onto the track we added these cool “Remove Before Flight” tabs to the cotter pins. We pull these while the car is on grid. If there is a car fire, a quick yank up on the T-handle and the ESS fire suppression system will disperse the water works and keep the driver safe. You can see we elected to keep our handheld extinguisher in the car, attached to the center console. For me, you just can’t have enough fire safety.

The system went in easy, as advertised, and only set us back around $400. Having it installed gives me greater confidence on the racetrack. And if you still aren’t convinced your racecar needs a fire system because NASA rules only “highly recommend” one and do not “require” one, then enjoy this video of a car without a fire system.

The facts are in. Everybody needs a fire system. Case closed.

Image courtesy of Rob Krider


    • Metal tape works pretty well for that purpose in addition to the grommet. The best answer is a firewall bulk head fitting for the tubing. However, they are much more expensive.

  1. For a while some vendors were claiming systems that were user rechargeable weren’t race legal, glad to see this one is now.

  2. The issue with self service systems are what are people actually refilling them with and are they done correctly. Having FIA or SFI certified systems means having a requirement of an authorized service center, which has the proper tooling, training, and knowledge do the service and doesn’t leave a question mark of what happens when you need it. Many sanctioning bodies are going to FIA or SFI requirement because of this standard alone after seeing people with pressurized bottles but no suppressant in them. I don’t think it’s ever been a question of these being race legal, in fact it’s just recently that they are shifting away from allowing these.

    2 additional takeaways from this article to seriously consider –
    1 – You should never deploy a system, regardless of the suppressant, until the vehicle is fully stopped. Doing so at any speed, whether it’s gas, powder, or foam will greatly increase the chances of suppressant blowing out of the vehicle, or otherwise being compromised by the “wind” effect.

    2 – This 2.3L system is not sufficient for any vehicle larger than a formula or small prototype – which means most cars racing NASA. Foam has to “see” the fire and be sprayed specifically at the spot that’s on fire, otherwise it’ll never effect it. Doing so with such a small quantity means you are probably going to have a melted car, if not worse. Also, having such a small amount of suppressant means your chances of fighting a large(r) fire is almost non-existent. Having a gas system of this size is very effective because gas expands and fills the volume, making it “three-dimensional” and much more effective, but if you’re still using foam, the minimum that any car Miata-size or larger should have at minimum a 4.0L AFFF system.

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