Up In Flames – Part 2 (My Indy 500 Experience)

“221.”

I quickly glance at the small digital screen behind the Frisbee-sized steering wheel as my car drifts a couple of feet from the concrete wall outside Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I mentally note that 221 is at least four miles per hour slower than what’s needed for a qualifying run on the track. This is my second lap during the last afternoon of practice before qualifying starts the following day, and I’ll need to get up to speed faster than that when I qualify this weekend.

I sense the car building momentum on the short straight section between Turn 3 and where I enter the fourth turn of the 2.5-mile oval. With 900 horsepower at my disposal in a 1,500-pound vehicle, I can still feel the car accelerating at over 220 mph in sixth gear.

I’m looking more than a quarter of a mile ahead now, my view curved through the sweeping turn that leads onto the front straightaway of the most famous racetrack in the world. Legends have been made here. Drivers have been killed here. Grown men have cried with joy and disappointment. Dreams achieved, dreams destroyed. It’s a magical and cruel place.

Nanoseconds after glimpsing “221” on the dash, it feels like I’ve been thrust straight into a blast furnace.

 What?!! Ahhhh! What’s happening? Shhhiiiit! I’m on fire! What do I do? I’m burning…my hands…my face…God, the heat. Breathe—I can’t!

All these thoughts surge through my mind in the time it takes a light to come on after flicking the switch.

This is pain like nothing I’ve felt before. I’ve broken bones. I’ve torn ligaments. I’ve ruptured disks in my back. I’ve had knee and back surgery. Once, during a root canal my dentist had to stick a needle directly into a nerve to freeze it, causing me to jump off the chair and break out in an instant sweat, it hurt so bad. But nothing like this.

How can this be so painful already? It doesn’t make sense that it would be so instant. Why? I remember being surprised at that thought going through my head while arcing my car through Turn 4. How can this be? How can it hurt so much already? Why am I thinking about this right now? If I’d been able to see the future, I’d have realized that this pain was just a warm-up for what lay ahead, literally.

Methanol, which is what my Indy car ran on, burns at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s burning all around me. I’m engulfed in it.

Traveling 500 feet or more than the distance of a football field every second, I glance in my mirror and see my teammate Eric Bachelart following me. I weigh up my options:

  1. Burn to death.
  2. Drive around in hopes of blowing this fire out.
  3. Get out of this car. Now.

Option 1 is the easiest, but the least satisfying, so I decide to pass on that one. Option 2, even at the speed my brain is processing thoughts, doesn’t seem logical. Option 3 is it. Get out, now.

Gasp. I try to take a breath, but it’s all heat. No oxygen. Just pure, searing heat. I try again, but nothing. Is this what drowning is like?

I inhale frantically, but intense heat is the only thing entering my lungs. I need air!

 Gotta get out. If I turn down into the pit lane, I’ll hit Eric as he passes on the inside of the turn. Gonna have to stop on the track—hopefully other drivers will get enough warning to avoid me.

 Oh, bloody hell this hurts! Please get me out of here. Please stop!

Slowing from 221 to 0 mph through Turn 4 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it feels like I could have walked that quarter mile in less time. Those few seconds take hours. I would have stopped faster if I had stood on the brakes, but that would cause the car to spin and hit the wall. Contact with a concrete wall at Indy is never pleasant, even compared to burning to death.

So I do what I’ve been trained to do, what I’ve practiced for years, and what is total instinct for me: I threshold brake, pushing hard on the brake pedal but not quite to the point that the tires lock up and the car begins to skid.

 Inhale. Gulp. Hot air. I need air. I…can’t…breathe.…

The pain starts to dissipate, and it’s not so bad now. Just heat. Massive heat. But it’s my inability to breathe that’s getting to me.

As I exit Turn 4, I’ve finally slowed my car to a near-stop. I lock up the brakes and skid the last ten feet or so. My biological instinct to avoid pain is greater than my fifteen years of avoiding brake lockup. I need out!

As I slow down, push on the brakes, and steer the car, I’m so desperate for oxygen my left hand reflexively reaches up and opens my helmet visor. I need air! Invisible methanol flames immediately flick inside my helmet, reaching the bare skin around my eyes—the only part of my body not covered in fire-retardant material. I’ve done some stupid things in my life, but none as stupid as this.

I didn’t get what I was looking for—a gulp of life-sustaining oxygen—but I did get what I wasn’t looking for—direct contact between flames and my face. I snap my eyes shut as they sting to a whole new level of pain. I slap the visor shut again. It could not have been open more than half a second, but that was more than enough.

Before the car stops, I’ve already unbuckled my six-point safety harness. Before the car stops, I’m already pushing myself out of the seat. Before the car stops, I’m preparing to dive out the front and roll on the ground—in front of a car that is still moving.

I’m in full panic mode now. I totally forget that the car has an onboard fire extinguisher system. And I forget to take the steering wheel off—something that takes less than a second—to make it easier to get out of the car. I gotta get out! I need AIR.

Pushing up out of my safety harness, I stand in the seat for a fraction of a second as the car rolls slowly to a halt. I dive down the car’s nose onto the track surface, the same surface that I had passed over less than a minute ago at over 221 mph. Now I’m stopped—almost.

Hitting the pavement, I squirm fiercely, trying to stop the burning, learning firsthand why bacon wiggles around in a frying pan. Gasping, I catch a little oxygen. It’s all invisible to everyone else, as methanol burns clear.

Whooooosh. Water? Huh? Flipping over, I look up through my blinking eyes to see two men in coveralls. Budweiser? What?? Where am I? Huh? Ohhhh, pain!

Two uniformed pit crew members of the Budweiser-sponsored Indy car team had seen what was going on, grabbed a bucket of water, ran across the pit lane, jumped over the pit wall, sprinted across the track, and tossed the water on me. Seconds later, track safety crews arrived to spray my car down. At almost the same time, my team owner Dale Coyne arrived, having run the length of pit lane with a fire extinguisher. Dale, not a fit man, was gasping for air as much as I was.

Forty-three seconds. That’s how long that whole experience lasted, from the moment I caught fire to the moment I was doused in water and could breathe again.

It was the longest forty-three seconds of my life. And the most painful, but not necessarily in the way you would think.

To read about the most painful part of this story, be back here next week.

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