Firefighting NASCAR Style

Carl J. Haddon

With last fall’s fatal wreck in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the near catastrophic incident at Daytona this year, a new light has been shone on the world of motorsports fire rescue.

Motorsports fire safety has truly become a subspecialty of the technical rescue and extrication genres. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 610, Guide for Emergency and Safety Operations at Motorsports Venues (2009 ed.), is a 68-page guide written for motorsports firefighters, motorsports facility owners, race promoters, and management. It states, “The committee wrote this guide to assist facility owners, operators, promoters, and emergency management personnel in developing and implementing a system that provides for effective emergency operations at motorsports facilities and events.”

The guide offers recommendations on wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as outlining suggested equipment for firefighting, motorsports firefighting vehicles, racing vehicle rescue, and so on. But the questions posed to me are, “What are they actually wearing; what are they actually working from; and what are they using to fight fires and effect rescue at major motorsports venues, such as Daytona?” With the understanding that there are many different forms of racing and many different configurations of race tracks, let’s focus on a very popular form of racing today-the NASCAR Sprint Series-and the incident that occurred at the 2012 Daytona 500, in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Standardizing NASCAR Firefighting

Obviously, the NFPA had a reason to write a document such as 610. As recently as the early 1990s, there was no real standardization for firefighting at motorsports venues. Speedway firefighting vehicles were typically staffed by well-meaning volunteers who had a love for racing. PPE consisted of everything from jeans, a T-shirt, and leather work gloves to traditional bunker gear. Neither of these ensembles worked out very well-one provided too little protection and the other was most often too cumbersome to allow for the range of movement needed for the conditions encountered in race car rescue.

In the mid to late 1990s, speedways and superspeedways were being built across the United States. In answer to the country’s growing appetite for major motorsports events, pioneers like Roger Penske saw a need for motorsports safety teams to evolve. In 1996, I was directly involved with Penske and that evolution for speedway firefighters.

Although NFPA 610 does not specify PPE for motorsports like NFPA does for structural firefighting, many of today’s fire safety team members wear the same fire-resistant suits as the drivers they serve. Jerry Almond, assistant fire safety director for Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, says that crews there are wearing G-Force brand one-piece racing suits, with Nomex® underwear. These suits are rated to SFI Foundation (SFI) 3.2A/5 with SFI 3.3 underclothing. Additionally, they each have helmets and gloves for extrication and firefighting.

Regarding firefighting at speedways, this is a whole other situation. The NFPA offers recommendations for firefighting agents and other items, but each racing promoter (NASCAR included) seems to have its own idea about what works best for its particular brand of racing. Unfortunately, for those of us in the motorsports firefighting business, these choices don’t always make sense. For example, NASCAR all but mandates the exclusive use of dry powder chemical firefighting agents on the race track. It happens to primarily use Purple K. The thought process behind the exclusive use of dry powder is the ability to keep the racetrack dry so there is no need to use jet dryers-turbine airplane engines that are mounted to frames and typically towed behind pickup trucks and used as giant leaf (debris) blowers-after a wreck to dry water or liquid medium found on the race track. Unfortunately, what we saw at Daytona, and in many other events throughout the country, is the ineffectiveness of Purple K and other dry powder as a cooling agent, to say nothing of the residual effects of Purple K in the wind. Fire is hot. Heat melts racing surfaces. Racing surface repair takes much longer than drying water or an emulsifier solution on the track.

The Daytona 500 Incident

It is important to remember that although NASCAR and other major racing organizations are proponents of NFPA 610, they are in the business of producing races where literally millions of dollars are at stake in commercial endorsements, television rights, and so on. The 2012 Daytona 500 was a scheduling, logistical, and very expensive nightmare for racing’s bean counters. It was plagued with delays, the first of which was caused by rain. The 500-mile race was scheduled to start on a Sunday afternoon. Because of the weather, the start of one of the biggest racing events held annually in the United States was postponed for more 24 hours and did not conclude until nearly 36 hours after its original start time.

As midnight on Monday evening loomed, the track was under caution, wherein two jet dryers were working to remove debris from the racetrack. Near the end of this cleanup, a car came out of the pits and was attempting to rejoin the pack of race cars. As this car reached the middle of the back straightaway, something on the vehicle broke, causing it to slide up the track, out of control. The disabled race car slid up the race track, nearly missing one of the jet dryer trucks but striking the lead jet dryer truck, causing a rupture of the 250-gallon fuel tank and a fireball explosion of the jet dryer itself. The driver of the jet truck was able to self-extricate with minor injuries, and the race car driver was uninjured. In addition to the raging carnage that was the jet dryer and truck, burning jet fuel traveled from the top of the high banked race track to the apron, or bottom of the track. Note that NASCAR Sprint Cup cars will “idle” somewhere in the 65-mile-per-hour (mph) neighborhood around the track while under caution conditions. It is not unusual for track firefighters and cleanup personnel, who are also typically firefighters, to be out on the track working while these 200-mph-capable cars “idle” around the track.

The Response

The order for fire/rescue response at Daytona (and other NASCAR events) comes from a racing official in the race control tower. This person may or may not be a firefighter. In my years working NASCAR Cup events, the person dispatching “fire” was not a firefighter. The fire units are forbidden to move from their staging areas without an absolute directive from Race Control. They are told when to respond, how to drive, where to drive, and where to park. Although they are given the opportunity to question the dispatch directions, super speedway firefighters are not left to their own devices. I bring this up because many of the things viewers and crowds witnessed concerning the firefighter response at Daytona were completely out of the control of the firefighters at the track, including what type of firefighting vehicles were dispatched and what they had available on those particular trucks to fight that fire. A 33-gallon Ansul dry chemical extinguisher with a 30-foot booster line is no match for more than 250 gallons of burning jet fuel.

At Daytona, pumpers were sent to mitigate the incident stemming from more than 250 gallons of jet fuel leaking from the tank of the jet dryer. The jet dryer was at the top of the track that banks 31 degrees. The engines responded from their staging areas and an additional pumper was sent to the perimeter road on the outside top of the track that could flow water onto the fire from the other side of the catch fence. The engines on the track flowed water in combination with the dry chemical. It would take much more Purple K and longer hoses to deal with a burning fuel spill of that size. The two firefighters assigned to the pumpers donned full bunker gear and SCBA.

Not the Norm

It is important to reiterate that many of the circumstances for the firefighters in Daytona that night were beyond their control or the purview of any NFPA standards, codes, or guidelines. That incident was simply the “perfect storm,” and firefighting personnel were under the rules and regulations of the sanctioning body of NASCAR. Although the president of the race track was quoted as asking, “How could they possibly train for something like that?” I have a pretty good feeling that if they don’t already train for something like that they will now. I also have a pretty good idea that some changes in the operational plan involving jet dryer trucks and a field of race cars under caution might just be in the making.

In the end, neither the driver of the race car nor the jet truck driver was seriously injured, and no firefighters were harmed at the incident. Although the damaged racing surface continued to unravel for the remaining laps of the race and would require extensive repaving after the race, the drivers in Daytona were able to complete the race.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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