News & Media

Response to fire emergency allows NASCAR to finish race

February 28, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Daytona 500 interrupted by bizarre collision, fiery scene with 40 laps remaining

For Daytona International Speedway, it was a worst-case scenario: a jet dryer afire up against the Turn 3 wall, hundreds of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel spilling down the banking, and a conflagration that appeared in danger of growing out of control.

That's the nightmare situation track officials faced with 40 laps remaining in Monday's rain-postponed Daytona 500, when a suspension piece evidently broke on Juan Montoya's race car and the red No. 42 veered sharply into a jet dryer under caution. The resulting fire took several long, frightening minutes to be brought into containment, required the use of a laundry detergent to clean spilled fuel off the track, and resulted in a red flag that lasted 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Daytona ablaze

Track workers quickly react after Juan Montoya's crash into the back of a jet dryer triggers a fiery explosion.

"There is not a true training manual to light a track on fire and respond to it," track president Joie Chitwood III said. "There's no way to do that. That's something that you have to talk about in theory. The worst possible thing that can happen to a race track is fuel. We hardly ever talk about burning fuel. Fuel alone is bad enough. So I'm really proud of the way the team responded."

Montoya, who said the fire burned his helmet, scurried quickly out of the damaged No. 42 car after the accident. He emerged with only a banged-up foot that occurred when it slipped off the brake and into the clutch pedal. The jet dryer driver, Duane Barnes, works for Daytona's sister track Michigan International Speedway. He was transported to Halifax Medical Center for evaluation and later released, according to Daytona track officials.

"I'm sure he's pretty shaken and he's going to be sore," Montoya said, "but he's OK."

Barnes has worked in the maintenance department at Michigan International Speedway for 24 years. He has frequently assisted other International Speedway Corporation-owned race tracks, driving jet dryers at those events.

"I appreciate everyone for taking the time to write, call and ask how I am," Barnes said in a statement released by MIS on Tuesday. "I am OK and I am amazed at how many people have wished me well. I am also glad Juan Montoya is OK, and thank him for his concern."

Montoya said his car had developed a vibration, and he pitted under caution for his team to check it out. Everything seemed all right with the vehicle, and Montoya said he went back out onto the race track and shifted into fourth gear -- only to have the car take a sharp and abrupt right turn into the dryer. The impact totaled the race car, and left a large gash in the side of the cab of the jet dryer.

"Every time I got on the gas, I could feel the rear squeezing," said Montoya, who believed the problem was related to the transmission. "When I was telling the spotter to have a look how the rear was moving, the car just turned right."

After the fire was extinguished and the remains of the jet dryer were removed from the race track, crews used laundry detergent to clean up the mess left by the truck's diesel fuel and the jet fuel it was carrying. They then employed a bonding material -- similar to what was used to patch the infamous pothole two years ago -- to repair the area of the track surface that had been burned. Chitwood said the amount of jet fuel burning on the race track was about 200 gallons.

"We had to respond to the incident, deal with the driver of the jet truck, the driver of the race car, had to suppress the fire, then applied quick dry or oil dry to soak up any of the excess fuel that was still there," he said. "Following that, we watered the track. We soaped the track. We then watered it again to clean up any soap. After that we applied street bond to make sure any excess stone or anything that was showing from the fuel leak was covered. We then dried it with blowers, with one of our sweepers, and then we actually ran a jet dryer over it. It was about a 10- or 11-step process."

Drivers initially seemed hesitant that the repair would hold, expressing concerns about the patch job in the higher grooves of the track. But cars eventually traversed the burned and repaired area with little difficulty, and NASCAR was able to finish the race.

"It was far enough back in the corner where it wasn't too bad," race winner Matt Kenseth said. "The bottom was totally fine. I didn't get up much higher than the middle. When you drove through the middle you could hear gravel, so I was not wanting to be pushed real hard through that spot. But I was able to run the bottom almost the whole time, and there was really no issue at all on the bottom, and it was a very narrow patch, as well."

"That was very scary and looked very tragic, and looked like something that was going to be tragic, so I was happy to hear that everybody was OK and able to go home to their families," added Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. "It was an unfortunate incident, but NASCAR did a great job to finish the show, and they took their time, and they did it right."

Winning car owner Jack Roush also was impressed. "It was amazing that NASCAR was able to have enough Tide [detergent] and have enough oil dry and had people trained and were able to really save the race track. I thought surely that the race track would be damaged to the point that it wouldn't be suitable for continuing the race," he said. "But the NASCAR crew and the management did a great job saving the race track and having a race for the fans."

The fire came in a Daytona 500 that already had been pushed back a day due to rain, and then rescheduled from afternoon to night. "You do think about, oh, my gosh, if that can happen, what else can happen type thing," NASCAR president Mike Helton admitted. "That gives you pause to sit and try to figure out what might else could happen so that you can be as ready for it as you can."

Chitwood, whose team at the speedway had already endured a difficult few days because of rain, praised the way his crews responded to the fire.

"Obviously the last 48 hours were very challenging in terms of rain delays and trying to complete the 500 miles," he said. "But what the team did [Monday] in terms of responding to a burning jet dryer on the race track, I think is phenomenal, and the fact that we got to finish the race under green is a heck of an accomplishment. The team was prepared. The expertise was there. The training was there. The teamwork with NASCAR was there."