Sonoma Raceway may have escaped harm from the recent wildfires in the area, but drivers at Thunderhill Raceway Park found out just how bad the fire risk is in California this weekend. A racer at the National Auto Sport Association’s Western States Championships went off the pavement, sparking a grass fire that lasted nearly three hours.
High winds and dry grass whipped up a massive grass fire on Sunday that soon engulfed the entire hill from Turn 8 to Turn 13 at Thunderhill. NASA founder Jerry Kunzman had gone off track in his NP01 prototype racer, which was enough to spark a fire.
It’s a story all too familiar to those of us who go to the track in dry climates. Many components low on a car, including the exhaust and brakes, get incredibly hot. When hot car parts meet dry grass, fires are possible. It’s why it’s best to keep moving or get restarted as soon as possible if you go off-track. The longer you sit in one place, the more of a chance there is for a fire.
For racers hoping to settle a championship, it was all hands on deck to put out the fire. Track and event staff knew of northern California’s high fire risk before the event and had several fire trucks on site staffed and ready to roll right after it happened. Fire fighters from Cal Fire, the local fire department, NASA’s own safety crew and the track itself all responded to the blaze. Several racers at the event also had firefighting experience and went to work trying to contain the blaze using Thunderhill’s equipment.
Everyone was working together on one radio channel to coordinate their efforts and keep fires from melting tire walls and otherwise spreading around the facility, according to NASA National Event Manager and Divisional Director Will Faules, who spoke with Jalopnik about the blaze.
Faules told Jalopnik that on-site staff only paused their firefighting efforts when they thought a C130 helicopter was going to drop water on the site, but that helicopter drop was ultimately called off.
Faules was one of the racers who jumped into an old fire truck Thunderhill had on site to help. While he’s local to Austin now, he lucked out insofar as he still had a bin with his old firefighting gear from when he worked at Thunderhill. He was posting occasional updates on the Western States Championships for NASA members and friends, but his Facebook live streams soon turned to the fire. NASA Chairman Ryan Flaherty and Arizona Regional Director Tage Evanson joined Faules in the truck to fight the blaze.
Fortunately, no one was hurt and no cars were left out in the blaze. Racers were told to stay put in the paddock where it was safe. The hills around the track may be slightly less pretty now, but that’s about it.
Thunderhill got extremely lucky, but at least one of the weekend’s participants wasn’t done with fire. Race Director David Lang came home to a wildfire threatening his home in Napa, but managed to keep his home safe. A little while later, he spotted fire close to his neighbor’s house. He called 911 and managed to hold it back with a garden hose until Cal Fire arrived on the scene. Cal Fire took around ninety minutes to put out the blaze but ended up saving the home and several animals inside.
This year’s wildfires are among the most destructive in California’s history, having burnt at least 119,000 acres according to Earther. Eleven people have died in the blazes and 150 are missing. California’s governor declared a state of emergency on Monday.
Additionally, Sonoma Raceway announced today that they are opening up their 50 Acres campground to residents fleeing the fires. The campground can host up to 2,000 campers and has not been affected by the fires.