Remember the whole “help me Tom Cruise” scene in Talladega Nights? Yeah. That was making light of one of the most terrifying fires that auto racing has ever, or rather never, seen.
While I was researching Danny Ongais’ terrifying crash at the 1981 Indy 500, I came across this old New York Times article that also discussed what happened to fellow racer Rick Mears in that same race.
Ongais nearly burned when he crashed his car right after refueling and it caught alight.
Mears’ car caught fire in the midst of refueling. Watch the live TV broadcast and note what you don’t see:
Yeah, no flames. My coworker Mike Ballaban wrote about this fire early last year, and noted that this was a methanol fire, and methanol burns colorless.
Mears’ description of the event, recounted by the Times, is still terrifying:
“I was sitting in the car during a refueling pit stop when the nozzle worked loose and started spraying fuel around,” Mears said. “The fire reached the cockpit and I didn’t dare breathe for fear I’d inhale the flames.
“I kept my eyes shut and jumped out of the car, all the time trying to get my helmet off. I couldn’t do it with my gloves. When a fireman tried, he had to back off because the helmet was so hot and it was burning his hands.”
Mears, who is 29, said he then saw a fireman with an extinguisher and grabbed it. “I ran over and grabbed the extinguisher and put it to my face to put the fire out. I got it to my face and he let go of the trigger and started running. That didn’t do any good. My dad ran up and grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed it on me until he got the fire out.”
Mears, surprisingly, spent less time in the hospital than his chief mechanic, who suffered from even worse burns than his driver. Watching him in the broadcast, running around like a madman, can only be described as disturbing.
It reminded me of this comment from reader PrimisClaidhaemh on the original article about Ongais’ crash:
Indeed, how bad a crash (or a fire) looks doesn’t always translate to how bad it really is.