This Bizarre Video Explains Why People Tend To Avoid Using Methanol Fuel

What you're watching is not a young Robby Gordon, taking a break from a little racing at the 1997 Indy 500, just to frolic in the grass. What you're watching is Robby Gordon fighting desperately to save his own life, as his car burst into searing hot flames. Except a big problem is that the fire is completely invisible.

Gordon eventually received medical treatment for first- and second-degree burns on both wrists, his hand, and his leg, but if the fire had burned with a bright orange flame, he might have escaped with no injuries at all. And that's due, in part, to Gordon not realizing at first that he even was on fire, as he told the Orlando Sun-Sentinel at the time:

"I don't know what happened," Gordon said. "I was coming out of Turn 2, and I had fire all over me. I felt all this heat. I realized I was on fire going down the back-stretch.


The main issue with pure methanol fuel is that it burns completely colorlessly, making it both harder to detect and harder to fight. If you can't see the flames burning through the bodies of both drivers and crew, you don't know where to aim the extinguisher. In one particularly terrifying incident, driver Rick Mears and members of his pit crew became completely covered in an invisible conflagration, and Mear's own crew chief spends more than a minute on fire with his head uncovered before the flames could be put out. All the while, the specter of inhaling the invisible fire and scorching the lungs lurks among the entire area:

The original theory behind methanol fuel actually made a bunch of sense, and its use over gasoline was actually seen as a safety improvement. Gasoline burns hotter, and generates thick smoke. With a methanol fire, the flames are generally smaller and everyone can see the crash itself. But the tradeoff is huge, and reluctance to back away from it persisted for decades.

IndyCar waited all the way up until 2006 to finally switch over to a 10% ethanol/90% methanol mix, and then switched to pure ethanol in 2007. It's use in racing is much less common now, and is mostly restricted to Monster Truck racing and other types of dirt racing like Midget and Sprint cars.

But damn, is it scary.

Share This Story