Inside a burning race car

That's my Porsche burning to the ground
That's my Porsche burning to the ground

It was the same sound you hear when you pour too much lighter fluid on the charcoal as you're preparing a Fourth of July barbecue. A giant "whoosh" followed by a flash of flame.

Except it was a thousand times louder. And it wasn't charcoal that was on fire. It was me.

On February 13, 2016, I was driving an 8-hour sports car endurance race at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas. I started inside row 8 and quickly realized that our car was very fast. Within just a few laps we were in the top ten and I had high hopes of scoring my fourth straight endurance racing victory, a personal record.

On COTA's massive back straightaway, the fastest point on the course, I smelled fuel and felt a cold spray over my right hand and leg. There was a sudden flash and my whole world turned a bright, terrifying orange. Everything was on fire.

Flames poured through every crack in the firewall. My right hand was on fire. Splashed with fuel, my right leg was burning as well. Even the inside of the cockpit was ablaze as fuel vapor ignited and literally set the air on fire. I could see nothing. I could not steer the car off the track because I couldn't see the track.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]I stomped the brake as hard as I could, but it takes a while to get a Porsche from 125 miles per hour to a dead stop.

In a desperate effort to see, I foolishly raised the visor on my helmet as the car slowed down. It worked. A little. I found the fire extinguisher switch but by this time it was useless. The intensity of the heat was indescribable. I abandoned any thought of doing anything but getting out of the car as quickly as possible.

Only then did I regret not practicing my egress from the car. Yes, I'd gone through the protocols in my mind, but nothing replaces actually practicing a full egress. And I hadn't. This was my first time driving this race car and I had practiced nothing.

Now, as my leg, face and arm continued to burn, I had one dominant thought in my head… "I've got five more seconds. Maybe ten. If anything goes wrong with my egress, I'm going to die."

I was gripped with an overwhelming urge to panic and slap out the flames on my arm and leg. But I knew that doing so would have been fatal. I had to ignore the pain and let them burn. Getting out of the car was primary and I had to focus on that job alone.

I blindly groped for the safety latch on my harness. I found it and my belts came loose instantly and cleanly. During this brief moment I distinctly recall watching my racing suit catch fire and burn over my right thigh.

I looked for the release catch on the window net. It was painted bright red and easy to find. I grabbed the lever, pulled it back and threw the net out the window. The back of my right glove was now on fire as well. My safety gear held up and was doing its job amazingly well.

I didn't bother unplugging the radio cord from my helmet. With enough pressure it would break free on its own. I didn't remove the steering wheel.

That is me falling to the ground backward. I hung upside down my feet pinned inside.
That is me falling to the ground backward. I hung upside down my feet pinned inside.

Still burning, I clambered out of the car and the upper half of my body fell free, while my feet were pinned under the steering wheel. Through the pain I remember yelling, "God, help me!" about twenty times in a row. I wasn't cursing. I was praying. I actually needed His help. After a few seconds of wriggling I was completely clear of the race car, which by this time was consumed in flames six feet high.

Instinctively, I began rolling on the pavement and in ten seconds or so had managed to extinguish the flames on my body. Then I got up, staggered off the track to the grass, and collapsed.

The EMT's arrived in record time. They removed my helmet, then pulled my gloves off. Despite their best efforts, I watched in horror as the skin on the back of my right thumb dripped off my hand.

"We can't move him," one of them said. I was in shock, but I remember the other responding, "We have to. This car's gonna blow any second." With that, they grabbed me by the arms and dragged me like a sack of potatoes another thirty feet away from the race car, which was entirely engulfed in flames and emitting a plume of black smoke high into the sky.

They gently put me into the ambulance and began cutting off my fire suit. The EMT's were professional, compassionate and good at their jobs. I wondered how serious my injuries were. When I heard the engine of the lifeline helicopter warming up five minutes later, I knew.

The medical personnel in the helicopter were equally professional. The EMT attending me during the flight, a red-headed woman in her thirties, was fiddling with a big syringe undoubtedly meant for me. Barely able to speak through my burned throat, I grabbed her hand. She leaned over and asked me if I needed anything. "Yes," I said. "I need you to look at me and tell me I'm going to be alright."

She stopped her work long enough to look dead into my eyes and promise me that I was going to be fine. Then she told me that we were about to land, and picked up the syringe again.

The world went black and I remember nothing of the next 46 hours.

First, second and third degree burns covered 7% of my body. The worst injuries were to my face, my right arm and my right leg. I was transported to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where I spent the next three days in intensive care followed by six more in the burn recovery unit. My doctor later told me that the injuries were "considered very life threatening" for the first 24 hours, but a full recovery is expected now.

That's my story. In my next blog, I'll tell you what I learned from it and what I'll do differently before I return to racing.

Part 2

The fire that ended my race at Circuit of the Americas last month and sent me to the intensive care unit of the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio (details here) also destroyed our on-board cameras. We were convinced that no video of the event existed, but last week's article drew over 50,000 readers and several previously unknown videos surfaced quite by surprise.

All three videos are very short and are presented uncut just as they were sent to Sopwith Motorsports.

The first video comes from the on-board camera of a fellow competitor, Paul Kruse. I am briefly seen on the right side of the picture, falling ungracefully out of our team's Porsche 944s in a desperate effort to escape the blaze. My right arm is on fire, as can be seen in the sliding photo banner at the top of the page. The interior of the Porsche is a mass of flames as well, and my leg is still burning as I tumble backwards out of the car.

I would like to publicly thank Paul and all of my other fellow drivers for looking out for my safety during this incident. If any of them had failed to pay attention and steer clear of my car, the results could have been even more disastrous. The quality of drivers in this series is excellent. If you are a driver who raced past my burning car, thank you for your attentiveness and good driving.

The second video is courtesy of racing photographer Sergio Perfetti and begins perhaps fifteen seconds after I exited the car. The Porsche is already a mass of flames, and the yellow-uniformed EMT's on the far side of the car are attending me with great care that I truly appreciated. I'm unseen, laying on the ground beside the EMT's.

The third video (also courtesy of Sergio Perfetti) shows the EMT's helping me to my feet and into the ambulance while the fire continues to rage. Other units arrive on the scene but the fire gets completely out of control, forcing one of the emergency trucks to retreat. Even the videographer backs up when the flames soar twenty feet high.

Thankfully, by this time I was in the ambulance and safe from any further burns. I am grateful to series officials, track corner workers, and the Circuit of the Americas emergency team for their speed, professionalism and compassion.

***From series officials – We would like to help Stephen through this difficult time, and we have started this Relief Fund Project for Stephen and his family (https://www.gofundme.com/9tvup97k). Please share this on your social media and help the effort with any donation, big or small. Thank you.

Stephen Cox
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
Co-host, Mecum Auto Auctions on NBCSN
#21 Boschett Timepieces/McGunegill Engines

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