How I Became A Human Torch and Survived

By Charles Espenlaub
Jan 11, 2023 | fire, Safety | Posted in Safety | From the April 2010 issue | Never miss an article

On December 5, 2009, I was buzzing around Thunderhill Raceway in the No. 19 Team MER Super Mazda MX-5 for NASA’s seventh annual 25-hour race. I was having a blast and had high hopes of defending our overall win from the previous year. World Challenge power and numerous other updates gave us one fast Mazda Miata.

At about the seven-hour mark, I was going into Turn 8 at approximately 105 mph when the biggest test of my life unfolded in mere seconds: My car exploded in a giant fireball. It was a test of every survival skill that I have learned to date, the culmination of all my learned instincts. Fortunately, I’m here to tell you about it.

Life Lessons

In just a few minutes, fire transformed this brand-new Mazda MX-5 endurance racer into a charred hulk. The incident serves as a sobering reminder that safety must always be taken seriously.

In just a few minutes, fire transformed this brand-new Mazda MX-5 endurance racer into a charred hulk. The incident serves as a sobering reminder that safety must always be taken seriously.

I come from an aviation background, and my father taught me how to fly at an early age. When I was 7 or 8, I remember my father helping me into the glider when I asked him a seemingly childish question: “Why do we need seat belts?”

His reply: “A seat belt is like a parachute; if you need it and don’t have it, you will probably never need it again.”

I don’t know where he got that statement from, but it stuck in my head as a lesson about the importance of safety gear. I believe it’s true regardless of the activity.

Hence, I am a big advocate of always wearing the right gear, which must be in perfect shape with no holes, no excessive wear, etc. I insist on a top-of-the-line three-layer suit, full-faced helmet, HANS device, gloves and full-length Nomex underwear: top, bottom, socks and balaclava. Note: In particular, nothing is worn underneath the suit that can melt or is flammable.

One of the great things about this sport is learning from all of the people I’ve met. Driving a variety of cars in different series, working with various teams, consulting for safety companies, and teaching at different schools has introduced me to valuable lifesaving knowledge. Everyone from the seasoned pro to the first-day student has taught me valuable lessons that allowed me to pass my test of survival.

The night before the race, as we were preparing the seating position and belts for the driver changes, I took a few minutes—as I always do—to familiarize myself with the fire system, belts, window net, kill switch, door handle and general layout of the car.

I learned to do this after years of listening to stories from veteran drivers who have survived some bad situations. Also, watching novices simply trying to get out of a car during a pit stop can show that this task isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In the SCCA’s World Challenge series, in fact, we have to do an exit test every year for every car that we drive. We get 15 seconds to go from race-ready and belted-in to outside the car.

I believe that I still hold the record for quickest exit at just under five seconds. That exit involved a bit of bleeding, but it prepared me for surviving what happened at Thunderhill.

From Bad to Worse

Charles’s Sparco equipment did its job, but even the best suit and helmet can only resist intense heat and flame for a few moments. The driver must know how to get out of a burning car in a hurry.

Charles’s Sparco equipment did its job, but even the best suit and helmet can only resist intense heat and flame for a few moments. The driver must know how to get out of a burning car in a hurry.

At Turn 8, the car started filling up with smoke and fumes. “Okay, no big deal,” I thought, “I’ve been through this numerous times.” I put down my visor and called the crew to tell them there was a problem with the car. I was just a few seconds away from corner station 9, where there was help.

Then, in an instant, a fireball erupted in the car. I thought to myself, “Wow, this sucks!” as I reached for the fire system’s pull handle, easily within reach on the left-side A-pillar. (Thank you, Jules.)

The flames were soon gone, the heat dissipated, and as I slowed down for the station I hit the kill switch. I was still thinking that the situation wasn’t a problem, as there was still manageable hope we could fix it and finish the race.

As I slowed down to leave the track and head for the corner station, my right hand reached for the belt release. At that same moment, BOOM, there was a big explosion.

In an instant there was intense, searing bright light, lots of heat, and amazingly dead silence. My eyes were forced closed, but I could still tell that it was incredibly bright in the car. The heat was so intense it was unbearable.

Houston, we now have a problem—a big problem.

I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, and I am not embarrassed to say that at this point I was scared. For the first time ever in a race car, I knew without a doubt that I had to get out now in order to survive—right now!—or I was going to die. The heat started to hurt really, really bad—excruciatingly bad.

Learned instincts started to play out. I dropped the window net, but as I tried to get up I couldn’t, realizing I never undid the belts. I must have picked up my arm as the fire erupted from the middle of the car.

I released the belt with my right hand while I opened the door with my left. As I jumped out, I pulled myself out by grabbing the roll cage. At that moment, I had a profound thought: “Wow, that cage is hot.”

I was still in flames as I ran from the car, so I did the stop, drop and roll routine. (Thank you, Dick Van Dyke.) As I was sprayed with cool, refreshing water, I could finally start breathing again. (Thank you, safety workers.) I got a helicopter ride to the hospital, where I was treated for second-degree burns on both hands and my right arm. A few weeks of healing, and I’d be as good as new, ready for Daytona. I am one lucky duck! (Thank you, everyone involved in my care.)

Be Safe, Be Fast

When it comes to your driving suit, it doesn’t matter which designer colors you pick or how many patches you put on it—its primary function is to save your life if there’s a fire.

When it comes to your driving suit, it doesn’t matter which designer colors you pick or how many patches you put on it—its primary function is to save your life if there’s a fire.

I have told this story many times since that night, trying to emphasize the importance of having the proper safety equipment in good to excellent condition and having enough practice to make the procedures a learned instinct.

I cannot tell you what caused the fire. Fortunately this was a rather rare occurrence, but one that any driver should be—must be!—ready for at any time. If you look at the accompanying photographs or get a chance to see this equipment in person, you will have no doubt that the gear was essential in saving my life.

Think about what it takes to melt a helmet, yet the searing flames never penetrated my gear. My burns were all from heat transfer. If I were wearing an open-faced helmet or a simple T-shirt as some do when on track, I definitely would not have survived this ordeal.

Now, bear in mind that this was a new car with all-new components, built and prepped by a championship-winning team. I was wearing every possible piece of safety equipment, not just the required items. Everything was in nearly new condition.

I regularly practice my exits and I am tested at least once a year on my ability to get out of a car in a hurry. I have many years of professional driving experience and work with safety companies. I always familiarize myself with the car’s safety equipment before driving. (Ever forget to pull the safety pin on your fire bottle before a session?)

Remember, fire burns just as hot on a test day as it does on a race day, so wear all your gear. How fast can you get out of your car while blindfolded and holding your breath? Have you practiced fast exits? Are you ready? Please think about it. Be fast and safe, and always wear all of your safety gear.

Learned Lessons

A month after the incident, Espenlaub’s hands were healing nicely. He was back at the top of the lap charts, too.

A month after the incident, Espenlaub’s hands were healing nicely. He was back at the top of the lap charts, too.

We at Team MER have always made safety our number one focus, and the unfortunate events of this year’s Thunderhill 25-hour race have been a wake-up call, even for us. We have always strived to use the safest seats, belts, nets and fire systems on the market.

We have installed these systems with great care while paying particular attention to how easily the driver can operate these systems in the event of an emergency. Our kill switches and fire pulls are always within easy reach, normally right near the driver’s door. The last thing you need to do if a car is burning is reach farther inside the car. Furthermore, a corner worker is more likely to reach the driver’s side first.

We also make sure the steering wheel is easy to remove and that egress isn’t obstructed. The window net (or nets) should drop away easily. All access to the fuel tank or cell is covered by a sheet metal bulkhead.

Even with all of these safety measures in place, one of the most heads-up drivers in any professional race still got injured in our car. Here are some of the lessons we learned in analyzing this incident, as well as the solutions we’re implementing to correct them:

• Even with sheet metal panels in place, when a fuel cell explodes the fire will get through. From now on, we will be making sure the panels fit even tighter and have fewer gaps around their edges.

• Clear rubber hose is not okay for fuel filler lines. It’s nice to be able to see if the tank is full, but from now on all our cars will have braided, armored or metal fuel filler, delivery and return lines. Ideally those lines will have properly installed and tested AN fittings on all connections.

• A fire system is great, but if the driver doesn’t know that there’s a fire burning, it’s useless. We believe that Charles drove around for quite a while with a small fuel fire burning around the fuel tank.

From now on, all our cars will carry a second 5-pound fire bottle dedicated to the fuel tank and fitted with automatically triggered nozzles. This should help knock down any fuel fire as soon as it ignites. We are working with our fire system supplier to create a warning light so the driver knows the system has been discharged.

• Accurately aiming the fire system nozzles is critical. We are going to take extra care so that all nozzles are pointed in the correct direction. Our new standard placement will have one in front of the driver, one behind the driver, and a third inside the engine bay. The fourth nozzle will be the dedicated, automatic nozzle on the fuel tank.

• Even on stock cars, the driveshaft needs to be tethered. We are going to install driveshaft loops on all cars, no matter how mundane the machine. Upon final inspection of the car involved in the incident, the driveshaft didn’t fail as reported online. Once the car was stationary, the fire caused the driveshaft to explode. Nonetheless, it’s a reminder that a loose driveshaft can immediately become a safety concern.

Our cars will be safer thanks to these enhancements, but the foundation comes from choosing the right safety gear, always wearing it—underwear and balaclava included—and having a plan for escape. Just as in driving, there is no substitute for practice. Time yourself when exiting your car, then see how much you can reduce that time.

Just doing the practice exits may identify some weak points in your strategy; try correcting them to make your exits quicker and smoother. We hope that everyone can learn from this incident so we can all make our race, practice and track days a little safer.—Jason Saini, Team MER

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5/2/18 8:05 p.m.

This article scared the living E36 M3 out of me.

Streetwiseguy UltimaDork
5/2/18 8:36 p.m.

I printed enough copies to hand out to all the late model drivers a few years back when I was the tech guy.  It really does make you think about the risks, even if the odds are slim of anything like that really happening to you. 

Dr. Hess
Dr. Hess MegaDork
5/2/18 8:41 p.m.

I hate it when that happens.

Trackmouse UltraDork
5/2/18 10:06 p.m.

That was eye opening. Might install a shaft hoop on my turd. 

te72 Reader
5/2/18 10:45 p.m.

All the more reminder to install a fire suppression system on my car before I ever get out on a track... never go anywhere without the extinguisher, but it may not be enough.


Anyone know if a driveshaft loop would be necessary on a carbon fiber shaft? Fabrication doesn't scare me, but I would think it would turn into a nice street sweeper before causing any body damage?

DeadSkunk UberDork
5/3/18 7:16 a.m.

My Challenge car came with an old fire suppression system installed. Can those things be recharged? Should they?

SVreX MegaDork
5/3/18 7:35 a.m.

That's a good article. 

5/3/18 8:52 a.m.

Charles has been doing well in endurance racing, just got 2nd place in the 12 hours of Navarra in Spain with the PROsport Performance team along with Joe Foster and Charley Putnam running in the A6-am class. They only missed top spot on the podium by a second or two with the new AMG Mercedes they're still sorting. The race was part of the Creventic series which I've found to be great races to watch on you tube.

I believe he's been involved with safety equipment and has something to do with the triangular arm nets we see in sports car racing now. I've been looking at the ones made by Safecraft. Maybe it's time for some updates from Charles in GRM?

44Dwarf UberDork
5/3/18 9:06 a.m.

One thing that always Urkes me when looking at races cars it "HELMET HOOK"'s   When your on fire and or upside down in a wreck those things that seem so simple can kill you.

Having been upside down with water lapping in the windows after being "Punted" off the track i can tell you you learn quickly how bad things can get in a Mila second.



Professor_Brap Reader
5/3/18 9:40 a.m.

This is making me rethink my current fire fighting setup in my own car.... 

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