How to react when your car catches fire | Project MR2 Turbo

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Update by J.G. Pasterjak to the Toyota MR2 Turbo project car
Aug 15, 2022 | Toyota, MR2, Daytona, MR2 Turbo

To answer your first questions, yes, our Toyota MR2 Turbo caught fire at the recent SCCA Track Night in America event at Daytona International Speedway, and, yes, I’m completely fine and healthy. Or at least no worse than I was before the incident.

So let’s walk through what happened, what being involved in a fire at a track event is like, what I did right, what I did wrong (spoiler alert: plenty), and what our plans are moving forward.

First, the event itself.

While it may seem crazy, this was actually the first SCCA TNiA event that I actually participated in. Not having done so prior to this was my first mistake.

TNiA events are based around the SCCA’s “Fun With Cars” mantra, and while it’s easy for someone like me with a deeply competition-wired brain to take that with a bit of an eye-roll, the reality is the culture that the TNiA crew has created within these events is downright infectious. Everyone is there to have fun, help out, and be a part of a community of shared interest with no baggage.

The grid at the Daytona Track Night in America is filled with drivers who are there to have a great time and who–with a single exception–did not catch on fire. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

At one point, I witnessed the beginning of an argument as another group returned to the grid. A driver that felt he was being held up unfairly was admonishing his track-mate: “Man, you gotta give point-bys. I was behind you for two laps!”

The conversation escalated from there, with accusations, counter accusations and defenses being pitched, until one of the participants–I’m honestly not even sure which one–said, “Look, we’re all just here to have fun.”

His counter-argumentor concurred, the temperature lowered, they agreed on an approach for the next session that would improve both their experiences, shook hands and parted as friends. It was an entire Lifetime movie played out in about 40 seconds, but was eventually solved by leaning into the culture of cooperative fun that the SCCA has sowed with this program.

But, yeah, fire.

Notice those chiseled, bulging forearms giving a point-by? Yeah, you can see them because they are uncovered with fire-resistant fabric. In hindsight, maybe those tickets to the gun show weren’t worth the lack of safety precautions. Photography Credit: MotorsportMedia

So, on the final session of the evening, I was enjoying having a fully functional MR2 under me on my home track, which is also one of my favorite tracks in the whole world.

The little turbo terror was seeing 145 mph across the start/finish line, after which the Wilwood brakes would easily shed 80-plus mph into Turn 1, where the Wilhelm Raceworks suspension bits, KW dampers and Falken Azenis RT660 tires conspired for well over 1g of cornering force. The sun was setting over the west banking, and everything was swell.

Before the car was on fire on track, the car was on fire on track, turning some great laps and behaving like a thoroughly modern sports car. Photography Credit: MotorsportMedia

Until the flames, that is.

Upon braking for the bus stop, I glanced in my mirror only to see jets of fire shooting from under the engine cover.

Immediately my eyes shot up to the left side of the bus stop complex–where I already knew the worker station was located–and I made a beeline for the gap in the wall right next to the worker.

Upon coming to a stop–in a patch of non-flammable sand, not flammable grass–I shut off the ignition, popped the steering wheel off, undid and cleared the belts with a sweep, opened the door and exited with a left-leg, right-leg, duck head to the right, lift torso up with right hand on center console and exit butt-first ballet. Well, if someone taught a bear to do ballet, anyway.

If that order seems highly specific, it’s because it is.

And here’s where I can say I absolutely did something right in this whole situation by previously rehearsing quick exits from the car while fully belted. Not a lot, but clearly enough. Maybe once a week, while I was working in the shop, I’d throw on my gear and do a couple bails from the car.

[How I Became A Human Torch and Survived]

It’s not a huge car, with a low window line and a deep Kirkey seat and low steering wheel, so there’s a highly specific order of operations that ensures a quick and clean exit. And knowing that order of operations led to me performing them automatically, with zero panic.

In a situation where I admittedly did a lot wrong, I’m legitimately proud of my performance during the actual event. Between knowing where the corner worker was and knowing the topography of that worker’s location, spotting the worker station, and hitting the mark quickly and cleanly, and bailing quickly and with zero scrapes or even singed eyebrows, a lot went right there.

So now I was out of the car, which had a growing fire engulfing the rear third of it, and this developing situation was definitely not over.

I looked over at the corner worker, who was solo at the station and, as such, could not abandon the flag he was waving that was now controlling traffic on course.

He motioned toward the fire extinguisher, which I quickly grabbed, armed and began emptying into the engine bay through the various vents where fire was belching out.

[How to pick the right fire extinguisher for your car]

In what seemed like 100,000 lifetimes, a fire service vehicle rolled up with a bunch of dudes with fire gear and extinguishers. Just as my bottle emptied, they set to spraying and emptied probably five more bottles into the flames ensuing the fire was not only extinguished, but thoroughly humiliated.

As I set my extinguisher down and approached the car, the hand on my shoulder and the calm but forceful voice saying “we need you to come with us” let me know that I would not be inspecting the car just yet.

That voice came from the track medical staff, who whisked me into the back of an ambulance and got an oxygen mask on me before you could say “smoke inhalation.”

Mandatory ambulance selfie. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The unflappably nice attendant ran through a quick battery of queries and determined that I was unburned from the fire and unbumped from the exit, but because I had likely inhaled some fire extinguisher powder and chemical-based smoke–being in the center of a cloud of both will do that–I would be taking a mandatory and non-negotiable ride to the hospital for a respiratory look-over.

Again, the med crew was amazingly nice–she even cleaned my glasses–but they were not about to hear any tough guy, I don’t want to go to the hospital talk from me.

That’s when I also learned that once you’re in an ambulance, you’re in that ambulance. There’s no “Oh let me hop out and grab my bike in the grid” or “let me talk to eight different people about what to do with the car when it comes back. I was allowed to get my wallet out of my truck, while the med crew never took a hand off me, and allowed to move from one ambulance to another, also with physical contact.

The Halifax Health Medical Center at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night is possibly a scarier place than a burning car, but the staff was nice and professional, possibly because I was the only one who arrived there that evening not handcuffed to my gurney.

Once I was whisked back to my room, attendants walked another guest by my suite who seemed to have had his own exciting evening. He was a large dude. More of a walking hill than a man, shirtlessly hollering with his pants half off (or half on, if you’re an optimist) as he was escorted to his room.

At least my helmet still looks cool next to a hospital gown and a cart that is supposed to be locked but clearly isn’t. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

A few minutes later, he exited his accommodations under his own power and began shambling his way down toward my room. I looked around to judge the layout of my area, wondering if I’d have to make yet another quick bail tonight, and formed an exit plan. No way I was going to overpower this dude if it came to that, but I could probably outmaneuver him.

Eventually he stopped in front of my room where he began loudly demanding–something?–from hospital staff. Man, I’m not sure what or if I even want to know.

When hospital staff replied that he would not be given what he was asking for–whatever that was–and should return to his room instead, he responded by pushing over a bunch of real expensive-looking equipment on roller carts. Then cops came, a scuffle ensued, and I was thankful that I had merely been involved in a car fire.

Anyway, after a few lung listens (they were fine), a blood test to determine the CO level in my blood (also fine), I learned that when you get a ride to the hospital from the track in an ambulance, you do not get a ride back. I got to do the walk of shame out to my wife’s car, where she just shook her head at my latest round of idiotic predicaments, but at least she stopped at Culver’s on the way home and I got a hamburger.

And, yeah, this is the part where I tell you how I was wearing a T-shirt. Maybe we shouldn't discuss the rest of what I was wearing. There’s simply not room in this particular piece to discuss the various safety ramifications of this whole situation, but rest assured that we will have these conversations, and that my safety gear this particular evening was not sufficient.

I’ve already been assigned a “track day safety” story for an upcoming issue, and I can assure you that “shorts and a T-shirt” will not be my conclusion.

[Investing in your safety setup? Take inspiration from FCP Euro’s IMSA effort]

The next morning. Charred but upright. The safety crew dropped the car off at our trailer and we picked it up the next morning. Photography Credits: J.G. Pasterjak

As for the car, that’s also on me. Further investigation showed that some oil cooler lines that had been restrained by a metal bracket–which failed likely due to fatigue or vibration or both–hit the exhaust, melted through, and allowed oil to ignite.

Kids, don’t let your oil lines hit the exhaust. Ask us how we know. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The lesson here is likely that metal can fatigue, and that a single point of failure is never sufficient when it comes to flammables. Even if that bracket had still failed, a heaping helping of thermal wrap on the oil lines would have protected them from burning through. So, yeah, that’s on me, too.

If you’re going to be like me, please limit your emulation to the “kind to animals” and “signals lane changes” ways and not the “careless with flammables” and “insufficient safety garb at a track day” ways.

However, upon further cleaning and inspection, you know what, it’s not horrible. There’s no structural damage, no glass or sheet metal compromised, and no real fire damage anywhere outside the left-front corner of the engine bay.

Cleanup began back at home. The interior is FULL of fire powder, which does not blow out or vacuum up very well. It does respond well to a soapy sponge, so most of the cleanup will be done that way. Whatever can be removed will be pressure washed. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

After a quick pressure spray, the car is starting to look not as scary as it did when it was covered with soot and fire powder. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The real fright show was under the engine lid. Lots of barbecued soft bits, hose, plastic and wire. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

After an engine bay scrubbing and removing some of the charred bits, things actually don’t look so dire. It needs plenty of wire, hose, scrubbing and paint, but the structure is fully sound. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

We lost some wiring, hose and soft bits, but there’s no damage to the bones of the car. When I opened the drain plug, there was still a good three plus quarts of oil in the sump, so the engine never ran dry and is fine. So what it mostly needs is a lot of new wiring harness, some fuel line, coolant hose, and some other soft parts like dust covers and intake plumbing.

What it needs and what it’s getting are two different things, though. Since we have to re-harness, and do some cleaning and painting in the engine bay, we need to pull the engine out anyway. And if we’re going to pull a motor, why not put a better one back in?

Just as fire can renew the forest, allowing new trees to seed and grow in the ashes, we’ll plant two more cylinders in the engine bay when it goes back together.

We’ve already ordered an 85,000-mile 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6 from a Camry hit in the rear. We have a wiring harness from a Sienna on the way, too.

This Camry gave its heart so we may persevere. The 2GR-FE V6 will find new life in the back of our MR2.

With some parts from Frankenstein Motorworks, Wilhelm Raceworks and TCS Motorsports we’ll drop in an engine that routinely allows MR2 owners to put 300-plus horsepower to the ground with only minor tweaks.

Or course, we have a lot more to talk about here, and we will, both here and in print. As the corner worker said to me as they were loading me into the ambulance, “Well, this should give you lots to write about.”

There are talks to be had about safety, car prep when it comes to critical systems, as well as the restoration from the fire and the swap itself. If I can stay off the next disaster long enough, I’ll write about all that.

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Mr_Asa GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
8/15/22 9:09 a.m.

Well, if someone taught a bear to do ballet, anyway.

Excellent visual, excellent preparation, and an excellent take away.  Prepare for the worst case scenario, celebrate when it doesn't happen.

Again, glad you're doing ok after this.

malibuguy GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
8/15/22 9:18 a.m.

the v6 soundtrack alone is worth it

Tyler H
Tyler H GRM+ Memberand UberDork
8/15/22 10:03 a.m.

Sorry to hear about the fire, but glad to hear that you're unscathed and that the car will live on.  FWIW, I did both a Gen3 swap and a 1MZ V6 swap on a couple of my past MR2s, and the V6 was magical to drive, even with significantly less peak HP.  Can't wait to read about your progress with the 2GR.

CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
8/15/22 10:14 a.m.

Glad you're ok. 

Is there a race car equivalent of ATGATT?


Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
8/15/22 10:23 a.m.

In reply to CrustyRedXpress :

I think it's "ATGATT".

Noddaz GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
8/15/22 10:45 a.m.

Thank you JG!  And I am glad you practiced bailing out from the car.

We get to learn the easy way reading about your mishap and you got to learn the hard way and were able to write a story about it!



WonkoTheSane GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/15/22 11:23 a.m.
Keith Tanner said:

In reply to CrustyRedXpress :

I think it's "ATGATT".

I've always used "Fire burns just as hot at test day" for motivation to suit up...

kb58 SuperDork
8/15/22 11:48 a.m.

I posted in the original thread but my question wasn't answered: How did flames end up getting into the passenger compartment, or didn't they?

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
8/15/22 11:51 a.m.
kb58 said:

I posted in the original thread but my question wasn't answered: How did flames end up getting into the passenger compartment, or didn't they?

They didn't. But when you have six dudes with fire extinguishers, a small car with open windows, and flames licking around an reigniting, you're not always so precise with your discharges. I spent some time cleaning it up last night in the interior. it responds very well to soap and a sponge or cleaning mitt, but very poorly to anything else, so it's a lot of wiping by hand and insing the sponge and repeating.


Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
8/15/22 12:04 p.m.
CrustyRedXpress said:

Glad you're ok. 

Is there a race car equivalent of ATGATT?


Good question, and on the minds of many of us. Obviously more than just a helmet. Racing fire resistant suit, plus fire protection rated gloves, shoes, socks, underwear, balaclava, and don't forget the HANS.

Definitely cuts into the affordability of a track day, and is one of the reasons I had been just doing autocross.

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