Ask most race car drivers — the worst thing that can possibly happen to you in a race car is fire.
Saturday night played host to the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway as Indy Car brought its show into town. What wasn’t on the program though was the ineptness of the Indy Car safety crew in response to a stricken driven in urgent need.
On lap 99, Swiss rookie Simona De Silvestro collided with the outside wall when exiting Turn 2. A flicker of flame lapped at the side of the car and continued to burn as the vehicle slid down to the bottom of the track. As the car came to rest, the fire had by now spread down the entire right side of the race car and was lapping at the edge of the driver’s cockpit.
What followed from that point on was absolutely unacceptable, as it took the safety crew a full 39 seconds (from the time the car stopped) to defuse the situation. To see the crew fumbling with hoses and dancing about was shameful.
As a driver, you want the comfort of knowing that a trained safety crew will hold your well-being in the highest regard and that they will do whatever is necessary to ensure your safety… even if that means diving into a burning car to rescue you or jumping into the flames with a fire extinguisher.
One thought which strikes me is that Simona was not able to get herself out of the car in a timely fashion. In all top-level race series it is mandatory that each driver undergo an "exit test" at the beginning of each season. When I competed in the Jetta TDI Cup, each driver had to make it out of the car within a certain amount of time or wouldn’t be allowed to race. You sit in the racecar, fully strapped in as though you are driving, then the series official says, "Go!" You simulate hitting the fire extinguisher button and electronics kill switch, release your belts, open the door and jump out as fast as possible while trying not to get hung up on anything. From the moment he says "Go!" till the point your foot touches the ground he is timing your response.
It is essential that each driver can get out of their car within a certain amount of time as our fire-retardant suits are just that, fire-retardant…NOT fire-PROOF! The underwear, shoes, socks, gloves, balaclava, helmet and three-layer race suit all provide great protection from any fire but they only buy you time, not invincibility.
I know how cramped it is in the cockpit of an open-wheel car, but something needs to be done with Indy Cars to allow a quicker extraction of the driver. But things happen, cars get damaged where immediate extraction is tough, or a driver is rendered incapacitated in some fashion by the impact of the crash. This is when, as a driver, you trust the safety crew will do their job and extinguish the fire (or get you the heck out of there)… and do it immediately.
Taking 39 seconds to extinguish/remove a driver from a burning vehicle is absolutely unacceptable! Fortunately Simona made it out with only some minor burns to her right hand, but unfortunately, things could have been a lot worse.