Track Day Lesson Makes a Difference

by Kevin Fitzgerald

Years ago I did a drivers school offered by PDA (Performance Drivers Association) at Lime Rock. PDA rented the track the last week of August and invited vintage drivers to join the school and have track use at specific intervals. It was the mid 90’s as I remember seeing a 94 RX7 leave the track on a flatbed. My Arnolt Bristol was not an appropriate car for that race group. 

One exercise was that we were told we would be black flagged between the uphill and the bridge, (so you would be up to speed), and that we were to assume that the car was on fire at that point. We were to immediately pull off the track, stop, release our harness, and do the “stop, drop and roll”. We were timed. We had thirty seconds to accomplish this. We were given that window because a three-layer Nomex suit is supposed to last 45 seconds (at that time). If you did not pass the test, your track time was over. I have never had anyone else do a fire drill in a driver’s school. I certainly believed it helped.

Kevin Fitzgerald Track Day Lesson Makes a Difference

Late one night, on my way home from work, I spotted an overturned gasoline tanker a tenth of a mile on the left hand side of the road. When the gasoline erupted into flame, I knew I had to get to the right hand lane. Route 1 in Saugus slopes to the median for water drainage; I knew there would be less gas and maybe none on that side of the road. In steering right I hit a car that had been abandoned on the road. This car had actually been struck by the tanker prior to it overturning. This happened just before the gas had fully encompassed the road and ignited. 

The impact pushed me left and I thought I had corrected enough, but I was mistaken. My tires melted. I could hear the engine rev and the tach needle moved but the truck did not. The aluminum wheels spun in the hot asphalt. I opened the driver’s door and stood on the running board. I was set on fire, but I also could not see the end of the fire. I knew I would not survive that direction. I got back in the truck. Closing the door was like pulling a door closed in a hurricane. All the oxygen in the truck was trying to get out. Apparently the force of the fire sucked oxygen and collapsed one of my lungs. 

Once sitting in the driver’s seat I started to put out the flames on my body by beating myself with my hands. I started with my head and went to my chest. As I looked down I caught a glimpse of my gas gauge showing three-quarters of a tank. If the tires melted the gas tank would not last long. I climbed over the console and tried to open the passenger door. It would not budge. The handle did release the lock. I sat with my butt against and partially on the console and kicked the door. On the second kick it flew open. I drew my legs back one more time and vaulted out the opening through the fire. I landed on my feet three feet from my truck and two feet outside the fire.

I walked to the grass at the exit ramp and did the stop drop and roll and beat myself with my hands until the fire was out. I could see the lights of a police car at the top of the exit ramp and walked there to ask for an ambulance. I had no idea how badly injured I was. I had not run because I could not. I do not believe I did anything special. I only used skills I had been taught or acquired.

Samuel Johnson wrote the first English dictionary at the request of the King, Henry the Eighth. Johnson said, “Nothing is impossible to diligence and skill.” Skills are acquired; diligence is self-motivated. I believe that every time we go on the track we use skill and concentration (diligence) that we do not normally exercise. But they are always there when we need them.

My third degree burns were rated at 55 percent of my body. I have most of my mental faculty and body function and coordination… The only reason I am here is that in a stressful situation I could react logically. My prognosis is good. I do not find the story as extraordinary as everyone else. My memory of all the events of the accident is quite clear, and the story above is an abbreviation.

I do think that a fire exercise should be part of driver’s schools.

Kevin