Ask most drivers what they fear most when they are strapped into a race car and they will tell you that it is being trapped inside the car during a fire. Not breaking bones or tearing muscles, but fire.
The quickest that you will ever see a driver exit his race car is when it is on fire. Drivers can do seemingly impossible things when they are motivated to get out of a car quickly.
Back in the early 1980s when NASCAR downsized their race cars to reflect the styles being produced by Detroit, the drivers were complaining about the shrinking cockpits and their ability to escape quickly if needed. Especially drivers such as 6-foot-5 Buddy Baker who completely filled the downsized driver's area. Baker was worried about the lack of interior cockpit space and repeatedly expressed concern about his ability to get out of the car quickly in case of a fire. However, he learned that he could.
Junior Johnson's gas man had a very realistic looking rubber snake that was about five feet long. He would coil that thing up and throw it around the garage to scare people. And it would, even though you knew it was fake you would automatically recoil when it came your way.
He decided to test Baker's reflexes by tossing that snake into his car through the right side window after Baker had gotten himself all buckled in. Remember, Baker barely fit into that cockpit! The flopping snake landed on the car's dashboard just as Baker was reaching for the ignition switch so he was leaning forward. Within four or five seconds Baker was standing outside that car.
He had taken the window net down, unbuckled his seat belt harness, disconnected his radio wires and climbed out. He didn't even take the steering wheel off! It seemed virtually impossible for him not to have done that to get out. It turned out that the only thing Baker feared more than fire was snakes.
Johnson's gas man kept a low profile for a few days after that until Baker got over being the test dummy in his experiment.
With as much as 18 gallons of high octane gasoline and a couple more gallons of oils and greases on board, a race car can become a rolling inferno very quickly. Even so, during the very early days, the drivers in NASCAR raced in T-shirts and blue jeans because fire protective clothing had not yet been developed.
The race cars were not really built to prevent or minimize fires in the early days either. Gas tanks and fuel lines were either original equipment on the earliest racers or were simply welded tanks that did not contain a rubber bladder or foam to minimize fuel leaks if the tank got ruptured in a crash.
Like many safety innovations, the fuel cell became an integral part of the race car not long after the tragic death of Fireball Roberts from burns he received from a fire at Charlotte in May 1964 during the World 600 race. The urgency to develop a better way of protecting the drivers from fire became very apparent when the sport lost one of its biggest stars so tragically that day in May.
To give you an idea of how important NASCAR believes it is to prevent or at least minimize the chance for fire, they devote the better part of four pages of their rule book to rules and regulations concerning fuel-related safety requirements the teams must meet to compete. That is a lot of rule book devoted to something that does not directly impact a car's performance.
Today's race cars must have fuel cells that consist of a fuel bladder, interior foam and a metal container that is acceptable to NASCAR. The fuel lines, fuel pumps, their methods of mounting and their connections are also tightly regulated by NASCAR. It is a far cry from the days when Fireball raced in a T-shirt and jeans.
Just how far is evident when you talk to Gary Adams of Fuel Safe, which is one of the three fuel cell suppliers to NASCAR. Adams is the sales manager for Fuel Safe, the Redmond, Ore., company that is part of Aircraft Rubber Manufacturing, Inc. It's not exactly a hotbed for NASCAR racing out there but Adams and his group know a lot about building safe fuel cells for all types of applications, so it was only natural that they became an integral part of the NASCAR safety program.
"The NASCAR fuel cell is rather old school and simple compared to some items used in other series but that fits well with their rules of the game," Adams said about how technologically advanced the current NASCAR fuel cells are.
"The NASCAR guys do more with less by using some of the best and brightest minds in the world to wring out every iota of performance possible," he added.
Adams noted that the current 18-gallon fuel cell used in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and truck series is the result of a variety of influences starting with the Formula One spec bladder material built to meet FIA FT5 safety specifications and was copied to become the current SFI certification that is used by NASCAR for their bladders.
Two manufacturers make the legal bladder material. One is in England and one is in the United States. Two of the three NASCAR fuel cell manufacturers use the U.S.-produced product and the third uses the English version.
The fuel cell manufacturers have different styles and construction methods that provide different performance characteristics to their products. The manufacturers will sometimes partner with a team to develop advances in design and performance while staying within the NASCAR rule book's guidelines.
NASCAR's rules are very definitive on what can and cannot be done so there is a very narrow area of opportunity for the teams to enhance their fuel cell's performance. Over the years the safety improvements have been made to better protect the driver from fire.
For example, the protective metal container or "can" as Gary calls it has been upgraded from 20-gauge to 18-gauge steel to better resist puncture. The fuel fill plate [where the fuel enters the can] has been moved more forward on the top to get it farther away from harm in a rear-end crash. The fuel fill plate itself has been redesigned so the check valve -- which used to be a ball design and is now a flap design -- stays fully closed whenever the car is on the track and in motion.
Formula One fuel cells have a series of chambers or compartments that stabilize the fuel and keep it from sloshing around under forces of up to two "G"s as it works through the bladder to get to the fuel pick-up point. NASCAR fuel cells are not divided up into as many compartments as Formula One cells but do have a series of collector areas that trap the fuel to assure there is a constant supply to the engine and that as much fuel as possible is collected and used.
What all that means is the fuel cells have baffles, so instead of one big open bladder, you have many smaller sections so the fuel cannot move around as much and upset the car in the turn. Formula One has more baffles than NASCAR because its turns can be at higher speeds and therefore more violent with greater forces enacted upon the car and the fuel.
Where the fuel pick-up point is within the cell can also be critical in how much of the fuel can be picked up and used by the engine. The bladders will hold 18 gallons but if you can only pick up 17 of those gallons then you are at a disadvantage.
The different teams and manufacturers have differing ideas on where the best place for the fuel pick-up point should be located for each type of track that they compete on during the year. After all, it is racing. What fun would there be if everyone did it the same way?
That is one reason you see the drivers swerving back and forth or riding around on the apron during a caution. They are trying to keep fuel flowing to the engine or to fill up the collector box for the fuel pick-up so that when they go back to green the engine will not falter when they go back to racing.
Manufacturers and their representatives are every bit as competitive as the teams when it comes to their products that the teams use. Fuel Safe's Adams cited this year's spring Bristol race as an example.
"So I'm sitting and watching the Bristol Sprint Cup race this spring and I'm thinking to myself that here's a great opportunity for a press release on our website. 'Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup Cars finish 1, 2 and 3 at Bristol!' " Adams said. "Then one-by-one there were issues with the cars and just 10 minutes after my first thought of gaining great publicity from a one-two-three finish by my customer I'm hearing that it may be my fuel pick-up that caused the loss for Denny Hamlin when his car faltered on a restart."
Ah yes, from the penthouse to the outhouse in the blink of an eye [Hamlin ended up sixth and the only Gibbs driver in the top 10]. Been there and done that, Gary! Adams said the fuel pick-up issue was resolved and he is looking forward to his next press release opportunity.
Adams noted the design and development of the fuel cell and its ancillary equipment -- dry break, filler cans, fuel fill and vent hoses, etc. -- is a work in progress. He works closely with the teams and with NASCAR to develop safer and more efficient fuel cells that will keep the drivers [and fans] safe while giving the teams the best possible opportunity to win.
The fuel cells must meet a "crash worthy" standard which means they must withstand the same forces of impact as experienced by a helicopter when it falls from the sky. Pretty tough standards by anyone's measure.
A lot of the fuel cell technology has been derived from the U.S. military's research and development of crash-worthy bladders for its aircraft. Companies such as Fuel Safe and Aircraft Rubber Manufacturing, Inc. have been an integral part of that development process, so it was a natural transition for them to build safer fuel cells for race cars.
The opportunity for the teams to "interpret the rules" in their favor is getting more and more difficult as NASCAR develops more sophisticated means to check what they are doing internally in the fuel cells and dump cans.
For example, each fuel cell contains a special foam that acts like a sponge to hold the fuel in place in case of a rupture of the bladder. Teams might try to reduce the amount of foam in the fuel cell to gain more space for fuel. That is an absolute no-no in NASCAR's opinion so they are developing ways to measure the amount of foam contained within a fuel cell to make sure that it conforms to their rules and specifications.
Back in the good old days teams could take a 20-gallon bladder and make it hold up to 24 gallons by various means. They would blow the bladder up with high pressure air to stretch it out. They would rig the bolts that held the protective metal can that enclosed the bladder to allow it to rise when the bladder was filled to take advantage of the expanded bladder's capacity. They would loop an extra couple of feet of the fuel filler hose around the trunk area to gain fuel capacity. Creative minds at play.
Some quick math will tell you an extra four gallons at five miles per gallon can make a significant difference in stretching your fuel mileage at the end of a race. Add 1,500 feet of fuel line coiled up in the frame rail for another gallon or so along with a very large "fuel filter" and you can really gain an advantage on "fuel economy."
Remember, I said back in the good old days. All those examples have been outlawed by NASCAR, which is why the rule book now takes up four pages in dealing with fuel and fuel safety.
Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.