Foam melts, becomes flammable at high heat

Updated: April 4, 2007, 2:40 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The protective foam in the right door of the "Car of Tomorrow'' will begin melting at 200 degrees and is flammable at a temperature of about 570 degrees, according to a representative of the company that designed it.

Dean Case, a spokesman for the Dow Automotive, a business unit of Dow Chemical Company, said anything under those circumstances also would produce a toxic fume that if breathed in excessive amounts could be hazardous.

But Case said NASCAR officials have insisted that the foam is not a danger when properly installed and that the governing body is taking steps to ensure that happens before the next COT race at Phoenix.

He added that Dow representatives were at Richmond International Raceway on Tuesday for the first of two days of testing to assist NASCAR and Nextel Cup teams with any questions they may have about the material designed to absorb the impact during a collision.

"Anything they can do to be helpful,'' Case said. "The material is approved for the use in passenger cars. It's a safe material. The basic plastic has been around for over 50 years.

"NASCAR tells us they're happy with how it's working [when properly installed]. Obviously, we don't want any issues with it because it's designed to protect.''

NASCAR had several issues with the foam melting in the COT debut two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick had to be removed from his car on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway while safety workers extinguished the heavy smoke coming from his right door.

NASCAR officials on Tuesday told teams they would be allowed to cut away the bottom left corner of the block that comes in closest contact with the tailpipe that is causing the meltdown.

Temperatures near that area, according to one team official, have been measured in excess of 400 degrees.

NASCAR officials have discovered the overheating was the result of a lack of air flow in the door panel. They are instructing teams to make adjustments to the installation of several components, including repositioning a heat shield to allow for additional air flow.

A technical bulletin will be issued prior to the April 21 Phoenix race to clarify installation guidelines.

"The energy foam management material supplied by Dow is just one part of this overall system," NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp said. "NASCAR continues to have the highest confidence in this product and the purpose it serves as a safety feature for the new car."

Case said a driver likely would have plenty of time to get out of the car if the foam became hot enough to combust. He added that the fumes for the most part are the equivalent of standing near an open campfire.

According to Dow's report on the product known as 300 Energy Absorbing Foam, it is best that the material avoid temperatures above 572 degrees and direct sunlight.

The report said when there are smoldering or flaming conditions that carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and carbon are generated. None are considered an immediate health risk.

Studies showed that the products of combustion of the foam are not more acutely toxic than the products of combustion of common building materials such as wood.

They revealed that small amounts of hydrogen halides occur when heated over 482 degrees.

But the final analysis revealed the product is not a hazardous chemical as defined by the OSHA Hazard Communication.

"What NASCAR has ruled out is when properly installed the foam is fine," Case said.

Greg Biffle, who had issues with the foam in his car at Bristol, is glad NASCAR has a few weeks to address these issues before the COT is used again.

He added that the material to which the foam is attached also is flammable.

"Keep in mind it's not even hot yet," he said. "When it's 10, 20 degrees hotter outside, it gets hotter inside."

Biffle applauded NASCAR for being pro-active on the issue and reminded that he had no problems at Martinsville after installation issues were addressed.

"I'm not going to say it was a design error on NASCAR's part until we do a scientific analysis of exactly what happened," Biffle said. "Did they have the proper amount of distance air gap? Did they have the heat shields in place . . . all those things?

"We experienced the same exact thing the week before and we fixed it and we didn't have any problems."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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