As I sit down to write about my horrible experience at the Tuner Shootout, I can’t help but reflect back on all of the things that went wrong and, more importantly, all the little things that went incredibly right. There’s still a lot of disbelief that this even happened to me. You always hear people who go through dramatic situations say, “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening to me,” but those words couldn’t have been more true around sundown on April 2, 2011.
For those who aren’t familiar with who I am or what I do, my name is Tage Evanson. I’ve been a husband for 12 years and a father to two adorable little girls for six years. I hold a full-time job as a lead project manager and have a horrible addiction to my hobby of racing cars. If that’s not enough, I’m also the owner and regional director for NASA Arizona (nasaaz.com), which is really a second full-time job. People ask me all the time how I can possibly juggle all of these highly demanding priorities, and my answer is, “I honestly have no clue!”
Once a year, NASA Arizona teams up with Modified and Continental Tires to put on the biggest road race, HPDE, time attack and drift event in Arizona. To top things off, I’m also a competitor in the Modified Tuner Shootout. Add all of this stuff up, and you have one stressed out guy…me!
Since the results from the competition are in this article, I’ll spare you those details, but I want to write about how I toasted my clutch after the drag race and autocross. I should’ve noticed there was a mechanical problem, not a driver issue, when I had problems at the dragstrip and changed it then. I’ll take this opportunity to say that my best quarter-mile pass was an 11.5 with a 1.7-second 60-foot time and my last pass I pulled a 1.5-second 60-foot time, but I couldn’t get the transmission into second or third gear. I figure I would’ve pulled closer to an 11.2 quarter-mile time. I wasn’t too happy about that, and then getting edged out at the autocross didn’t make my day go any better. I took the car out for a test-and-tune run and could tell something was certainly wrong. We quickly found out that the header was broken (I guess it hit/dragged on the ground during the drag race launches the night before breaking the header) and the clutch was fried from all the nitrous launches and slicks.
The good news was we had at least four hours to get it changed, and I had plenty of help to get it done. I’ve done clutch jobs myself in my garage floor with a floor jack and jackstands in about three hours, so there was certainly more than ample time with at least three guys working on the car, and I could just focus on my event. Typically, the participants don’t know a thing about all the stuff going on in the background to keep our events running smoothly and, more importantly, on schedule, but let me tell you it’s far from a relaxing weekend; I’m running around like crazy the whole time. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do at the NASA events, but on the same token, I hate that it hurts my race preparation.
So my guys are rushing around, and it’s problem after problem with the transmission and header repairs. Long story short, they literally finish the car less than a minute before I’m supposed to go out for the Shootout’s last competition. There’s no time to check over the car, I just grab what gear is within reach and jump in. Earlier in the day, we were having problems with the nitrous, so we hardwired it to always be on and engage whenever the throttle was more than 80 percent. It’s a dry system, where the nitrous injects into the intake and the KPro engine management adds additional fuel via the injectors. The only problem with this setup is if you forget to turn on the nitrous bottle, the KPro doesn’t know that and it will still inject a bunch of extra fuel whenever you floor it. Can you guess what I forgot to do before heading out for the time attack? Yep, I forgot to turn on the nitrous bottle. Anytime I floored the gas, the engine would fall on its face from running ultra rich. With only a couple laps and knowing that I was in the lead for the FWD class, I simply did the best I could. I held the gas pedal around 75–79 percent to maintain as much power as possible. It wasn’t too bad in the turns, but it was horrible on the straights. Amazingly, my lap time was still good enough to win the time attack against the other FWD cars, but it should’ve been about 2 to 3 seconds quicker.
Being a competitive guy, I just had to know what the car was capable of had the nitrous bottle been turned on, so I immediately came into the pits, topped off the fuel and went back out on track for the evening’s premier event: the one-hour NASA mini enduro race, a 30-plus-car field of wheel-to-wheel racing at its finest. I missed qualifying, so I had to start in the back, which I’m sure made things quite entertaining for folks in the stands to watch because I was able to pass 75 percent of the field with the utmost ease. On the straight or in the turns, it didn’t make a difference — I was a man on fire! (Pun intended.)
Due to all the rushing around and the fact that I only wanted to run a few laps to see what kind of lap times I could pull, I only had on the minimum safety gear required for the race group. Really, the only thing I purposely didn’t put on was my balaclava (fire-retardant head sock that covers the face and neck). Once again, no one double-checked anything after the clutch job, so no one noticed that the three large bolts that screw into the transmission and hold up the engine/transmission combo off the ground were barely holding on because they were never tightened down.
I was having a great time out in the race group. However, lap after lap I had nothing but traffic that I had to work my way around. Every time I got held up, I told myself, “just one more lap,” to see if I could reduce the lap time impact due to traffic. I had the second fastest time out of all the cars on track during that race. I still wanted to see if I could pull the fastest time out of everyone. If I could get a near traffic-free lap, I thought I could do it. However, approximately 12 minutes into the race while traveling 105 mph down the main straight, those three bolts finally let go and the engine and transmission fell partially to the ground, yanking a -10 AN oil line out of its fitting and squirting a huge volume of hot oil directly under the car and onto a glowing-red-hot header. This combination obviously created a fireball so intense that you had to be there to experience it. In fact, one of the racers behind me said he could feel the intense heat a couple hundred feet behind him through the windshield and full face helmet!
There were many things that led up to my injuries, but one of the main things after the fire started was 1) me not putting on my balaclava, and 2) not having a rear window in the car (it’s a long story, but I’ll always have the window in from now on!).
From my perspective inside the car, initially there was a puff of white smoke. No big deal, I just figured I blew up yet another engine, so I lifted off the gas. About a half second later, I saw in my peripheral vision a small flame pop up in the passenger area. About a half second after that, the flame got a lot bigger and I started to pat myself on the back for buying the biggest fire system available. Before my hand even reached the fire-system pull cord, the entire cab was filled with dark black smoke and bright orange flames completely around me.
People talk about how hot Arizona is in the summer — boy, let me tell you about some heat! This wasn’t just really hot, it was pure pain. This was excruciating pain I never thought possible without dying almost instantly. The thought of that moment actually brings tears to my eyes, because all I could think about was the fact that I was going to die and I wasn’t ready to leave behind my wife and two young kids.
I’ve practiced exiting my car as fast as possible in the event of fire, and I’m pretty damn good at it. Two seconds is how long it takes for me to drop my window net, release my harness and completely exit the vehicle and be standing outside my car. That sounds like a fairy tale, but I kid you not. Those two seconds, however, assume the car isn’t going well over 100 mph and the cabin isn’t filled with smoke so you can’t see or breathe; it hurts like hell and you’re scared (almost) to death.
I don’t know how my brain was able to function under those conditions, but I figured I had to try versus just give up. I’m sure some of you might be thinking you would never give up, but this heat was so intense I seriously couldn’t think straight. I didn’t think the fire system worked because there was absolutely zero relief for me, but from what some folks told me, the fire was put out for a short amount of time but then sprung right back up, so perhaps it bought me a couple extra seconds — seconds that likely helped saved my life.
At that point, I had my eyes closed and was holding my breath, hoping that I was driving in a somewhat straight line and jamming on the binders while trying to drop my window net. I recall still going extremely fast but thinking, “I can’t take it any longer and I have to get out of here at all costs.” I went to stick my head out the window, but I couldn’t because I forgot to unlatch my harness. Luckily, I was able to find the harness release and unlatch myself with lightening speed and get my head out the window while still braking. I must have jerked the steering wheel when pushing myself out because the car went into a slide and I went to jump out the window. Unfortunately — maybe fortunately, since I was still going so fast — my thigh got caught on the window opening and instead of diving out the window cleanly, my leg(s) stopped me short and my body went straight toward the ground. I managed to get my hands out before smacking the ground and used them to “run” my body along the pavement while I untangled my legs and feet from the window opening, which was still tangled up and wouldn’t release. I’d estimate the car was going about 30 mph when I initially jumped out. This slide killed off about half the speed and I finally freed myself when it was going maybe 10–15 mph, and it launched me from the car. My left knee took the initial impact, followed by my shoulder, and then my helmet smacked the ground. Right as I gathered my bearings of where the heck I ended up, my own car barely missed crushing me before impacting the wall. Wow, that was lucky. Extremely disoriented and knowing I could still be in harm’s way, I saw a wall and jumped over it.
I knew I had been burned pretty badly, but I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I still had Superman-like powers. I saw my car still burning away and I knew I had a small fire extinguisher bolted to the rollcage within arm’s reach. I saw the race field was under control, so I jumped back over the wall and tried to get it, but the heat and smoke were so intense, I said screw that. I got back over the wall for safety and saw the fire truck on its way. I’ll take this moment to mention the incredible response time by the safety crew that was on site in less than 1 minute from the moment the fire initially started! I saw the fireman running toward my car with a small fire extinguisher and thought to myself, “that ain’t going to cut it,” and he’s going to need a little help. I ran and grabbed a bigger fire extinguisher and helped him put out the rest of the fire. The ambulance arrived about a minute later and I pulled off my helmet, about to collapse.
Wow. I’m in total disbelieve that I made it out. Sure, I made a few mistakes, but after reviewing the video multiple times from the time I figured out there was a fire and going 105 mph to the time I was completely out of the car was about 8 seconds. If I had been in the car any longer, I don’t even want to think about what I would look like today.
I spent 12 days in the hospital, experienced horrible “cleanings” twice a day suffered from the aftermath of a skin graft surgery almost more painful than actually getting burned, and was forced to do some awful physical therapy. But as I write this almost two months later, it’s amazing that I’m alive to tell my story. I have nearly full movement of my neck (where I was burned the worst) and my face doesn’t look like some of those people you see in the magazines and TV that are hard to recognize. Sure, I have some scars and discolored skin on my neck, chin and face, but doctors say that most, if not all, of it will fade/blend in over the next 6–12 months, assuming I stay out of the sun for a year. That’s going to be tough to do in Arizona, but I’ll be doing whatever it takes to maximize my chances of a full recovery, both physically and cosmetically.
So what can drivers who occasionally or frequently track their cars do to minimize their chances of something similar happening to them? Investing in the proper safety gear (Nomex, CarbonX or Carmyth underwear, socks and balaclava; SFI-rated one-piece fire suit; full face helmet; SFI-rated shoes; Nomex/leather gloves) is obvious, but that stuff is expensive, and, honestly, it will only delay burns, not prevent them. What’s most important is to minimize the time you’re in the fire. Practice getting out of your car! The faster you can do this, the less you’ll be injured, if at all, especially if you’re also equipped with all the right gear and can minimize your time in the fire. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to quickly exit a car that has rollcage door bars, halo seats, window nets, a steering wheel that’s too large and in the way…the list goes on and on. As far as the vehicle, it doesn’t need to be fancy or over the top, just make sure it’s solid. It’s the simple stuff. If there’s a leak, fix it. If there’s a bolt that might be loose, check it. If there are holes in the floor or firewall, fill them. If there’s a missing window, replace it. My incident was the perfect storm that’s not likely to ever happen again, but it could, so the more prepared you are and the more you double-check things, the better off you’ll be.
If a picture can say a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million words, right? Go to YouTube and do a search for “Tage Evanson fire,” and you’ll be speechless!