This is about fire at the Indianapolis 500, and about bombs, and we'll start by looking at the pretty fuel tanks, bright and shiny. They are red and yellow, silver and orange. Lined up along pit row, they sit atop four metal legs. Methanol flows from each tilted tank through a 10-foot hose into a race car. Each tank holds 250 gallons.
Look more closely now. Look at the criss-crossing steel cables.
They are looped around the metal legs and threaded through eye-bolts screwed into the concrete pavement of the pit row.
Somebody is afraid these fuel tanks are going somewhere.
Like up in the air. Like Memorial Day fireworks.
Like bombs bursting in air.
These tanks are bombs with 10-foot fuses. Maybe 30,000 people sit within 100 feet of these pretty bombs. They sit in the high-priced seats of the Tower Terrace, where for $35 a pop you get a close-up view of the 200-mile-per-hour blurs down the front straightaway. That, and you're real close to those pretty tanks.
Heaven only knows why a thousand of the $35 customers weren't fried last May. Rick Mears' car, and his face, were on fire in the pits. Volunteer firemen ran away from the invisible methanol flames. The bigwigs here say fire can't go up those hoses and blow those pretty tanks sky high; this is small reassurance since they once insisted fuel couldn't spill out in any way and set a guy's face on fire.
Well, now. Even at Indianapolis, where they play "Taps" with the drivers strapped into the cars, this potential for a Memorial Day barbecue has moved the 500 bigwigs to action.
They did some little things to make the place safer for human habitation. They installed a four-inch water pipeline in pit row, with one firefighting nozzle for every two pit spots. They made the pit wall 30 inches high instead of 20. They built a curb four inches high to keep fuel from flowing out of the pits.
If these little things sound inconsequential, it's because they are.
The bigwigs didn't knock down those 30,000 seats or say they wouldn't sell tickets that put unsuspecting folks cheek to jowl with pretty bombs. They didn't build rear entrances so people could run away from a spreading fire; the only way out is down stairs toward pit row.
No, they built a curb four inches high, which news should comfort every little animal that can hide behind the curb.
"I'm glad to see anything," said Rick Mears, who was on fire until put out by his father using an extinguisher left behind by the fleeing volunteers. "I do feel it's better. How it's going to be race day, though, I don't know."
"Anything done about fire, I'll vote for," said Mario Andretti, "because nothing is more frightening than fire."
"It's unfortunate," said Herm Johnson, who was on fire at Michigan last summer, "that the governing bodies have to wait for a tragedy before they do anything."
Johnson's car started a major fire at Michigan International Speedway when two quarts of methanol sloshed onto the 1,400-degree engine. The resulting fire spread from Johnson's cockpit to pit row, where it ignited fuel spilling out of Johnson's pretty tank. The race had to be stopped, the fire was so fierce.
At Michigan, no customers sit near the pit wall. Had the Johnson fire happened at Indianapolis, the four-inch curb would have saved no one, not even innocent ants looking for a picnic.
The United States Auto Club bigwigs say they have taken every good step to stop fires. Nine years ago, they ordered on-board fuel cells that don't explode. Now they run water to the pits (why did it take 65 years to figure out that water would help fight fire?). USAC also ordered a dead-man's valve on fuel tanks. Fuel will flow only while someone holds a valve open near the base of the 10-foot hose.
USAC told everyone in the pits to wear fireproof clothing.
They will not, however, pass out Nomex suits to the $35 customers.
Anyway, the bigwigs said, you can only do so much. In the end, the human factor is uncontrollable. If a fellow makes a mistake with the hose, fuel will ignite on a hot engine. There's no stopping that, just as there's no stopping a driver from leaving the pits too early and ripping the hose out of its pretty tank.
What we have then, in the memorable words of former driver Jackie Stewart, is a "terminal error factor."
He means you're dead.
Not that you should be surprised. To get press credentials here, you sign a paper that in one place says, "I understand that my presence on the premises of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can expose me to dangers both from known risk and unanticipated risk."
They mean if you get dead here it's your own fault.
Which is fine if you're a driver. The terminal error factor is part of your life. The 30,000 folks in the $35 seats shouldn't be asked to go along, except that, if you're the speedway, those folks add up to $1,050,000, and maybe making a four-inch curb is better than throwing away a million bucks.