As NASCAR stories go, absolutely none was more bizarre than Juan Pablo Montoya sending a jet dryer up in flames in the Daytona 500.
Rained out for the first time in its history, the Daytona 500 was moved to primetime on Monday night, with a huge audience of television viewers on FOX.
With 40 laps left in the race, and the caution flag out, Montoya created one of the season’s defining moments, plowing his No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet into a jet dryer in Turn 3, which exploded into flames as 200 gallons of fuel dumped out of the vehicle. Jet dryer driver Duane Barnes was fortunate to escape without serious injury, despite not wearing either a helmet or a firesuit.
“I left the pits and felt a really weird vibration, and I came back in and checked the rear end and said it was OK,” Montoya said. “I got into the backstraight, and we were going in fourth gear but wasn't going that fast. Every time I got on the gas I could feel the rear squeezing. When I was telling the spotter to have a look how the rear was moving the car just turned right.”
Montoya was not expecting the huge impact and subsequent explosion.
“You don't think, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself,’” Montoya said. “You go, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt a little bit.’ It wasn't that bad. … The way I've always looked at it, either you're going to be OK or you're not. I don't think anyone could hit anything harder than I did.”
That said, he knew to get out of the burning car quickly.
“It was a little flames for a second (inside the car), but it wasn't much. It didn't even get hot,” Montoya said. “I saw the flames everywhere and said, ‘I better get out of this fast.’”
Naturally, the enormous fireball caused a lengthy red-flag period, which lasted 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds. During the red flag, track safety workers used Tide — yep, the laundry detergent — to clean up the jet fuel. Turns out scrubbing jet fuel off of asphalt is analogous to using soap to get oil off one’s hands.
“Soap and detergent are two forms of the same chemical entity,” Ed Montgomery, a chemistry professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky., told the Wall Street Journal about the spill. “They mix on one end with the water and on the other end with the petrochemical.”
As if that weren’t surreal enough, Brad Keselowski Tweeted repeatedly from his Penske Racing Dodge during the long red-flag period. Keselowski entered the 500 with about 60,000 Twitter followers; by Tuesday that number was up to more than 200,000, as NASCAR finally caught the social media wave.
NASCAR acted quickly after the incident, mandating that jet dryer drivers wear helmets and firesuits, as well as adding a third pace car under caution.
The carcass of Montoya’s flambéed Chevrolet? It’s on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 200-acre property in Mooresville, N.C., a gift from Montoya’s crew chief, former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy.
“(Heroy) is a buddy of mine and he gave it to me,” said Earnhardt. “I’ve got 50 or 60 cars out there. I didn’t buy any of them … I don’t even know where they put it. I’ll have to go find it.”
Top Ten Stories of 2012:
No. 10, ‘Dinger Busted
No. 9, Silly Season
No. 8, RCR Slumps
No. 7, Danica’s Year Of Hard Knocks
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.