“I was only conscious for the first three rolls,” Andrew Nelson recalls. “I felt the car go over the first time, which was a relatively soft roll. Then, when it grabbed the track, it started to violently roll. On the third flip, I was knocked out.”
As the car tumbled, Andrew faced more peril: The fuel cell leaked and started …
What Went Wrong?
The Nelson family–Andrew, his son Calvin and wife, Paula–are seasoned car builders. They turned a 1959 Volvo PV544 into a barely street-legal drag car: 9-inch rear end, Turbo 400 transmission and a Vortec 4200 straight-six that puts 577 horsepower to the rear wheels. The driver was surrounded by a cage rated for 6.5-second runs.
“We went to make a pass, and as we were getting to the top end, the car ran a 9.12 at 149.27 mph,” Andrew recalls. “The cylinder sleeve broke on number two. It kicked a connecting rod out so hard that it blew a half-foot-by-half-foot chunk of the block out. We are convinced, based on the evidence, that a piece of the engine went through the back tire and caused the car to go out of control.”
Andrew tried to reach for his parachute release but couldn’t grab it in time. “Being that this is a drag-and-drive car, we put the parachute release up near the halo bar, which is common for a lot of folks,” Andrew explains, “but I normally mount mine right next to the shifter. Because I had a handle up in the top of the cage, I had to reach for it. That’s what caused my arm to become so injured–it was flailing about as the car was tumbling.”
Once the crash began, Andrew couldn’t do much.
Beaten and Battered
In the hospital, the medical team assessed the injuries that Andrew incurred. Most of the damage affected the right side of his body:
Four broken ribs.
Fractured L3 vertebra.
Severely bruised hip bone.
Three torn muscles in relation to the rotator cuff.
Bruised arm, below the shoulder.
Two black eyes.
The nerves surrounding the eyes were so swollen, Andrew couldn’t turn his eyeballs. The whites of his eyes turned black.
“I looked like somebody took a baseball bat to my face,” Andrew says. “My bruises were measured in square feet, not square inches.”
Andrew spent about 30 hours in a South Georgia hospital before it released him. Then, it was a long ride back to his home in Pennsylvania.
“Oh my word, that was unbelievably painful,” Andrew recalls of that journey. “We drove back less than halfway in our tow truck, which is a F-250 crew cab. Just getting in and out of the F-250 was an adventure. The injuries were painful–I couldn’t even breathe without hurting.
“As soon as my oldest son heard about the incident, he jumped in his Impala and met us in South Carolina. I was able to ride in the comfort of his car from there. That was greatly appreciated.”
What Went Right?
But Andrew survived this gnarly incident. That’s one of the goals in building a car for motorsports competition.
“We have very good safety habits,” he says. “We always double-check our belts before we take off. We always make sure the HANS device is not only latched but also under the belts, as designed. We never take for granted the habit of doing those things.”
Andrew has constructed cars for more than 30 years–several have been featured in GRM–and he says he takes safety seriously. “We had built crumple zones in the car with the way we design our cage,” he explains. “The roll cage doesn’t go to the furthest extent of the fore and aft of the car. We run it short so there’s sheet metal and less rigid materials beyond that point. Similar to a modern car, it has that area to crumple before you get to the passenger compartment. There is room for the car to decelerate.”
Stopping Engine Debris
Even though Andrew took steps to confine a catastrophic engine failure, they weren’t enough. The ejecting engine parts, for example, tore through his 14-gauge aluminum sheet metal belly pan.
A more secure option exists, notes Dennis Taylor of safety supplier Taylor Motorsports Products: Today’s SFI 7.1-certified lower engine containment devices, aka engine blankets or diapers, better enclose the parts and liquid spit out by a catastrophic blown engine.
“The engine diaper needs to fit the engine tight and as close as possible without leaving any gaps anywhere,” Dennis explains. “That’s why we don’t make a one-size-fits-all.” Any gaps, he continues, can allow both parts and fluid to escape. A custom, properly fitted blanket for a sportsman-level car starts around $500, with ones aimed at Top Fuel and Funny Car costing north of $1200.
Andrew came prepared for fire. He wore the ubiquitous SFI 3.2A/5-certified fire suit plus gloves, shoes and a current helmet.
Flame-resistant underwear, notes Jeff Paulk of HMS Motorsport, will add more protection. “SFI 3.2A/5 give you 10 seconds of burn time,” Jeff explains. “Underwear gives you added protection … anywhere from 2 to 8 added seconds.”
He brings up two other heat-related threats: “The true protection is not getting a steam burn or non-FR material melting to your skin. Basically, use FR base layers or wear nothing under your suit.”
So, how to fight that fire if you’re unconscious? “If the driver is knocked out or in a smoke-filled car, they can’t find the manual pull handle,” Jeff notes, “the electrical system will discharge at a certain temperature, putting the fire out. In addition, in an accident, the driver isn’t going to be thinking clearly about what to do other than trying to get out of the car.”
Today’s racers face two popular choices regarding an agent for that system: a Halon replacement like Novec or an aqueous film forming foam. “Novec will not harm the driver or electronics,” Jeff adds. “I can take a cup of Novec, dump it on my desk and on papers, and watch it evaporate–it gasses off after smothering the fire. AFFF makes a mess and could harm electrical systems.” Novec, though, does cost more.
While a firewall prevented the burning fuel vapors from entering Andrew’s cockpit, TJ Huston of OG Racing recommends using SFI- or FIA–certified fuel cells. “A non-certified bladder could be made out of anything strong enough to just keep the fuel in there,” he notes.
He lists four main components to a proper fuel cell. “The cell starts with a bladder made from high-tensile-strength elastomeric components and is the first line of defense in a crash,” he explains. “Foam baffling prevents flashback explosions. The fill plate provides no-spill rollover protection while being engineered to integrate with the bladder for maximum strength and security.
“The final component is the container. This part protects the bladder and provides a way to mount the fuel cell.”
Having safety gear is one thing. Being able to deploy it is another.
Even though Andrew’s car had a parachute, he simply couldn’t get to the release since it was mounted up on the cage. Going forward, he says, he’ll place the lever down by the shifter.
“Your hand is already down there,” he says. “Your hand is on the shifter as you go through the gears, and then you can just move it to the parachute release instead of reaching to a different area.”
Restraining One’s Body
Once a car is tumbling, how well is the driver held in place? In Andrew’s case, his old-school aluminum Kirkey seat allowed a lot of body movement.
“[My car] landed on the back end so harshly that my helmet and head went against the seat and bent the seat backwards about an inch,” Andrew explains. “We’re going to put in [a seat] with full containment, with shoulder and head containment.”
Kevin Derochie of Kirkey Racing Fabrication feels that’s a wise decision.
“We’re seeing more drag racers transitioning to containment seats than ever before,” he says. “Full-containment seats offer the driver significantly more protection than a standard rib-support seat.
“They’re designed to hold the driver at their shoulders as opposed to their ribs. This is beneficial, as your shoulders are much more durable than your ribs and can withstand higher force-loads in the event of an accident. If fitted correctly, a containment seat will keep the driver’s hips, shoulders and helmet in line, and limit the flailing that you can see in an accident when a traditional rib support seat is used.”
Furthermore, OG Racing’s TJ Huston cautions racers about modifying seats: Andrew trimmed his seat’s right rib support to eliminate a pinch point between his seat and the cage when shifting gears.
“The biggest issue with modifying a seat like that is that you risk losing the support of your torso, so now you have support at your hips and at your neck, but your body is free to move,” TJ explains. “This can very quickly lead to a broken back. Though, to be fair, this also does happen with unmodified seats that are not sized correctly.”
Jeff suggests one more course of action to help keep your arms where they should be in a flip. “Arm restraints would help,” he notes. “These are common in dirt and drag racing. Some suit manufactures offer built-in arm restraints. Companies like G-Force offer cuffs that go over your suit’s arms and loop to your lap belts.”
Softening the Blows
Andrew intends to add more padding to his seat in the form of a Crash Pad. The Crash Pad’s origins stem from oval track racing, specifically sprint cars, which are prone to rolling over: When cars land back on all four wheels, that force typically goes through the seat and into the driver’s spine. The Crash Pad, and other forms of seat padding, absorb some of that energy before it hits the driver.
TJ recommends going one step further: “Pour-in seat kits.” These kits, he notes, feature SFI-certified 45.2 foam. “It creates a seat that perfectly fits the driver, providing support along all the critical areas of the body. This is an under-$500 improvement.”
What else to pad? Everything, says TJ. “Pad every bar you can touch with your hands and feet. People think about their heads, but having your arm or leg break against a roll cage is pretty terrible, too, and you can prevent that with very little effort. This would equal a crash that still hurts, but it’s more like your mom punching you in the face, not Mike Tyson.”
Andrew installed SFI 45.1 roll bar padding in the cockpit and wants to add more SFI 45.2 flat padding, too. Some have suggested that Andrew use SFI 45.2 padding instead of 45.1. SFI’s Jennifer Frye cautions against doing that.
“You can’t really directly compare SFI 45.1 to SFI 45.2 because they’re utilized for two different applications,” she says. “SFI 45.1 padding is semi-circle shaped and attaches to roll bar components. It’s designed to reduce energy upon impact of the driver’s head or limbs with the roll cage.
“SFI 45.2 is padding material used as head-surround or seat padding material to also attenuate energy and reduce injury in an impact. It can be shaped from solid padding into desired forms or used in kits where the material is poured in liquid form, which hardens into a custom seat mold.
“Both standards have slightly different test thresholds for maximum peak g performance and impact severity index because of their shape and application, but the main goal of both tests is to reduce acceleration of the head and resultant injury. But again, one is not necessarily better than the other. Just different uses.”
Better Car Choice?
Andrew also questions basing the build on that ’50s-era Volvo. “Our goal was to get the car to 170 [mph],” Andrew says. “In hindsight, that car was probably a poor choice.”
Why? Well, there’s its short wheelbase, narrow track and high center of gravity. “We also had a tail wing on the car because the car had a lot of tail lift,” he continues. “We believe that contributed to how fast the car went out of control. We’re going to pick a different car with a longer wheelbase and wider track.”
What’s On the Horizon
Nearly four months later, Andrew Nelson continues to suffer aftereffects of the crash. He underwent surgery on his right rotator cuff in April. He’s been going through painful rehab since then and still has three to four months left.
Nevertheless, he still wants to return to racing. He’s working toward that goal, incorporating some of the lessons he learned from this bad crash.
“We’re going to be better prepared the next time we race,” he says.