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Drivers seek answers for fires in COT

Drivers seek answers for fires in COT

Drivers seek answers for fires in COT
Lee Spencer /

NASCAR's best and biggest laboratory has always been the racetrack.

In its extensive run-up to the launch of the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR repeatedly cited safety as its primary reason for the switch. The new car's cockpit is certainly larger and provides a wider protective cocoon around the driver that ultimately will lead to safer racing.

But with fires occurring inside the cockpits of NASCAR champions Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick during the first two COT races at Bristol and Martinsville, driver safety remains a concern.

Both drivers blamed the IMPAXX energy-absorbing foam manufactured by Dow Automotive as the agent for the fires. Dow and NASCAR said they tested the foam for 18 months before releasing the material to the teams, but under what parameters?

Since the COT's debut at Bristol on March 25, drivers have been expressing reservations about the car. Denny Hamlin spoke out during Richmond Busch Series testing two days later, citing head and body aches after ingesting carbon monoxide fumes when his exhaust pipes cracked at Bristol during the race.

With teams searching for ways to lighten the weight load on the right side of the cars, many crew chiefs opted for thinner materials to construct exhaust pipes per NASCAR recommendations, but did not take into account that unleaded fuel burns hotter than the race fuel the teams had used before this year.

It wasn't just carbon monoxide fumes from the exhaust that were nauseating drivers at Bristol or Martinsville, nor was this the first time teams experienced a problem. Before the passenger side of Harvick's car burst into flames on the front stretch at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, the No. 29 team noticed issues during an earlier test that left the driver with a lingering headache over the next two days.

But whether it was the IMPAXX energy-absorbing foam that's installed between the roll cage door bars and door panels of the COT, the 3M coating used as a flame retardant on the foam or the molded fabric technology (MFT) back stop panel that holds the foam in place between the roll bars and the sheet metal that acted as the agent, competitors and fans witnessed the green smoke billowing from the car while safety workers rushed to extinguish the fire.

Harvick, whose tailpipe showed no signs of cracks, was not injured but complained of a sore throat and headache from the fumes after he finished the race.

Kenseth wasn't so lucky at Bristol. He was one of five Roush racers whose tailpipes failed that weekend. But the 2003 NASCAR champ doesn't feel it was the exhaust that did the damage.

"I had major problems last week," Kenseth said Friday. "NASCAR had a meeting (Friday) morning and said that we burned up foam in the door plate and we didn't have it installed properly, which isn't true. We did have it installed properly, the way it was supposed to be, and we burned our door foam all the way 15 inches up.

"Half of our door foam was burned up and we had a hole in the carbon fiber and I had to breathe that stuff all day, so that's definitely a big concern for me, especially this week and in the future as we get in the cars with right-side windows. That stuff burning, I don't care what they say, whenever you make something man-made like foam and all that stuff, when that stuff melts and burns I know the fumes and smoke coming off that can't be good for you."

Dow Automotive is the exclusive provider of the foam that is made of extruded polystyrene and possesses a flame-retardant property separate from the additional flame-retardant coating.

Dow said in a release that IMPAXX "has benefited from an exhaustive research and development process, beginning with its evaluation for mainstream passenger vehicle use. NASCAR utilized finite element computer analysis and actual racetrack testing to prove IMPAXX Energy Absorbing Foam performance."

In another release, Dow asserted that, "additional safety material considerations include ... temperature stability."

Chris Swart, communications manager of Dow Automotive was asked specifically if the foam was tested under extreme heat and/or fire. His e-mail response: "NASCAR R&D did their own testing per their own parameters."

According to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp, "(To the) best of my knowledge, the foam in (Kenseth's) car melted due to a faulty exhaust system." Tharp said there are two versions of the foam with different degrees of density.

NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson said the driver's side door contains denser foam (IMPAXX 700-SK), "which is the most dense material they make." The 700 foam is also used on the lower portion of the right side door. The upper door bars (which is weaker than the main frame) is protected by the IMPAXX 300 — a less-dense version of the foam.

NASCAR VP of competition Robin Pemberton said: "A number of teams had missed the bolts that they needed to put in that supports the foam above the tailpipe area. You couple that with tailpipe failure and the heat gets places it wasn't meant to."

Kenseth is among those wondering how the problem can be corrected.

"I was hoping they would do something a little different and at least look at it," Kenseth said. "We called and told them we had the problem, but, really, nobody came over. Actually, Greg (Biffle) was at a meeting while I was testing in Richmond and he took all the pieces from my car and he brought them over to NASCAR themselves to try to get them to look at it and do something, so I'm sure they're gonna look into it and see what kind of problems there is, but certainly anything that's burning inside the car that you have to breathe these days with all the chemicals and stuff out there is a big concern."

NASCAR met with Jack Roush and Biffle on March 27 and with teams Friday morning at Martinsville to address the problem. Nextel Cup Series director John Darby told teams to cut away part of the foam to create a four-inch air gap between the foam and the exhaust pipes. Peterson and NASCAR engineer Daniel Honeycutt were at Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, N.C., at 7 a.m. Monday to further assess the damage on Harvick's car. After discussions with Dow and careful consideration, NASCAR has said it will raise the level of the foam in relationship to the tailpipe again.

Pemberton said Sunday morning that the foam had been tested and he wasn't sure what the exact smoke was coming from the No. 17 car. He added, "part of the foam that deformed was a failure in some of the applications and the tailpipe failure. We knew it was going to deform because of heat. But it's non-toxic and it's non-flammable.

"These cars got smoke all the time. It's tire smoke. It's fender smoke. It's paint. It's all kind of things. We wouldn't know what that was. It's all speculation."

Peterson tested the foam and said, "Heat resistance has never really been a factor.

"One of the very early tests that we did was to take a block of the foam and expose it to ever-increasing temperatures in an oven and see what happens. Basically, it shrinks — it's most made up of air — so when it gets too hot, it vents the air and it shrinks. It did not give off any hazardous chemicals."

According to Peterson, NASCAR did not test for toxicity, opting instead to rely on the Dow's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that accompanies the IMPAXX 700.

According to the MSDS: "This product is not a 'Hazardous Chemical' as defined by the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Hazard Communication Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200.

But OSHA never conducted tests of IMPAXX under race conditions. Section 5 of the MSDS addresses Unusual Fire and Explosion Hazards and includes the "product contains a flame retardant to inhibit accidental ignition from small fire sources. This plastic foam product is combustible and should be protected from flames and other high heat sources ... Dense smoke is produced when product burns.

"Under Hazardous Combustion Products: During a fire, smoke may contain the original material in addition to combustion products of varying composition which may be toxic and/or irritating. In smoldering or flaming conditions, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and carbon are generated. Combustion products may include trace amounts of: Hydrogen bromide. Studies have shown that the products of combustion of this foam are not more acutely toxic than the products of combustion of common building materials such as wood."

While OSHA concludes that IMPAXX is not a hazardous chemical, Kenseth might voice a different opinion.

"That stuff burning ... can't be good for you."

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