On September 24, 2015, radial tire racer Lyle Barnett’s life changed forever. The North Carolina native suffered life-threatening burns when his C5 Corvette, competing in Radial versus the World at Lights Out VI in Adel, Georgia caught fire after an injector failed, and caused a catastrophic engine failure. Lyle has faced a grueling recovery from his devastating injuries in the months since, including third-degree burns to his face and severe damage to his lungs. But, with a never-quit attitude, he vows to return to the scene of the life-altering moment, and eventually, to the driver’s seat.
We talked at length with Lyle recently, and he took the opportunity to talk through the crash itself and his road to recovery, as well as his outlook going forward. Join us as we revisit one of the most harrowing experiences any racer is likely to ever experience.
“You start wherever you want, we’re just here to listen.”
Cued by those words, Lyle began walking us through the weeks that led up to his fateful accident.
“The car was practically brand new. We had tested a bunch over the summer, and a couple of weeks before Valdosta, we raced at what we consider our home track, Piedmont Dragway, there in Greensboro, North Carolina and went to the finals. We felt like we had a strong car coming in — we’d been 30s and high-20s. We’d had some converter problems, and knew we would have to fix that to go fast, and we did. We got to Georgia and went faster than I’d ever been every single pass.”
When the team arrived at No Mercy, they reeled off an impressive string of progressively quicker elapsed times in pre-race testing, including a 4.28, 4.26, 4.24, and a 4.21. For the opening qualifying round, they looked at the data and had what they believed would be a mid- to high-14 tune in the swoopy chrome blue ‘Vette, hoping to eclipse the 190 mph threshold for the first time.
Lyle’s C5 Corvette moments after it erupted into flames alongside Jamie Hancock in the first qualifier at Lights Out VI.
“I spooled it, everything felt good, so I bumped it in, and …”
At this point, a pensive breath rattled the speaker of our phone as Lyle readied himself to return, at least for a moment, to the cockpit of the car his father and long-time friend Chad Branson had poured their hearts and souls into to allow Lyle to compete against the quickest radial-tired cars on the planet. That deep, hesitant breath spoke volumes about both the fear he felt as well as the tremendous courage he was showing in reliving the experience.
Lyle continued, “about three-quarter track … or maybe closer to the mile per hour cones, I heard it start popping through the block. About the time I went to lift my foot is when it exploded.”
Barnett recounted how the fire came through beside the firewall, where the bellhousing and transmission were. There was a molded carbon fiber piece surrounding the tunnel opening, but the fire blew through it with no effort. “I mean, it didn’t even touch it; then the flames came straight into the face of my helmet. I had no [warning] sign of fire until I was breathing it.”
In these photos, you can see the firewall where the flames entered the cockpit area.
At this point in the sequence of events, Lyle’s reflex was to take a deep breath, as most all of us would when suddenly staring down a face full of flames at nearly 190 mph. In doing so, he actually inhaled flames, which traveled halfway down his esophagus, and proceeded to fill his lungs with searing hot air and oily smoke. As you might imagine, our lungs aren’t designed to deal with air and smoke of this magnitude. This would be one of Lyle’s most devastating injuries to overcome.
I let go of the steering wheel and started trying to swat the flames away. – Lyle Barnett
“I let go of the steering wheel and started trying to swat the flames away, and that’s when the car got in its own fluid took a hard left and hit the wall pretty good,” he says. “I was trying to pump the brakes while still trying to fight the fire [away from his face], but it didn’t feel like there was a whole lot there, so I grabbed what steering wheel I could to try to pull it over to the right into the wall, and that’s when I felt it starting to slow down a bunch.”
At this point, the only thing on Lyle’s mind was exiting the car as quickly as possible, and he began to realize just how steep a hill that would be. The driver’s seat had been custom molded to Lyle’s body shape and the steering column had been built to locate the steering wheel extra close to his location inside the car. He also had a wired radio connection for team communication, a HANS device, and the five-point harness, all of which needed to be unhooked or released before he could begin trying to open the door and escape.
What remains of Lyle’s carbon fiber helmet. This photo clearly shows the intense heat Lyle battled inside the car as he tried to bring it to a stop.
“I didn’t do any of that. It melted all of the belts, it melted my radio cord, all of that. So I just dove out. There’s no doubt, there was somebody there helping me, because I shouldn’t have been able to get out on my own.”
Fellow racer Barry Mitchell was returning to the pits following his run and was the closest person to the car when it came to a stop. He sprinted immediately to the flaming wreckage to try to assist Lyle, but was pushed back by the heat and flames pouring from the driver’s door, where it had become so hot the Lexan windows were melted and folded outward. He ran to the passenger side of the car to see if he could reach in to help when Lyle leapt from the driver’s side and ran around the car.
The five-point harnesses melting was perhaps a miracle in disguise, as it allowed Lyle to escape the flames quicker than he would if he had to release the latch mechanisms.
Caught in the moment, Lyle was unaware that the back of his driving suit was on fire, but as he approached, Barry saw the flames and started yelling for Lyle to drop and roll. In this same moment, the safety crew had arrived, fire extinguishers in hand. They focused their efforts on Lyle first, then began fighting the still-raging fire that engulfed the Corvette.
Almost immediately after having his jacket extinguished, the ambulance and EMT crew arrived and began cutting away Lyle’s driving suit, while applying an oxygen mask. They loaded him into the ambulance and a few minutes later, as the adrenaline began to fade and the tremendous pain set in, Lyle passed out before reaching the hospital.
While it would be more than two weeks before Lyle returned to a state of consciousness that allowed him to interact with those around him, he was undergoing constant and essential treatments. Immediately after the accident – with his body’s reaction to the burns causing him to swell to two and a half times his normal size – the doctors at the hospital in Valdosta knew they weren’t equipped to properly treat Lyle’s burns, and immediately arranged for him to be transported to the renowned Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia where the doctors and nursing staff began working on Lyle immediately.
“They realized just how bad my lung damage was. The statistics are pretty amazing that I was able to recover from it. They said the damage was the equivalent of someone smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years, or 730,000 cigarettes, in 28 seconds,” he tells us.
They said the damage was the equivalent of someone smoking 730,000 cigarettes in 28 seconds. – Lyle Barnett
Barnett began a rigorous week-long course of, in layman’s terms, pressure washing the inside of his lungs, a process referred to as “bronching.” The damage was so severe that the doctors weren’t sure he would survive as the treatment began, and after initial bronch treatments were successful, there was still a concern Lyle would spend the rest of his life on a ventilator.
However, by the end of the seven-day treatment, his lungs had gone from terminal to almost completely healed.
With his lungs well on their way to recovery, the doctors turned their attention to treating the external burns. Lyle had third degree burns to 12 percent of his body, most notably his face, hands, and right foot, which he nearly lost the entire heel of in the crash. The doctors pulled large skin grafts from his thighs to rebuild his foot and hands, while his facial burns were treated with state-of-the-art stem cell treatments — a first for burns as deep as the ones on Barnett’s face.
Endoscope photos of Lyle’s lungs. On the left, his healthy lungs following his week-long bronchial treatments. On the right, his damaged lungs immediately following the crash.
The stem cell treatments offered some surprising results, in addition to the excellent healing properties. Most notably, Lyle has been able to fully regrow his trademark beard thanks to the regenerative properties of the stem cell treatment — an option not typically available to those with severe facial burns.
However, in the most severely damaged area of Lyle’s face, where his helmet opening allowed the flames to hit his face directly, the doctors opted to use a more traditional approach and grafted skin from his scalp onto his face. This process also required the doctors to rebuild his eyelids — a delicate and time-consuming process that required great patience from Lyle.
“They have my eyelids sewn partially shut, and they will be for about 10 months. That is to keep the graft from pulling my eyes open. As it matures, it will contract and it would pull my eyes open, which would keep me from being able to blink, and that would cause my eyes to dry out and lead to me going blind,” he explains. As it is, Lyle is able to see very well through the openings, and is even able to drive today.
All of Lyle’s grafts were successful as far as being accepted by his immune system, which often will reject grafted skin on severe burns. He is still dealing with some issues in tasks that require strength in his hands, for example, such as opening bottles, but those tasks will become easier to tackle with continued therapy and time.
It’s easy to get comfortable in there, but on any given pass, what happened to me can happen to anybody. – Lyle Barnett
To say that Lyle is optimistic about the future would be a gross understatement. If his voice wavered when he first began recounting the crash, it became almost excited when speaking about the future.
“It’s a year-long recovery, because that’s just how long it takes a graft to mature. That’s just how long it takes, no matter who you’re talking about. But once that year rolls around, everything should be almost fully healed.”
A fairly current photo of Lyle wearing a custom-fit compression mask to help with his grafts. Also pictured is Lyle’s companion and therapy dog, Nina.
There are still a couple of minor surgeries to relieve tension on the grafts as they mature, and the doctors are going to graft Lyle a new set of eyebrows from a site on the back of his neck, but he spoke of those as the rest of us might speak of a dental cleaning, as if they’re almost routine.
When asked about scarring and cosmetic appearances, Lyle again seemed almost eager about what lies ahead. “They have laser treatments now that are similar to what is used for tattoo and hair removal, only they’re for grafts. There are two types of laser, one that penetrates deep into the grafted skin to soften it, and another that smoothes the surface. They’ll use that one to blend the grafts on my face and, in couple of years or so, people that didn’t know me before won’t even know I was burned at all. It’s really amazing how far technology has come.”
There is one takeaway Lyle wants to make abundantly clear to his fellow racers: get the proper safety equipment and wear it on every pass. Lyle was wearing a 20-layer jacket and pants, which provided enough protection for most of his body. However, he was wearing five-layer gloves and standard driving shoes. Proper gloves and nitro boots would have kept his hands and feet safe, and a headsock would have helped protect his face, as would closing his helmet’s face shield.
“It’s easy to get comfortable in there, but on any given pass, what happened to me can happen to anybody. I strongly encourage all racers, but especially the other Radial versus The World drivers, to make sure they have on everything they might need, because you never know when the worst might happen.”
What remains of Lyle's 20-layer driving suit. There are scant few layers remaining. His shoes and gloves didn't fare as well, resulting in severe burns to his foot and hands.
As Lyle progresses through his recovery, including regular physical therapy to help regain strength and range of motion in the affected areas, he has also begun to return to semblance of normalcy. A huge Carolina Panthers fan, Lyle and his family attended the January 3 game at Charlotte’s Bank of America stadium, where the Panthers trounced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lately, Barnett has done some driving, though the range of motion in his hands limits him to quick jaunts to town, but that will change as his therapy continues.
… yeah, I have to suffer through eight, 10 more months of this, but a year out of my life is just a blip. A small bump in the road. – Lyle Barnett
Speaking of driving, Lyle is already planning to return to the track, as soon as his grafts are healed, behind the wheel of close, longtime friend Jason Digby’s record-setting Dodge Dart, as well as making some hits in Mark Rodgers’ Ultra/Ultimate street car. As long as his healing continues at its current pace, Lyle plans to be back on the track at Lights Out VII, the same event at which his life was shattered, one year removed from his crash.
Again showing his optimism, Lyle speaks of his grueling months-long recovery with perspective far beyond his years. “I look at it like this … yeah, I have to suffer through eight, 10 more months of this, but a year out of my life is just a blip. A small bump in the road. I turned 25 the day after Christmas, so I should have another 50 or 60 years ahead of me. A year out of that is nothing. I’m going to go back to doing what I was doing before. I’m going to look the same. I’m just not that worried about it.”