Mitch Mika Discusses Horrifying Fire That Destroys “Big Drag” Camaro

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This past weekend at Big Drag’s grudge racing event at the Byron Dragway in Illinois, Mitch Mika was behind the wheel of Big Drag & Co.’s brand-new 2013 RJ Race Cars-built, 822 cubic-inch Hemi-headed Camaro. The car is brand-new for this season and Mika was tapped to take over the driver’s seat, which is a new task for him as he is usually behind the wheel of his family’s NMCA Nostalgia Pro Streeter. We saw him a few weeks ago in Illinois at the NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl Of Street Legal Drag Racing, where the team made their Pro Street debut with the Camaro. On the pass previous to this one, Mika had turned in the car’s best effort to date, a 6.88 at 201 MPH – a stellar elapsed time for the naturally aspirated machine. As you can see from the photos, all definitely did not end well. We caught up with Mitch this morning to talk about the devastating turn of events.

IMG_3366Dragzine: First off – it’s wonderful to be able to talk with you today. Can you tell us what happened?

Mitch Mika: It was a wild ride, I’ll tell you that. The previous pass, the car was just fantastic. We’ve been trying to get after it a little bit, and every pass down the racetrack, we were going faster. We made a small change – not a change to any engine parts, just an adjustment with the launch leave and the wheelie bar height. It was basically the same pass as the run prior. I was driving away from my opponent, and at about 1,000 feet it was an instant pop, and fire just roared around the windshield, in the doors and around the windows.

Luckily I’m a cautious driver — whenever I get into third gear, no matter what car I’m in, my hand goes to the parachute handle. As soon as I heard a bang, the chutes were out, I hit the ignition and the fuel pump to shut everything down. All I could do at that point was get the thing stopped.

I had no idea…I knew it was bad, and I just knew to stay calm, stay patient, get the car stopped, and figure out where I was on the track. I had no idea where my competitor went, but I knew to stay in my own lane and hold the steering wheel straight.

At about 30 MPH or so I engaged the fire bottles, and at that point the smoke filled the car. The dash was on fire, the passenger side was on fire, and it was getting difficult to see. I got the window net down and the steering wheel away, felt the tires explode in the front, and got my belts off. That was the second race that I’ve ever worn a HANS device. I got the left side strap off, but couldn’t get the other one undone at first. It held me in the car, and I couldn’t get out, I started getting dizzy, managed to kick the door out, and finally, I don’t know what I did or how I did it, but I heard a pop on my helmet and I knew I was loose.

DZ: At that point you must have been terrified.

MM: I crawled out of the car with a small abrasion on my left foot and a raging inferno coming through the doors. I don’t remember who picked me up or carried me to the wall, but about fifteen seconds after I got away, the car exploded. Nobody knew at that point whether I was still in the car except the few people that were down there. It was a brutal ride. I don’t know who was protecting me and watching over me, but to get out of the car and see its remnants on the trailer…I sat and stared at the car for over an hour yesterday and tried to figure out how I got out of there with nothing. I can’t believe that the car was burning that badly and I was in there.

I give all the credit to every single one of those safety people that designed my Stroud firesuit and my shoes. I’ve got some burns and melted stuff on the firesuit, but it did exactly what it was supposed to do. The chutes never burned off the car until it came to a stop, and the fire bottles worked and bought me some time. Even with the catastrophe and total loss of the car, the car saved the driver and got me out unhurt. It’s been hard to sleep the last few nights. The guy I was racing told me he saw the pop and the car was immediately engulfed in flames. It felt like one of the old “And They Walked Away” videos. You just don’t see this in our style of racing. I feel horrible for Big Drag — the car is a total loss.

DZ: We’ve seen our fair share of power-adder cars go up in flames due to bad injector o-rings and things like that, but this car was naturally-aspirated. Have you determined what happened yet?

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MM: We haven’t totally assessed the damage, but what we can see is that the crankshaft is literally out of the engine. We think the crank broke in a couple of places and shot the oil onto the headers. The block is windowed on both sides and is cracked from the main cap in the rear all the way up to the intake manifold. The block literally exploded when the crank came out of it and the oil blew on the headers from there. As I was trying to slow down, I was just thinking “what’s this going to be like,” and then I was just trying to get the hell out of it. It’s so unfortunate for Big and everyone else involved with the program — we had planned on running Pro Street with the car next year with a couple of kits on it to go low sixes or high fives. We were so early in the learning curve stages. I don’t wish this upon anybody.

IMG950418DZ: Do you think this will stop you from driving in the future?

MM: Absolutely not – I’m already trying to get my Nostalgia Pro Street car ready to go. It’s been down all year while we have some chassis work done, and it’s getting close. I want to get out, even if it’s in my brother’s X275 car — I have to get back in the saddle. As drivers we know that every time we get into a car, something catastrophic can happen. I look at it like a learning experience, I survived – let’s get up and do it again. It’s not stopping Big Drag either – he’s already talked about rebuilding.

DZ: How do you overcome something like this the next time you get into the seat?

MM: You know, it’s really putting faith in the car, myself, and my safety equipment. You still think about the fact that it could happen again, but it’s shown me to take a close look at the safety equipment that I have. I’m sure it will be a little bit shaky and won’t ever be forgotten – it’ll affect the first couple of passes, but I’d say that because I did not get hurt, I feel more comfortable getting back into it. If I have second or third-degree burns, that makes it much harder for me to hop back into the saddle.

About the author

Jason Reiss

Jason draws on over 15 years of experience in the automotive publishing industry, and collaborates with many of the industry's movers and shakers to create compelling technical articles and high-quality race coverage.
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