New Jersey native and X275 competitor Brendan Mills miraculously escaped unharmed from one of the worst door-car fires in recent memory on Friday evening at Wooostock at the Darlington Dragway in South Carolina. To the horror of his family, of fellow competitors, and the thousands watching live at home, Mills was pinned inside the racecar for nearly 40-seconds as a towering inferno enveloped the front-end of his Mustang and quickly encircled him in the cockpit.
As the hearts of those watching on began to sink into their stomachs fearing the worst, Mills finally emerged from the smoke and flames, sans his helmet. Amazingly, he came out with little more than some singed hairs on his legs — a testament to proper safety apparel, luck, and guardian angels watching over him.
“I’m feeling very good, I really am,” Mills told us Monday in a calm but noticeably emotional and thankful tone. “I got very lucky.
Mills was on his way to a 4.34-second lap in his turbocharged Mustang in qualifying when the car erupted into flames as it crossed the 1/8-mile stripe. Mills quickly took action, spinning the car to a quick stop in the shutdown area, impressively enough, without hitting anything despite his impaired view out the windshield.
On the No. 4 cylinder — the rearmost cylinder on the passenger side on a small-block Ford — the weld around the caps on what would normally be the EGT bung had peeled open, which effectively acted like a torch and cut through the fuel line feeding the engine. Mills says the car nosed over and shut off at that point, but with an electric fuel pump running at full steam, the pump began to pour fuel onto the fire “like a flame-thrower,” he says, twice adding, “it was unreal how fast the fire began. Just unreal.”
As the seconds turned into nearly a minute and the Darlington Dragway rescue crew arrived at the car, the scene was one of sheer dismay. Mills had not yet emerged from the car, and it seemed a struggle was evident — as the fire grew, the brake lights flickered several times, indicating he may have been struggling to free himself from the cockpit and was inadvertently pressing and depressing the brake pedal.
“I was stuck in the car. My HANS device was stuck,” Mills confirms.
Mills can recollect in detail much of the struggle, but he’s been able to, with understandable emotion, relive the incident through onboard footage from a GoPro camera that his son had mounted in the car.
“From the angle that I have, I can’t tell 100-percent in the video what it was caught on, but what I do see is that when I was sliding sideways I started getting ready to get out,” he shares. “I started undoing the window net, and then when I came to a stop, I can see the window net flicker, so I don’t know if the window net got caught around the HANS, or if the cord from the headset in the helmet got tangled up. But regardless, between the seatbelt and all that, my helmet was pinned to the cage and I couldn’t move my head. I was pushing down on the brake and jerking around in there as much as I could to free it up, because the fire was very hot.’
“Eventually I ended up taking my glove off and pulling my helmet off and I slid out from under the helmet, slid under the steering column and out the door.”
Mills says he learned, in part from the experience of friend and fellow radial-tire racer Lyle Barnett’s fiery incident in 2015, that you can’t put a price on preparation. And it’s that decision to go above and beyond the requirements of the category that likely saved his life.
“I definitely learned the importance here of buying the right safety equipment. I was ignorant to it for a while, I didn’t buy new gear until the end of last year. I had 5 stuff (SFI-5 rated). The only thing I don’t have now in [SFI] 20 were my boots and gloves. My jacket and pants and my head-sock are all 20.
Mills adds, “I’m not sure how the material is made, but I was very, very hot. The hair on my legs, from my knees on down, all burned off. I have no burn marks on my pants, but I think my legs just got so hot that that’s what happened. My jacket was just as hot, and when you saw me getting out of the car, I was pulling my jacket off — I just couldn’t take it being on anymore. It was that hot.”
Mills’ wife and children were watching on from the starting line, and it’s the thought of what they endured as much as his own plight that makes the whole ordeal an emotional one.
“I didn’t think I was getting out. It gets a little hectic there for a while [in re-watching the onboard video]. At one point the fire was so bad you see me, I don’t want to say give up, but I put my head down and wrapped my arms around myself,” he explains. “I thought it was over at that point, because that’s when the fire went around me inside the car, I couldn’t see anything. I kind of said to myself, ‘slow your mind, you’ve probably got about 10-seconds left, make one last attempt here.’ That’s when I took my gloves off. I knew taking my helmet and gloves off inside of that fire was not a real good idea, but it was my last resort.”
By Monday afternoon, Mills had already disassembled the car from the firewall forward and was dropping the engine off for repair. The wiring for the transmission was damaged, and it will naturally need to be repainted from the doors forward. Mills is targeting a return in time for the Yellow Bullet Nationals over Labor Day weekend. Mills credits a number of people for reaching out and offering assistance in his time of need, including Joe Newsham, Precision Turbo, Mark Micke, Joe at ProTorque, Jason Digby, and many others.
“I know a lot of guys are quiet about stuff [in incidents like this], but I want to help others with this. There are a lot of guys in this class that are not wearing the right gear. We weren’t on methanol, we had Q16; everybody says Q16 doesn’t burn like methanol, and I beg to differ now. I think the rules should be changed and everybody should have SFI-20 gear on. A fire suppression system at this level, I think, should be mandatory,” he says.
Mills is working with Digby, Barnett’s car owner and himself an activist for enhanced fire safety protocols, to spec out an onboard fire suppression system for the engine bay and cockpit during the rebuild process.
“I saw a lot of grown men cry that night. It was pretty bad,” he adds. “My wife had to grab my kids, she just couldn’t come down there with them. When we got the car back up the trailer, it was sad for a lot of people. My 10-year-old little girl came up to me and said, daddy, I thought you were going to die in that fire,’ and it broke a lot of people down.”