Trailer Safety: How To Protect Your Racing Operation From Fire

Trailer Safety: How To Protect Your Racing Operation From Fire

Your racing rulebook contains many regulations related to preventing a serious on-track calamity. With no rulebook for traveling down the highway, though, it’s up to you to make sure the odds of safety are on your side.
Everyone has had a toolbox drawer or possibly a tie-down strap come loose during travels. When do you discover this? Typically, not until you’ve traveled quite a few miles. A similar situation applies when it comes to fire. By the time you might be aware of what is happening, it may be too late.

With a recent outbreak of fire devastation regarding racecars and trailer contents, we take a look at the results and lessons learned from some victims.

While an enclosed trailer keeps your property safe, it also prevents anyone from readily seeing any travel problems occurring once you hit the road.

The Big Three

Your racing engine needs three things to run: heat (spark,) air, and fuel. The National Fire Protection Association refers to these three sources as the “fire triangle.” The typical race trailer enclosure contains many examples of each of these three sources, beyond just your fuel jugs.

Source of Heat (Spark)

In recent times, the most widely known culprit is batteries, among other fire starters. There is no single battery type to pick on. These battery fires that wind up creating much larger infernos can range from exotic batteries used in racecars to those in pit bikes, golf carts, and quad runners…or even smaller ones.

One of the most basic batteries that destroyed a race trailer was a simple cordless drill battery. You may recognize the name Josh Owens; he is one of the personalities on the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners television show.

James Goad, AKA "Reaper" in the Street Outlaws television series, lost both of his race cars in a highway fire that leveled his trailer and contents.

“We had the pedal down and were rolling along when some people were acting crazy in the lane beside us,” Owens shares of his devastating loss. “I looked back, and there was black smoke everywhere. By the time we got stopped, the fire was crazy, and it was too hot to unhook my truck. We had a fire extinguisher in the truck, but that was like peeing on a brush fire.”

The firefighters who ultimately doused what was left of Owens’ trailer told him a cordless drill inside a box possibly had the trigger actuated; this slowly depleted the battery entirely, which could then cause it to ignite.

“I’m lucky the Gasser was not in there at the time,” continued Owens. “But losing the trailer and a large amount of camera gear from the show and thousands of dollars in promotional merchandise inventory was tough.”

Though Josh's Owens' 1953 Chevrolet Gasser was not traveling in his trailer at the time, he lost two off-road vehicles, high-end TV camera gear, and a wealth of promotional apparel. Fire officials told Josh at the scene that a cordless drill battery probably ignited the fire.

Other racing stars from television have been a part of the rash of highway fires in recent times. Social media blew up when “Street Outlaws” personality James Goad lost his stacker trailer with both his “Reaper” and “Orange car” inside.

As reported in a previous Dragzine interview with Stacy Goad, James’ wife, she noted “we don’t know what started it. It was concentrated in the front where there is a battery that operates the lift and jack for the trailer.”

It’s easy to use thousands of dollars in safety equipment when you race. The same attention will be paid from now on to save my life’s work or even my life. – Jamie Otts

Source of Fuel

You need to be creative when anticipating the source of fuel for a fire. Do not just consider your fuel jugs or any other easily combustible items. If it can catch fire and travel for hours on end, overlooked origins such as wooden floors and the trailer walls need to be considered.

Just two weeks after James Goad's fire, another Street Outlaws personality, Jonathan "JJ Da Boss" Day, lost one of his trailers and two racecars. He was transporting his famed television duplicate to his "Ole Heavy" Chevy Truck and his "Grey Goose" Chevy II.

An example of luck based on the fuel source is Pro Extreme Motorcycle competitor Chuck Wilburn and his enclosed motorcycle trailer. While traveling between his Mississippi home and a Man Cup event at South Georgia Motorsports Park, he experienced a fire that luckily depleted its fuel source.

“About two hours into the trip we made a stop,” Wilburn says, adding “I was pumping fuel and my dad went around to check the trailer contents, as we do every time we stop. He went back there, opened the door, and it was just black inside.”

Wilburn said that the interior fire had burned itself out. “It was the battery on the pit bike, and it was the only thing that actually burned,” he said. “Everything else was hot, melted, and soot-covered, but we were really lucky.”

Chuck Wilburn describes his drag bike as "looking like it was powder-coated in soot." The firemen at the scene pointed out the "charred rock" that remained of the pit bike battery. Luckily the bike had no fuel in the tank, which more than likely prevented the fire from spreading.

While working on this story, we learned that yet another no-prep/street racer from the Memphis area lost his trailer and newly-built S-10 race truck. Jamie Otts and friends had been working tirelessly to complete this new ride, only to watch it go up in flames inside his trailer.

“We thrashed to finish this truck before the big “Civil War 2 Invitational” at Gulfport Dragway,” Otts says. “We were going down the highway with some friends, but they wanted to take a break and eat. We kept rolling, which was our first problem because if anyone had been following us, they might have caught the issue.”

By the time the local fire department arrived at the scene of Jamie Otts’ fire, the entire trailer, new S-10 race truck, and pit vehicles were gone. Jamie says that he was equally heartbroken that additional components he was transporting for friends were also destroyed.

Otts and his friend felt some rumbling and assumed they were getting a flat tire. “By the time we pulled over and we got out to look, the trailer tires were exploding and the entire back half of the trailer was engulfed in flames,” he comments. “The new S-10 is gone.”

Air (The Final Source to the Fire Triangle)

Unless you own an amazingly well-sealed trailer, when you are at highway speeds, there is always air flowing through the interior. If you have watched someone gently blow on kindling wood to coax a flame into a bonfire, you know it doesn’t take much.

To look at photo images of trailer fires shows how quickly wood and aluminum floors, walls, and ceiling can burn or melt away, where a wealth of air can then fan the flame.

Tires and wheel bearings can also be a prominent source as fire starters. Some road debris damage or flat trailer tires can easily catch fire. The same goes for overheated wheel bearings. In early 2020, the Don Schumacher Racing hauler carrying Ron Capps Funny Car team caught fire. You can easily see the hottest flame markings coming from the trailer tire area.

Lessons Learned

Many racers have made changes to their travel practices and trailer safety equipment. Following Wilburn’s ordeal, all batteries have been removed from his trailer. His Drag bike and pit vehicle batteries are set up for easy disconnect and removal. Along with his drag bike starter, they all travel in the back of his truck.

Jamie Otts has made preparations to equip his next trailer with a fire suppression system. "I have good friends at Mags Fab Work who have turned me onto a trailer fire suppression system from SPA Technique or Fireade,” he said. “My next trailer will not roll without a fire system inside."

Josh Owens is sitting out of racing his Gasser and stock car for the moment. But when he gets back into it (with a new trailer), there is no question there will be some fire system protecting his trailer possessions that are also a source for his living. Owens notes, “I took a huge hit just in my t-shirt inventory. That will never happen again.”

Hardware to Prevent The Unthinkable

Just like different component combinations involved in constructing a race car, many types of fire suppression equipment for your rig are also available.

Typical fire suppression systems that available for trailer are similar to the fire bottles in racecar cockpit systems. The trailer systems must be able to extinguish many more cubic feet of enclosure than your doorslammer or funny car interior. To under-size the rated extinguishing volume of any extinguisher system or even the new fire balls (we’ll explain that in a minute) can easily result in a fire being allowed to continue and grow.

There are many options available for pressurized bottle systems similar to what is used in a racecar. The spray heads can be remotely mounted or directly on the bottle. These nozzles rely on a thermal block to release the extinguisher. Other preventatives include smoke and heat detectors that can contact the driver through cellular signal or with a strobe light mounted outside of the trailer.

“[James] broke the window out of the Reaper Camaro since it was on the bottom and pulled the fire system to try and stop our fire, but it didn’t do anything,” Stacy Goad said. “At that point, we just had to sit on the side of the road until the fire department got there, but by the time they arrived, it was too late.”

The bottle extinguisher systems are typically controlled by thermal release. Some systems also come with an additional manual activation. Trailer/bottle packages commonly come with four 10-lb. aluminum bottles. These systems are advertised to extinguish a fire within a 34-foot tag trailer with its two spray heads.

Along with a pressurized bottle system, unique “fire balls” are also available. These are a pressurized ball of extinguishing powder that bursts as soon as it is exposed to flame. These balls can be wall or ceiling mounted with an included fixture or ceiling ring.

Any type of fire system is designed to suppress a limited amount of area. Consumers need to calculate the cubic feet they need to cover to fully extinguish your trailer interior.

The most prevalent comment made by many victims who have lost their racing rigs to fire is that they wish they had invested in one of the many options available to detect or extinguish a trailer fire.

The majority of budget race trailers are equipped with wood floors and walls. Preventing fuel and oil stains can stop the wood from catching fire more easily. A cost-effective first step in fire prevention is to coat the wood with fire barrier paint available via special order from big-box home improvement stores.

When you do your research, some initial costs may seem high. Compare the sometimes irreplaceable financial investment in your racecar, tools, pit vehicles, spare parts, and so on, and a fire system could be priceless.

The numerous fire causing scenarios described here have no common thread. With that said, there are no definitive steps to take for prevention. Many racers are adding a race car-style safety shutoff switch to golf carts and more as a step to prevent an electrical system short circuit. Some batteries short out from within the battery itself, so in technicality, this is still not a perfect fix.

Some are going to the extreme of removing all batteries from within a trailer altogether — even fabricating a steel box in the bed of their truck to transport all of the batteries. This is a fastidious effort to stop any version of a battery-caused trailer fire from happening.

New fire suppression options include a pressurized "ball" that rests in a wall, ceiling holster, or suspended from the ceiling. When this engineered shell melts, it bursts, releasing a pressurized fire suppression agent.

Trailer bearings or tire fires may be easily discounted by citing proper maintenance, yet tire failures and friction from road debris may cause a fire that the best maintenance can’t prevent. The moral of the story is to do your very best with prevention yet still travel with an eagle’s eye.

All racers may feel a certain amount of invincibility. You may be saving for a new go-fast component, even a trick set of beadlock wheels. In comparison, taking steps to stop a fiery catastrophe that each of these racers experienced may be a good thing to invest in — and hope you never use.

Still, if you look at every competitor here, from professional to television personality, to the weekend sportsman, no one can say it will never happen to them.

More Sources

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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