April 20th, 2016
Anthony O’Brien rarely likes to discuss the events that took place on pit road at Richmond International Raceway last April. It brings back memories that he’d rather not think about. Feelings he’d rather not remember.
What he does like to talk about is how he quickly became a face for change; an advocate for pit road safety.
“It sucks. It was an unfortunate situation that I hope never happens again.” O’Brien said. “But the accident sparked a conversation that needed to be had.”
A routine pit stop gone wrong
O’Brien, known to his RCR teammates as “Fifty,” and gasman Josh Wittman were severely burned while changing the left-rear tire on Brendan Gaughan’s No. 62 XFINITY Series car in what O’Brien describes as a “freak accident.”
O’Brien hopped over the wall, ran to the right side of the car and quickly went to work hitting lug nuts on the rear tire. Once finished, he swung around the car and began working on the left side.
“For some reason, I was covered in gasoline,” O’Brien recalls. A malfunction with the gas can header caused fuel to spray him and Wittman.
“I wasn’t too worried about it at first because I’ve been covered in fuel before. I went and hit the first lug nut and saw the flame, so I tried to hit as many lug nuts as I could while the fire engulfed me.”
The spark from his pit gun hitting a lug nut had ignited the gasoline. Covered in flames nearly 20 feet high, O’Brien was quickly smothered by nearby safety workers with fire extinguishers. But some damage was already done. O’Brien and Wittman were sent to the hospital and were treated for burns on their faces and necks.
“The pain was excruciating. I remember it being very painful for several days after the incident but I knew the Sparco safety equipment I was wearing saved my life. Never again will I complain about wearing Nomex underwear and clothing.” O’Brien said.
Positive aftermath – a case for change
The accident immediately started a conversation at RCR surrounding safety on pit road. Recognizing that the incident could provide an impetus to add new fire safety measures, RCR chomped at the bit.
“Could we have prevented the accident from happening? I don’t know. Did we learn from it? Absolutely,” said Mike Dillon, RCR’s vice president of competition.
Dillon was a bystander that night when the fire occurred and remembers the gut-wrenching feeling that his crew members were possibly injured. He takes safety in all aspects of racing very seriously and feels a personal responsibility of protecting crew members throughout the race weekend.
“I knew right away that we needed to do more to protect our guys. They are all important to RCR. They all have families. They are all important to our success.” He said.
One of the immediate changes Dillon and RCR’s competition leadership group put into place was requiring all over-the-wall crewmen wear a fire-resistant, Nomex “headsock,” which covers a majority of the face. It made sense; O’Brien had several burns on his face that might have been prevented if there had been more protection.
The following week at Talladega Superspeedway, some crew members decided to take it a step further by wearing a full-faced helmet with a shield.
The garage took notice; NASCAR officials took notice. It didn’t take long for other teams to follow RCR’s lead and require its crew members to take additional fire safety measures.
“I understand that there are freak accidents and we really cannot control what happens. But we can only be better prepared.” O’Brien said .
Following its review of the incident, NASCAR notified the teams last May 13 that it was going to accelerate some changes to its pit road safety attire. Effective last June 4, NASCAR made changes to its rule book and now requires all over-the-wall crewmen and those who handle gasoline at the race track to wear a full-faced, fire-resistant headsock.
O’Brien was pleased to see the changes and gladly obliges. He returned to pitting race cars on June 13 later that season after doctors deemed his skin had healed enough and currently serves as the rear tire changer on the No. 27 Sprint Cup Series team and the No. 33 XFINITY Series team.
“I’m glad that positive change came out of that incident. I want people to know that pit road is now a safer place for everyone that goes over the wall and we should be always focusing on crew member safety.” O’Brien said.
“I’m glad that RCR changed its policy. I’m glad that NASCAR changed its policy. I hope no one has to go through what I went through.”