'I knew it was going to be ugly'

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

Strapped into a claustrophobic cockpit and seated inches from a screaming hot engine, Tony Kanaan could feel himself being doused in ethanol.

He knew he would be on fire in less than a second -- and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

"When he pulled (the fuel hose) out I felt the cold of the spray and I knew it wasn't a shower of water," said the Brazilian driver.

"I knew it was going to be ugly."

A millisecond later, Kanaan and his car were totally engulfed in flames.

For many, the first instinct would be panic. For Kanaan, it was to protect his crew by putting as much distance between the fireball he'd become and the guy holding the malfunctioning fuel hose.

"I tried to pull out of the pits to save the guys. Because I'm inside the car, I'm more protected than them. I have a helmet and stuff. I didn't want to make it worse so I just pulled out.

"I was stuck inside the car ... but I knew I was going to get help."

He made it about four stalls down pit row before braking, where all he could do was sit and wait, still on fire, hoping that one of the other crews would come to his rescue.

They did.

Rival teams doused him with water in a quick-acting response that, combined with the fire resistant racing suit, limited the damage to second degree burns on his hands and lesser burns on his face.

"I'll be uglier than I am right now," he said, after getting his hands bandaged at the Indy Car medical centre.

"To be on fire for 45 seconds and have two thumbs and a little bit of my face burned is not a lot. I have to thank the other teams, Penske and the Panther boys -- everybody came to rescue me. It's pretty remarkable. It shows that in Indy Car we're like a big family. We're competitors over the weekend but when somebody needs help ... I got it."

Kanaan says a probe in the fuel hose, which is supposed to shut the flow of fuel, stuck open, allowing ethanol to spray all over the car and driver.

"It was open all the way, even when he pulled it out. There was nothing we could do. That never happened to me before. It wasn't a pretty sight. I'm glad that we're OK, but it was a scary moment."

Incredibly, it wasn't even his scariest moment in a race car this year.

"Indy was pretty scary, too," said Kanaan, who hit the wall at Indianapolis doing 200 miles per hour. "This just looked impressive because you're on fire."

Ironically, in 2004 Kanaan became the first driver in major auto racing history to complete every lap of every race. And now he hits the wall at top speed and gets set on fire in less than three months.

It's been a dangerous season, to be sure, and in a sport where cursed participants don't last very long, the 34-year-old father of one young son joked about finding another line of work.

"It seems like we can't get it right this year. I almost killed myself at Indy. I've had a couple of scary moments. It makes you think twice about what you want to do from now on."

Not for long, though.

"I've been racing for 27 years. I know the risks," he said. "Yes, coincidences or not, it's been happening to us a lot. That might be a sign that we need to fix a couple of things, but, hey, I'm here. My boss says that's why I get paid the big bucks.

"I'm not planning to step out of the car. I'm not giving up. It can only get better. It can't get any worse."


Videos

Photos