Surviving a Nitro Funny Car fire

This article brought to you by:

Robert Schwab left Australia to pursue a dream of racing Nitro Funny Cars in the USA and it has been a career full of highs and lows.

His greatest high was perhaps reaching the semi final round of the Mile High Nationals in Denver in 2004, but the lowest moment was a firey crash in Utah during testing of a brand new car in 1999.

Schwab recently remembered this moment when he saw video of a crash by Courtney Force in Seattle. He has kindly allowed Drag News to share his thoughts on what was a horrific moment for a new racer.

“Seeing Courtney’s headers brought back a lot of memories. This is a piece of my history that I have never told in my own words or had a way to share it. It’s a story that has been hidden away for so many reasons and I just wanted to tell it before I lose my memory,” Schwab said.

“There are so many people that helped me come back from this tragic day that I will always be so thankful to including DRAW, the Rocky Mountain Raceway safety team and family, my own family, Mathew Leonard who changed bandages on me, the doctors and staff at the UofU burn unit, and all the people who helped us put the new car together and my race crew that never gave up.

“This happened for a reason, not sure what it was, but I do believe there was a reason.”

Schwab had spent four years building his pride and joy, proudly emblazoned with the Southern Cross.

“It was immaculate, more like a show car than a race car, a life long dream and labour of love,” he said.

The team was licencing the car to compete in Phoenix at a 32 Funny Car show and were on their fourth run of the day when the tyres started spinning shortly before the 60 feet mark. Schwab was off the power and already counter steering.

13913946 585836848264964 469612022494697784 o

The spinning momentum of the drivetrain kept the wheels moving and drove the car towards the wall. 

“At this point I am still driving but not much is happening, the momentum has the control,” Schwab said.

13987483 585836911598291 2365787298612797888 o

The front of the car hit so hard that the back of car was two feet off the ground when it hit the wall. It’s easy to forget just how fast a nitro car is moving even when it has only travelled 60 feet.

Schwab was knocked unconscious by the impact and the worst was yet to come.

13680471 585836931598289 7588570979182201687 o

The body was knocked on to the throttle.
“She goes wide open, the car is on bare concrete with no traction, I am asleep dreaming about Adelaide beaches. Look at the tyres smoking!”

13909114 585836948264954 728659798914924224 o

The free-revving motor kicked the rods out, contributing more oil and fuel to help the fire. Schwab can joke about what was a very scary moment now.

“Surely that is some sort of record – longest unconscious fire burnout? The rubber fuel lines on the hat have now burnt off and are spraying fuel around like a sprinkler head! And they are still legal!”

13909078 585836971598285 3868771868401052308 o

You can see Schwab’s time and speed up on the read out boards. Unconscious, on fire and scraping a wall, he clocked a 9.13 at 150mph.

“You can see the tyre tracks, she was still trying to go and kept hitting the wall,” he said. “Bit hard to see but if you look down past the ambulance you can see a big hot fire burning. I am still in there, my foot is tangled in a gauge hose that was zip-tied in. Roy the suited fire diver has gone down and the other divers are still trying to get me out. Suzie Wells, who had run before me, comes running down in her full firesuit to help. Her daughter Jen has the cutters that will free my foot.”

13668723 585837018264947 8453587436208373184 o

The bent headers were aimed right at the cockpit. They melted through the body and the car panels to reach Schwab’s face.

“I had molten aluminium mixed with a blowtorch aimed at my helmet.”

13988103 585837004931615 1038575390111370493 o

What the inside of a torched Funny Car cockpit looks like. 

“The butterflies were still wide open as the barrel valve had melted, she only stopped here after running out of fuel. The fuel had burned off quickly after the lines melted.”

13913816 585837061598276 3684306615972514752 o

Schwab’s safety gear laid out in the braking area. Many of the layers of his boots and firesuit were burned off and the helmet was in very bad shape.

“The Simpson fresh air systems were new at the time and not yet required, but for some divine reason we not only had installed one but had it turned on. This saved my life and worked well till the visor was melted off.”

13958269 585837114931604 9103941136924964981 o

Schwab in hospital recovering from his burns. 

“I am only smiling because of the morphine, the other pictures are a bit too graphic to show on here. Lisa never left the hospital, slept in a chair for a week. Don’t know how I got so lucky, she even helped Mathew order a new body and that was before they would even commit that I was going to make it. So many people helped over the next months untill we ran again.”

Aeroflow Performance Parts Catalogue

Drag News Magazine