DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 27: A jet dryer bursts into flames after being hit by Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, under caution during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 27, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
What if the Daytona 500 wasn't able to be completed due to the jet dryer explosion? Hard work from Daytona International Speedway's staff ensured that wouldn't happen.
Looking back now, what seemed negative about the Daytona 500 at the time actually seem like positives.
The rain on race day moved NASCAR's biggest race to a primetime show on Monday night, exposing it to an entirely different set of viewers. Juan Pablo Montoya's collision with the jet dryer drew international attention and was the talk of the sports world. And Brad Keselowski's in-car tweet during the ensuing red flag instantly gave NASCAR a reputation for being tech-savvy.
But most important, Daytona International Speedway track workers were able to defy the odds and get the surface back in a condition that allowed NASCAR to finish the race.
Initially, though, that was far from guaranteed. When Montoya first hit the jet dryer, track president Joie Chitwood III was filled with dread.
"The things that went through my mind when it first happened were catastrophic: 'This is the worst possible thing that could have happened,'" he said Monday via phone. "... I thought, 'That's it. We're not going to be able to finish tonight.'"
Chitwood immediately feared for the integrity of the racing surface, which Daytona had just spent around $15-20 million to repave. He knew fuel would degrade asphalt just by itself, but fuel set on fire? Nothing could be worse for a track surface than that.
"If you would have asked me before that race, 'Hey Joie, if we were to set your track on fire, what do you think would happen?'" he said. "I would say, 'Game over. We're done. What do I need to do to fix it?'"
Fortunately, the sequence of events unfolded in a way that the track's preparation came in handy. Just two years after Daytona had to scramble to repair a pothole during the 500, workers were ready to deal with just about anything that came their way.
"You can be prepared in theory, and you can talk about it," Chitwood said. "But the challenge is: When the theory becomes reality, does your plan work?"
Here's how Daytona made it work in what Chitwood described as "a very intense two hours" on that infamous Monday night in February:
• Up in the race control tower, where Chitwood was stationed with NASCAR officials, he saw a fireball erupt when Montoya hit the jet dryer. The fire was only isolated to the jet dryer itself at first, but as the video zoomed in, Chitwood could see jet fuel leaking down the banking. He said everyone in race control knew it was going to get set on fire, like in an action movie gone wrong. "We were all like, 'Oh no! Oh no! Get fire/rescue there!'" he said. Within 20 seconds, the fuel had caught fire.
• All of the sudden, there were a couple hundred gallons of jet fuel ablaze. Safety workers made sure Montoya was OK and got the jet dryer driver out of his destroyed vehicle. Then the focus turned to suppressing a fire which stretched from the top of the banking all the way down to the warmup lane.
• After the fire was out, track workers needed to figure out how to remove the jet dryer, which was stuck at the top of the track in an area Chitwood estimated to have 20-21 degrees of banking. The truck itself was heavy, even without the drying apparatus attacked to it. All together, it took two forklifts to get the vehicle off the track. "It was an uncomfortable thing to watch them do it," Chitwood said.
• When the jet dryer was lifted away, Chitwood expected to see a crater underneath. He figured the heat from the fire and the impact of the explosion would have left a hole in the track – but there wasn't one. The surface was discolored, though, and he worried whether the surface was degraded. Would it be soft to the touch? Fortunately, it held up.
• Workers used oil dry (the gravel-like substance) to soak fuel from the racing surface, and that adds to a track president's list of things to worry. Once fuel is mixed in, the oil dry becomes a "contaminated material" – so the track can't just throw it in a dumpster. It has to go in barrels for environmental reasons.
• Famously, the track also used Tide to clean the track. But Chitwood said Daytona already had it in storage because it cleans oil, coolant and gas off the surface with detergent after every race due to the potential damage those substances could cause.
• Next, the track was hosed down and brushed off with brooms. The surfaced was deemed to be OK, but it was obvious the asphalt had been degraded. Daytona applied a coat of material called StreetBond to the affected area, which Chitwood said was equivalent to Scotch-Guarding the track. "We wanted to make sure no chunks came out of it as we continued to run," he said.
• Finally, Daytona had one of the remaining jet dryers come to the area and dry the surface to seal in the StreetBond. Shortly thereafter, the race went back to green and, about an hour later, Matt Kenseth went to Victory Lane (that portion of the track was later replaced because officials didn't know how far down the fuel had seeped).
"Knowing the world's spotlight was on us, we wanted to go back to racing as quickly as we could," Chitwood said. "We were dealing with a situation you don't practice. You don't set the track on fire to practice putting it out because of the damage it would do to your facility.
"I was so proud of my team and how we responded and how we dealt with that situation. We had a couple hundred gallons of jet fuel burning on the racetrack, and we finished that race. I think we're a classic example of defying the odds."
But what if the track had been too damaged to continue? What if the Daytona 500 had been called prematurely even after fans stuck it out for 36 extra hours?
Combined with the pothole incident just two years earlier, Chitwood said it would have been a major blow to not only the track, but all of NASCAR.
"To have your Super Bowl, your biggest event that sets the tone for the year, and in two of three years have a facility incident affect the outcome?" he said. "We're always challenged with selling tickets...it would have been very difficult to overcome.
"The tone for the start of the season would have been terrible for everybody. Such a negative feel."
But instead, the opposite happened. The jet dryer incident now seems like something to laugh about, and this season's Daytona 500 became one of the most talked-about NASCAR races in the sport's history.
"We had a once-in-a-lifetime situation, and our team stepped up and excelled," Chitwood said. "I think it was a positive vibe. When the spotlight was on us, we made it happen and got the race complete."