Mark Petronis: Lessons Learned from an Inferno

On a hot Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, Mark Petronis competed with his 2004 Chevrolet Corvette in a race at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. As he encountered slower traffic during a NASA Northeast meet on the 10-turn, 1.9-mile Lightning Raceway, a misstep sent the car Petronis was driving into a tree. His ride then burst into flames. Petronis was unconscious. When he finally came to, he heard fireworks from a Fourth of July celebration. Mark Petronis was lucky to be alive.

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What Led to the Crash

While Mark Petronis does not remember the sequence of events that led to his crash, he surmised the following happened from what he saw from video footage and what eyewitnesses told him.

“I was leading the race and winning overall,” Mark Petronis, 39, of Saratoga Springs, New York, said. “Exiting the final turn and coming onto the main straight, I approached two out-of-class cars. A BMW was fully track left and a Miata was fully track right.  As I came up to the Miata, he gave me a point by. The driver of the Miata, having never been to that track, gave me the point by at not such a great place, where the track pinches in quite a bit.  I didn’t have to take it, but I did. He didn’t turn into me, but the track kind of forced him into me. As I passed the front of his car, contact was made with the back of my car … and I was off into the trees.

“I’ve come to terms with the responsibility I take for the accident and I certainly don’t hold any fault for him. If we had simply given each other another six inches of room, this would have been a story with a much happier ending.”

Unconscious and On Fire

“I was knocked out immediately,” said Petronis. “The car was ablaze from the moment I impacted the tree. I ended up being in the car for about three minutes, from the time of when I hit the tree to when they got me out of the thing.”

Three friends rushed to Petronis’ aid with fire extinguishers as did the track safety crew.

“I’ve talked with the guys who responded, and everyone has a different account,” Petronis said of the rescue effort. “Two of my friends pulled me out of the car. They couldn’t see anything between the black smoke, my black suit and belts, and the black interior paint of the car. They started tugging on me for a while and realized that my belts were still on. It was too hot for them to get their hands where they needed to. One of the safety guys had a knife and ended up cutting the top of my belts off. At that point, they were able to pull me out. As I understand it, when they would get the fire under control, they started working on me, and then the fire would start again. That’s why it took so long — they were constantly fighting the fire.”

Mark Petronis Equipped for the Worst

Fortunately, Mark Petronis didn’t skimp on personal safety gear. While the superb performance of the items factored into his decision, top-quality gear often offers other benefits.

“I wear the good stuff, because it’s pretty comfortable and pretty breathable, even when it’s miserably hot out,” said Petronis.

Due to its comfort level, Petronis used the equipment as intended, as exemplified by the Stilo ST5 composite helmet he wore.

“I had my visor down,” Petronis said. “The side of my visor was all bubbled up. You can just imagine if my visor was up what [the burns] would have been [to my] face.”

Petronis sat in his car for approximately three minutes. That’s only 180 seconds, but that’s an eternity for even the best gear.

Here’s the safety equipment that Mark Petronis wore:

  • Helmet: Stilo ST5 composite helmet (SA2020)
  • Suit: Alpinestars GP Tech V2 (SFI 3.2A/5, FIA 8856-2000)
  • Underwear: Alpinestars Evo ZX V2 (FIA 8856-2018)
  • FAST Cooling Alpha cool suit
  • Gloves: Alpinestars Tech-1 ZX (SFI 3.3/5, FIA 8856-2000)
  • Shoes: Alpinestars Tech-1 Z (SFI 3.3/5, FIA 8856-2000)
  • Head sock/balaclava: Alpinestars Evo V2 (FIA 8856-2018)

Fabryce Kutyba, of Alpinestars, notes that the suit must withstand heat transmission (HTI), an increase of temperature of 24°C (aka 75.2°F), under a direct flame for up to 11 seconds, per the FIA 8856-2000 standard. The FR (flame-resistant) underwear must withstand up to five seconds. Kutyba added that “our products exceed those minimums.”

Tony Dunn, of Motor Sport Race Gear, elaborates on the value of underwear.

“The underwear gives approximately 50% more time than the suit alone, with the time given being until it can cause second-degree burns,” said Tony Dunn, of Motor Sport Race Gear.

The FAST Cooling Alpha cool suit is not SFI- or FIA-certified. However, FAST Cooling’s Jill Swanson said it is intended for motorsports use. The Alpha cool suit includes the same tubing used in the company’s SFI 3.3-rated CarbonX cool suit. That SFI 3.3 standard is the same one that underwear garments must meet. So, in theory, the CarbonX cool suit would add even more time to get out of a car since it is like another layer of FR underwear.

In total, however, even with some of the best equipment available, Petronis had roughly 17 seconds, per the minimums of the FIA standard, to escape the car before significant burns began. Unfortunately, he sat unconscious in his ride for about 11 times that duration.

The Stilo ST5 helmet post-fire. Petronis did not receive any significant third-degree burns to his face.

His One Regret

Mark Petronis had an onboard fire suppression system, a FireSense 4L AFFF (aqueous film forming foam) system. However, it was manually activated.

“The one thing that I regret the most is that I had a fire-suppression system, but it wasn’t an automatic system,” said Petronis. “As racers, we assume we’ll be able to pull the handle when the car is on fire. But, you don’t think about what happens when you can’t pull it.”

Automatic fire systems roughly double the cost of a system, according to SPA Technique’s Dan List. List explains the goal of an onboard fire suppression system.

“We’re trying to buy you time [with a fire suppression system], but we’re hoping to put out the fire,” List said. “But, if you have gallons of fuel spilling, or other factors, [the fire suppression system] may not put out the fire completely. But, we want to buy you time, which is the big part.”

The system automatically activates when heat from a fire reaches a thermal bulb. Inside that bulb is fluid within a glass vial. When that fluid reaches a certain temperature, it expands to the point where it breaks the vial. Once that occurs, it triggers the system to activate.

“Some [drivers] are scared it’s going to break from vibration [and prematurely activate],” said List. “So far, we’ve had this setup in funny cars [on drag strips], which get some pretty bad tire shake, late models and modifieds [on rough dirt ovals], two Grave Digger [monster] trucks, and road race cars. We’ve haven’t had one break for no reason.”

Another Area for Improvement

Mark Petronis explained what he felt caused the fire.

“I hit a tree at a 45-degree angle, right at the right-rear wheel,” Petronis said. “The hit was so hard that it ruptured the fuel tank. The right-rear wheel collapsed into the middle of the car. I don’t know if the fuel tank split, but I did see the fuel line disconnected from the tank. Ten gallons of fuel burned down.”

Manufacturers design passenger cars for street use. They often have shortcomings when they get used in the extreme conditions of motorsports.

“The engineers designed the Corvette with two separate tanks toward the middle of the car — and they’re really hard to get to in a crash,” said Petronis. “That’s mostly true … unless you hit a tree at a 70 mph with the right rear of your car.”

Outfitting an OEM car with a traditional fuel cell can be difficult, expensive, and labor-intensive. Fuel Safe offers a solution for those racing Corvettes and other street cars. Racers can ship their fuel tanks to Fuel Safe and they’ll convert them into FIA-certified fuel cells.

Fuel Safe’s process begins with cutting off the top of the tank and installing a crash-resistant bladder, with Mil-Spec baffling foam inside.

“It distributes the fuel more evenly, so you don’t have the violent surge of fuel from side to side, which keeps the car on track better,” Mike Torvik, of Fuel Safe, said. “It also reacts a spark or flame arrestor. So, in the event that fuel bladder fails, it prevents the fuel from atomizing.”

Torvik also highlighted another option that racers with electric fuel pumps should consider.

“[We] have automatic fuel cut-offs,” said Torvik. “That way, if you have an internal fuel pump and the fuel line becomes disconnected, it senses the pressure loss and it will cut off [pump from pumping] the fuel.”

To finish it off, Fuel Safe installs their own top plate, which comes with aircraft-grade AN fittings.

“The hoses [on stock applications] are often heat-sealed around the fittings,” Torvik said. “If the fittings do come disconnected, there’s a feature to prevent fuel from coming out. We achieve that with different style of check valves.”

The fuel lines that come on passenger cars come with drawbacks when used for racing purposes.

“A lot of them have a rubber inner core, where all of ours have PTFE, so you don’t get deterioration over the time from the fuels that we run,” said Scott Hunter, of Brown & Miller Racing Solutions. “A lot of times the rubber will break down or harden, and lose flexibility and durability. For a lot of the [OEM] lines, in a big incident there’s potential for it to separate. [PTFE] never breaks down or deteriorates, so it will be just as strong 10 years down the road.”

To fill the cell with fuel, there are a variety of options, but Torvik said Fuel Safe can adapt the tank to accept the typical OEM method of filling the tanks. To convert an OEM fuel tank for a 2004 Chevrolet Corvette costs roughly $2,500 to $3,000 per tank.

Would Have Additional Safety Equipment Mattered?

Some questioned if anything more could have reasonably done on Petronis’ part. Torvik provided his perspective.

“The idea of every safety device is to mitigate injury and increase the chances of survival in a catastrophic crash,” Torvik said. “There is no safety device that will save you in every crash scenario, but your likelihood of survival is drastically improved, and your risk of serious injury is much lower in many instances because of the safety devices that are recommended for auto racing.”

Others thought a FIA-certified fuel cell wouldn’t have held up in an impact such as the one that Petronis endured. They argued that oval-track racers, who commonly use fuel cells, never crash into narrow, stationary objects with the force that Petronis encountered.

“There are many circle tracks around the country with light poles, concrete dividers, and post-style barriers that can be easily impacted from the side,” said Torvik. “It is likely more common for an impact with a fixed, narrow object at a circle-track event than a road-race event.”

Torvik then explained out how fuel cells fail.

“Impact is rarely the cause of a fuel cell failure — typically something else [comes to] play, whether it’s an old or expired bladder, or something piercing or puncturing the fuel cell,” Torvik said. “Regardless, a rigid OEM tank will not absorb the energy for the impact or have the ability to distort and conform like a fuel cell. In the event of a fuel cell failure, the foam helps prevent the fuel from atomizing, providing exposition mitigation.”

The remnants of the Corvette that Mark Petronis had raced.

Saving the Life of Mark Petronis

They airlifted Mark Petronis to the Nathan Speare Regional Burn Treatment Center at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, one of the best burn centers in the country, located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“The doctors didn’t know if I was going to survive when they brought me in,” said Petronis. “They wouldn’t tell my wife that I was going to live until I’d spent about seven days there and officially turned the corner.”

They scanned Petronis from head to toe. Fortunately, he did not injure his organs, damage his brain (although, he may have sustained a concussion), nor break any bones. However, Petronis suffered third-degree burns on 35% of his body. His right elbow and right hand incurred fourth-degree burns. As he fought to heal from his injuries, they intubated a heavily sedated Petronis for three weeks.

“If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Rush,’ where they had to pump all the fluid out of Niki Lauda’s lungs, they had to do that to me on a regular basis,” Petronis said. “I was not with it. I don’t recall any pain, but I had five weeks of oddly vivid nightmares. Bits of reality would pop into these nightmares.”

After they removed his breathing tube, it took some time for Petronis to return to reality.

“It took another two and a half weeks [after removing the breathing tube] before I could hold any meaningful conversation,” said Petronis. “They had me on so many drugs and they were trying to wean me off of them slowly. Of course, I was getting surgeries every three or four days. They tried to keep me as comfortable as possible, which meant I was not quite in a coma, but I was pretty close [to it].”

Finally, over a month after the accident, Mark Petronis started to come to.

“Five to six weeks of fog, haze, and nothingness,” Petronis said, describing his point of view of the initial weeks after the accident. “I remember July 4th. I remember fireworks and being able to speak and hold a conversation.”

A Promise and Setbacks

Throughout his time in the hospital, Petronis’ wife, Katie, was by his side.

“She took a leave of absence from her job to be with me the entire time I was in the burn unit,” said Petronis. “She stayed in a hotel for three months.”

Mark Petronis was in the hospital from May 23 to July 29. Then, they sent him home for a week.

“I hadn’t seen my son, Anders, in two and a half months,” Petronis said. “I was going crazy — I had to come home.”

His son, Anders, was set to celebrate his birthday on August 5. Petronis struggled at home.

“I was feeling really crappy my last three or four days at home, so I came back a day early,” said Petronis. “They found 20% of my graft [on my right hand] was failing. They had to keep me for another couple of weeks and do a couple of more surgeries. I had all sorts of infections the entire time that I had to fight with antibiotics.”

Petronis couldn’t be home for his son’s seventh birthday. However, he did get to celebrate it with him.

“When I woke up in July, I was promising I would be home for [my son’s] birthday on August 5 — and it became clear it wasn’t going to happen,” Petronis said. “By that point, all the nurses and staff at Crozer-Chester Medical Center were like family to us. They found a way to get him into the waiting room and threw him a Harry Potter party. They bought him presents and cake. He was able to be at the hospital for two hours, and I was able to be with him on his birthday, which was really special.”

Mark Petronis Returns to “Normalcy”

At the end of September, Mark Petronis said he was finding his place with the new “normal.” He returned to work part-time, managing his two businesses — Advanced Manufacturing Techniques, which does CNC machining, and AMT Motorsport, which designs and manufactures high-end parts for Corvette racers.

“When I woke up in July, I was like, ‘Holy s–t, how are my businesses functioning without me?’” said Petronis. “My brother, Kevin, took care of things on the motorsports side. Justin Darling, my VP of Operations, kept the wheels on the bus, with the rest of our team forgoing vacations and time off just to make sure all the work was getting done for the CNC-machining side. It was a huge relief that work was one thing I didn’t have to worry about while I was out for four months.”

While Petronis said he’s medically stable, he now works on regaining the mobility of his right arm, elbow, and hand, as well as dealing with the upkeep of donor skin where he had multiple skin graft surgeries.

“Therapy and healing are my full-time jobs at the moment,” Petronis said, “and I try and run the business on the side.”

With all that time spent in the hospital, Petronis said the bills have begun to pile up, but, fortunately, he has insurance.

“We received an astronomical bill for my first nine weeks in the hospital,” said Petronis. “My wife calls the insurance company so much that they know her voice and she has her own rep. They tell us not to be overly concerned about it because the insurance company is slow to figure out these huge cases. But, when you see a bill in the mid-seven figures, it makes it difficult to feel at ease with it.”

Petronis reflected on his months-long ordeal after the fire.

“Just as many things went right for me to have survived as went wrong for me to be there in the first place,” Petronis said. “This incident has forced me to realize that no matter how much preparation you put in — the safety gear you purchase or experience you have — there are still serious inherent risks. Both the track and driver have a responsibility to do everything in their power to minimize that risk, but it remains. In the past, I’ve focused more on my equipment and car, and have not given as much thought to risks associated with the track itself.  I have put my car on tracks that would be considered by many to be less than safe and in the future it’s unlikely you’ll find me at those tracks again, and certainly not racing on them.”

His future racing behind the wheel of a car on a track remains hazy.

“When I first woke up in the hospital, I started watching videos from that race weekend of the fire,” said Petronis. “I was like, ‘I want to get back in a race car immediately!’ I had that attitude for a month, until I went home. When you’re in the hospital, you do not quite understand the scope of what you’re dealing with.

“After I got out the hospital, I realized it’s going to be a long time before my body can sit in a 110-degree race car, because with all these [skin] grafts, you lose the ability to sweat. A third of my body is no longer going to regulate temperature.

“Bigger than that is how my family feels about it. My wife is super cool. She said, ‘This is the greatest passion in your life — I’m not going to be the one to tell you not to do it.’ To have that blessing from my wife, actually put getting back into a race car out of my mind.

“If the time comes that I want to race again, I feel like I can have that conversation. As of this moment, I don’t feel the need to race competitively. I do want to get back into a Corvette and run it on the track. I also want to present my story and experience to fellow racers as well as track day participants. But, wheel-to-wheel racing, that’s not something I’m not going to need to get back into immediately.”

Ultimately, Mark Petronis hopes other racers learn from his experience.

“Be your own advocate,” Petronis said. “Don’t equip yourself to the minimum requirements. If I had the minimum, I probably would have died. Use the higher end gear, with better fire ratings. It was equipment I could wear because I was comfortable, even though it was really hot out. I didn’t have to strip anything down. Equip yourself for the worst thing that could possibly happen, and hope that you never have to put your gear to the ultimate test.”

Sources

Alpinestars
Torrance, California
800-409-0903
alpinestars.com

AMT Motorsport
Clifton Park, New York
518-877-8560
amtmotorsport.com

Brown & Miller Racing Solutions
Concord, North Carolina
704-793-4319
bmrs.net

Fresh Air Systems Technologies (FAST)
Des Plaines, Illinois
847-255-9200
freshairsystems.com

Fuel Safe Systems
Redmond, Oregon
800-433-6524
fuelsafe.com

Motor Sport Race Gear
North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia
+61 404-007-768
msrg.com.au

SPA Technique
Indianapolis, Indiana
317-271-7941
spatechnique.com

J.A. Ackley

The Rock the Curb Executive Editor has covered motorsports since 2000. His many awards include the 2019 Eastern Motorsport Press Association (EMPA) Jim Hunter Writer of the Year and the 2013 Russ Catlin Award for Excellence in Motorsports Journalism.