ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Jason Bolles and Nick Bentz were within 9 miles of their final destination when something went badly wrong.
The two Andretti Autosport truck drivers had shared the drive from the team’s race shop on the northwest side of Indianapolis to the Florida Gulf Coast.
After driving all day and all night, the team was on the homestretch of delivering Colton Herta’s No. 88 Honda and all of its pit equipment to the IndyCar paddock area on the streets of St. Petersburg — the site of Sunday’s IndyCar season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It was shortly after 2 a.m. ET when they were crossing the long I-275 bridge with Tampa to the east and St. Petersburg to the west.
That is when trouble struck in transit to the race.
“We noticed it at the same time and started looking out of our mirrors,” Bentz told NBCSports.com. “Jason said he saw sparks. I looked out the passenger side and saw smoke, so we pulled over.
“If we had been on the bridge, the fire department would have had to take a loop that would have taken 15 extra minutes to get around. That would have been the difference to have a car or not.”
Bolles, who has been driving big rigs for 28 years, was the driver at the time and recalled the moment that quickly turned an uneventful drive into time to spring into action.
“We were coming across the bridge and it sounded like a tire blew,” Bolles told NBCSports.com. “I looked in my mirror and slowed down. We tried to get over after the bridge because there was no room on the bridge. I looked in the mirror, and more sparks were coming. The truck in front of, the 28 truck, stopped with us. They saw it was fire. We got out the extinguishers and tried to put it as best we could.”
When the flames erupted, they unhooked the tractor and called the fire department.
“I’ve had things like this happen over the years, things you have to think about,” Bolles recalled. “It wasn’t panic at first until the flames really got bigger. We had to decide to try to put the fire out or save something. So, we unhooked the truck.
“We got the fire to die down some at a couple of points, then it flamed up again.
“It took 10 minutes for the fire department to arrive. That was 10 long minutes.”
Paul “Ziggy” Harcus is IndyCar team manager at Andretti Autosport. He was asleep at his home in Indianapolis when the phone rang. It was at such a ridiculously early hour of the day that Harcus rolled over and went back to sleep.
“My phone was going off at 2:50 this morning,” Harcus told NBCSports.com. “I slept through that. I woke up this morning at 6 a.m. and saw the message, and I thought, ‘Oh my.’
“It’s not a good way to start the season, especially when I thought the boys had done such a good job of getting everything ready.”
Just 9 miles separated Herta’s transporter and the end of its long journey from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg.
Just as a race driver can be leading a race, only to crash or have a mechanical failure on the final lap, that’s what happened to Herta’s transporter.
“You look at it as being just 9 miles away, but if it was going to happen, it would have happened somewhere else,” Harcus said. “If it had happened on that bridge 5 miles before that, we would have lost the whole truck, the race car and everything. We were blessed the fire trucks could get there as close as they did and as quick as they did. We got out of it better than it could have been.”
“The boys had stopped and got the cars washed. They were coming down and saw in the mirror, pulled over and jumped into action. They did a hell of a job to get up there, call the fire department, get the tractor disconnected and get all of the stuff out. Good job by the boys.”
The cause of the fire was a wheel bearing that locked up, according to Harcus. According to another team’s truck driver, there are two types of wheel bearings used on the haulers that transport freight across the country. One is called an “oil-soaked” bearing, which pumps oil through the bearings to provide lubrication. The other is a “greased bearing” that used packed grease to lubricate the bearing.
When a transporter carrying the Indy cars for Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe caught fire and burned to the ground on Interstate 80 west of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on its way to Sonoma Raceway on Aug. 16, 2008, that transporter had “oil-soaked” bearings.
The fire was so bad because it was in such a desolate area, that the nearest fire department was more than 100 miles away. The transporter in that fire was completely burned, along with most of the equipment inside.
After that incident, Team Penske changed its wheel bearings to “greased” on its fleet of transporters.
Team Penske was able to salvage the two race cars from that fire. Andretti Autosport was able to do the same with Herta’s No. 88 Honda.
The transporter that caught fire was one that was acquired from the old Harding Steinbrenner Racing team after it merged with Andretti Autosport at the end of last season.
With the pit equipment damaged by the fire, Andretti Autosport is transporting the timing stand for James Hinchcliffe’s No. 6 Honda that will compete in three races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500, this season.
“We have another truck on the way now with Hinch’s No. 29 car timing stand,” Harcus said. “The rest of the stuff is workable. We’ve got the car apart now. We’ll have to rewrap it for this weekend. The guys have the car apart and will look at it and start it up tonight to make sure everything is OK there. It got a hell of a lot of smoke damage from the fire. Everything seems to look OK; it’s just smoke damage.
“The timing stand is critical for what we do, and it burned the top of that. We think the electronics on the bottom may be salvageable. We thought it would be better to bring another one down and make sure we were ready, then be behind the eight-ball. The lockers that have the crew uniforms got burned, but it could have been worse.
“Saving the car was make or break for us. To start off with a car that just has smoke damage. There was quite a bit of water sprayed on it. There is nothing burned. It’s all smoke damage and something we can handle.
“We still have a car that I believe can win the race.”
A few feet away from Harcus, crewmembers were working on Herta’s Honda. They were cleaning it up from smoke damage and checking for potential water damage.
“I don’t think it is as bad as it could have been,” Nick Allen, the chief mechanic for Herta, told NBCSports.com. “It’s more smoke damage than anything. When the firefighters were there, they completely coated the upstairs in water because that is what they needed to do. We have a little bit of water damage and smoke damage, but it could have been a lot worse.
“Almost everything can be cleaned.”
Wednesday morning, Herta called Allen to try to see what he could do. According to Allen, everyone was in problem-solving mode.
It’s the @FollowAndretti @ColtonHerta crew working on the @HondaRacing_HPD No. 88 after the transporter fire en route to @FirestoneGP @IndyCaronNBC @BruceMartin_500 video pic.twitter.com/8HRMOflbYb
— Bruce Martin (@BruceMartin_500) March 11, 2020
“I don’t think anybody has had time to process this,” Allen said. “It’s just react.
“We’ll be here until 11 p.m. or midnight. We’ll have setup day on Thursday and can finish everything up.”
Allen found out about the incident at 5:30 a.m. Andretti Autosport sent additional crew members from Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 team along with a data acquisition engineer, to survey the damage. That group boarded an Allegiant Airlines flight Wednesday morning.
“They came straight down to make sure we still have a game plan and get the message back to the boys in the shop,” Harcus said. “I still think we can win the race. I have to make sure we get ahead of it tomorrow so when we start the weekend, we’re not behind the eight ball.
“We have the sixth car (Hinchcliffe’s No. 29) that we want to work on right now. It’s on its way down here if we need it. The good part of a big team is we have a lot of equipment and a lot of people.
“Whenever it turns to hell, everybody jumps in. It’s a good advantage.”
As a group of Andretti Autosport crewmembers were working on Herta’s car, a member of a smaller IndyCar team came over to check out the situation and offer any help that he could.
He also had a stark revelation.
“We would have been screwed if that had happened to us,” he said