At the helm

by Dave Helms


Fire Control


It was in the late 70’s, when I first walked into a small shop in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis Mn. and set my eyes upon the first 250GTO #3223, and Oliver Gendebiens legendary 0677GT Ferrari Tdf.  Speaking with the owner, he told me that they were scrambling to get them ready for a Vintage race at Road America  coming up in a few weeks.  I was beyond words thinking that someone would actually put these cars on the race track and risk the unspeakable.  When I finally worked up the nerve to ask how he could do it, I was told something that has stuck with me for all the years since then.

The gentleman was Dr. Robert Bodin, and his words of wisdom were, “There are only 2 things that can take these cars away from me, Fire and Theft.  Theft you can prevent by simple common sense, but fire is what really scares me”.  “If a collision happens on a race track it is simply part of the history of a race car. With the value of these cars justifying building new body parts to repair crash damage, relates to a fraction of the value of the car. BUT fire….

Back then any old fire extinguisher mounted in the car met the required safety rules.  A great deal of research led me to Halon as the fire extinguisher to install in these cars.  Halon is a clear liquid that turns to a gas when released from the extinguisher, and displaces all the oxygen thus putting the fire out.  One of the greatest benefits of Halon is there is no clean up, it simply evaporates and leaves no residue behind.  Halon was designed for use in the electronics industry and instantly became required equipment on all commercial aircraft as well as military applications.  The second and least expensive alternative to Halon is the Dry Chemical type of agents.  The problem with these is clean up of the very fine powder, and the fact that it becomes very corrosive when moisture contacts it.  To make Dry Chemical agents more effective the manufactures mix in a silicone that makes the powder somewhat water repellant. Clean up requires washing with a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water to break down the silicone, and a mixture of vinegar and water to neutralize the sodium and potassium bicarbonates found in the Dry Chemical mixtures.  This said, which sounds like the more “user friendly” one to have in your car?


Halon 1211 and 1301 was phased out a few years back because it was found to contain CFC’s that were causing havoc with the ozone.  Environmentally friendly alternatives soon became available, the most common being known as Halotron.


The last two decisions to be made are size and style.  I have found the 2 ½# size to be acceptable for most street car applications.  This size also meets most sanctioning bodies minimum specs. for racetrack use.  When any modifications are made to the car such as multiple point seat belts, a roll cage or other performance enhancing modifications the 5# bottle should be considered. 


The hand held type of fire extinguisher is by far the most common found, but a great deal of time should be spent regarding the mounting of these.  Plastic mounts and straps should be avoided at all costs!  Metal mounts, secured to a very solid area with in reach of the driver is a must.  In the event of an accident the last thing that you want to worry about is a loose missile flying around in the car!  The ultimate in fire suppression systems is the on board, hard mounted system.  These usually consist of a 5 or 10# bottle mounted in a safe, secure out of site spot in the trunk.  They are activated by a push or pull handle in the passenger compartment, or an electrical switch mounted in or under the dash.  The Halotron is then plumbed to various areas via ¼” aluminum tubing.  The most common installation has one nozzle pointed at the fuel tank, one or two in the passenger compartment, and 2 or 3 in the engine compartment.  A simple push of a switch, or a pull of a handle covers all of the potential problem areas with the Halotron gas, all at once.  This “on-board fire system” is commonplace for all serious racing applications, and became standard equipment on the 250GTO, 250TR, Tdf and SWB Brelinetta’s that we ran on the racetrack.


Since that day when I first saw those cars sitting in that little shop, I have installed on board systems in most every vintage Ferrari that we restored.  The cost of these systems has dropped to the point that every Ferrari owner should at minimum research this option for their personal car.  If done properly and neatly, these increase the value of the Ferrari they are installed in far in excess of the cost of the system.



-- Dave Helms --