A few Saturdays ago, Joyce Ford sat inside the pit bleachers at Antioch Speedway, watching the sprinter cars zoom past her, spitting up rainbows of dirt from their wheels. Midway through the race, one of the speed machines suddenly puttered out along the straightaway and coasted to a standstill. Its driver, mindful of the thirty gallons of alcohol-based fuel attached to the ass of the car, was about to cut the ignition.
"Then I heard him comin', like a bat out of hell," Joyce recalls. "I don't even think he saw the yellow flag."
The other driver didn't see the yellow flag. He was racing, maneuvering around other cars, and didn't have time to stop. Before he knew it, he'd hit the stalled car.
Inside the motionless sprinter sat Brandi Ford, Joyce's teenage daughter.
Witnesses say the sonic boom from the crash was followed by a ball of blue flame, and then a Hollywood-like inferno. Yellow and red and orange flames encased the machine.
In the familial community of East County racing, watching Brandi Ford go up in flames was like watching your kid sister catch fire. At nineteen, Brandi is the only female who drives sprinters, the most powerful and squirrelly cars allowed on the track, and therefore the most dangerous. Even though she has yet to win a sprinter race in the three years she has tried, the speedway crowd -- and especially the younger girls -- root for her as if she's kin.
When veteran driver Darrell Hanstead hit Brandi's car, he told the family that he was moving at eighty to ninety mph. Sprinter cars are essentially small metal frames with just enough room for a driver in the middle, an engine at the knees, and a fuel tank pressed against the back. The driver's arms are strapped down inside so if and when a car rolls over -- and the track averages one rollover each Saturday night -- their limbs don't fly out and get crushed. The safety belts are cinched tight as possible. And the steering wheel clips in only after the driver sits down. To exit in a hurry, the driver needs to fiddle with the wheel's safety clip, toss it out, and then jump through the top of the car.
With the flames raging in front of her face and no sight of her daughter, Joyce Ford feared the worst. "I thought I was watching my daughter burn up and die right before my eyes," she says.
Inside the car, Brandi heard the roar of Hanstead's engine, so she braced herself -- and took the hit. A safety neck brace cushioned the blow to her spine. Then it got really hot.
Brandi looked down and saw the flames enter through the floorboards and climb quickly up her legs. Her fire-retardant suit helped, but she was still strapped in tight, and the steering wheel was now pressed against her chest. People at the track estimate Brandi was inside the fire for between ten and thirteen seconds.
"Get out," was Brandi's first thought. "Now."
Her mother has stories about Brandi wanting to race since the girl was two years old. Bikes, go-carts, horses -- anything. Joyce and husband John moved to East County from Texas forty years ago, and he helped build the popular motocross track in Byron.
Joyce began riding motocross with John, and won some trophies of her own. She also is a former Mini Truck racing champ at the Antioch track, where Brandi has been hanging around since she was a kid. Brandi was so anxious to get behind the wheel, Joyce confesses, that yes, she fudged her daughter's birth certificate to get her on the track by the time she was thirteen.
Mother and daughter started racing street stock cars together in 1999. The shared hobby might be considered a bonding experience if racing weren't so ingrained in the Fords' bloodline. Really, did young Barry Bonds ever realize that most kids didn't grow up playing catch with Willie Mays? But somewhere along the line, Brandi graduated from street stock and moved onto the more thrilling sprinters, leaving mom behind.
"I have the drive," Joyce says now, by right of maternal comparison. "But she has the natural ability."
The safety belts over Brandi's shoulders began melting, and a strap of Velcro across her neck seethed into her skin. She could see the car collapsing under the heat. The flames ran up her suit, looking for a piece of flesh to grab onto, and found it at her chin. That's when Brandi's mouth got hot and her face all but boiled, so she closed her mouth and held her breath.
Now the faceguard on her helmet began to melt, making it difficult to see. She wiggled her arms free from the straps, felt around for the safety belts, and unhooked them. The belts were turning to goo.
The next object to get past was the steering wheel. Men who race sprinters say there's no way they could get out of the tiny car without unlatching the wheel. And under dire moments such as these, unclipping the wheel is as mind-bending and nerve-racking as finding the right key for your front door when an attacker is running up the porch steps behind you.
So Brandi said the hell with it. She just squeezed past the wheel and sprang out of the top like a Roman candle. Call it a surge of adrenaline, a flush of life-or-death super strength, a jolt of survivor's instinct -- call it what you want, but she simply explains, "I just had to get out."
When she did, her suit was still ablaze, but she dropped and rolled until the flames were snuffed out. She took off her helmet, and her eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, and her ponytail was singed into a tight knot of dead hair. Her face felt like it was still on fire. Paramedics rushed to her.
"When I pushed my way through the crowd to get to her," Joyce says, "I seen her laying her head down, and she was all right. She was breathing. I thought, 'My daughter's alive, my daughter's alive.'"
"I knew the sprinters roll; that happens all the time," Joyce says of the vehicles, between whiffs of her cigarette. "But my biggest, biggest fear was her gettin' hit in the back. They're scary."
"No, they're not," Brandi interjects from her spot on the couch. Brandi suffered third-degree burns on her chin, and milder second-degree burns on much of her face. She has to perform facial scrubs every six hours. She says she wants to take her melted car around to her young fans and show them the importance of safety suits and proper wares.
"Yes they are scary," mom says.
"No they're not," comes the response.
After the accident, Brandi refused to get in the ambulance. This was an act that didn't confuse her family and friends, so much as confirm their belief that she may be the toughest-minded teenager they know. She wanted to return to racing this weekend, but the burn doctors told her dust and dirt particles would infect her skin.
"She wouldn't even let me drive her to the hospital," Joyce says. "She's holding up four or five ice packs on her face, driving to the hospital, and I'm sitting there in the front seat of her truck, thinking, 'She won't even let me drive her to the hospital!'"
Joyce looks at her daughter once more and shakes her head. "This one, she's got a good head on her shoulders. To think, she didn't even panic. Most teenagers would've freaked out if they were in that situation. ... Hell, I would've freaked out!"
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