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James Davison
James Davison in Indy 500 practice. (Photo Credit: Joe Skibinski/Courtesy of IndyCar.)

James Davison: Why Did His Indy 500 Go Up In Flames?

The 2020 Indy 500 contained a whole array of surprises and wild crashes—but the most shocking incident was James Davison having an exploding wheel that sent the rest of his car up in flames. But what caused such a massive scene just five laps into the race?

The No. 51 Honda clipped the SAFER barrier, and because it wasn’t a massive hit, James Davison attempted to limp back into the pits. What happened next was immortalized on the TV broadcast, but many fans are still trying to find out what exactly caused it. In the days after the race more details have begun to emerge.

IndyCar’s wheel housing system is made of a magnesium alloy. While magnesium itself is highly combustible, it isn’t a spontaneous combustion, and racing wheels are designed so that they don’t light on fire of their own accord just because they get warm. If that wasn’t the case, we’d see many more tire fires.

As the event was replayed, NBC’s commentators surmised that this fire was likely due to a hot brake rotor. According to Davison, the brakes were “stuck” and grew hot enough to start a fire. 

In looking at the contact that preceded the inferno, it’s likely that the No, 51’s brush with the wall caused a level of friction that the wheels aren’t designed to accommodate. Friction causes heat, and as we all know, too much heat causes fire. Davison’s “stuck” brakes could have been a result of that contact, and all the stress led to a pop.

Slow motion replays show debris launching out of the inside of the tire, which had many people speculating that the brake rotor itself blew up due to all the heat and tension. James Davison later confirmed on Twitter that the master cylinder blew up and that the heat was “up to thousands of degrees.”

It’s a seriously strange incident, considering the fact that IndyCar does a great job preventing mechanical failures. Knowing the series, a stuck brake as the result of a little contact is something that’s going to be looked into and remedied, if possible. 

But the strangeness of the situation was best summed up by James Davison himself in his post-crash interview: “It’s still 2020.”

The 2020 IndyCar season continues with the Bommarito Automotive Group 250s at Gateway on Saturday and Sunday, August 29 and 30. Both races air at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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About Elizabeth Blackstock

Elizabeth Blackstock
Elizabeth Blackstock is lead IndyCar writer for Frontstretch, a freelance journalist, and a novelist. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing a dual MFA/MA degree at Arcadia University. She is in love with her car, a 2013 Mazda 2.
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