Do you remember that scene in Talladega Nights when Rick Bobby thinks he’s on fire, but no one seems to believe him? That’s exactly what happened to Rick Mears during the 1981 Indy 500! It was lap 58, with Mears entering the pits for refueling and a tire change when the fuel hose started spewing methanol onto Mears’ car and the mechanics. Next thing you know, everyone in the pit lane could be seen jumping around frantically, trying to escape the heat coming from the car, but no one could understand what was even going on. Why could no one see the flames?

The answer was simple: methanol. The alcohol-based fuel was used in place of gasoline because it burned cleaner, cooler, and for longer while also being cheaper! But the downside? Methanol burns with a light blue flame, which is only visible at night, making it nearly impossible to detect an ethanol or methanol fire in broad daylight with the naked eye. Unfortunately for Mears, that was precisely the situation he found himself in, and the chaos that ensued could only be described as harrowing by those unfortunate enough to have witnessed it.

What was so dangerous about the 1981 Indy 500 incident that it made Rick Mears ‘quit breathing’?


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In a video shared by Indianapolis Motor Speedway on YouTube, the Rocketman relived those nightmarish 30 seconds in the pit lane. Once the fuel had spilled into the cockpit and drenched his helmet and suit, Mears immediately understood he had to get the seatbelt undone as quickly as possible. But when he tried to breathe, the methanol fire sent the flames directly into his helmet, causing him to wince as his nose burned.

He shared, “So I quit breathing fortunately, but I didn’t have a breath because I was struggling to get out, and I kind of kept trying to keep my eyes closed so that it wouldn’t burn my eyes. And I got unbuckled, got the wheel loose, I don’t remember now what all the scenario was, but you know ended up working my way out”. 

Rick Mears was being assisted by marshalls with his helmet and suit, but the problem was, they didn’t know he was on fire! So as soon as anyone got near Mears, they would meet a similar fate, with the invisible fire spreading onto them. Whilst Mears had made his escape from the burning car, the fact that he was still on fire remained unknown to most present as they tried to fight the flames engulfing the car which were visible unlike on his racing suit.

Naturally, as the marshals sprayed down his car, Mears ran toward the spray to extinguish himself, but it acted as a catalyst for disaster once again, “I kind of re-lit the fuel on the ground as I ran through it, but I remember I closed my eyes again and grabbed the nozzle and stuck it under my helmet, and it quit, so I opened my eyes, and he’s running! I caught him on fire.”

Unfortunately, the fire extinguisher failed to deploy during that instance, leaving Mears frantically screaming for help and jumping around to find something to put the invisible danger out. He shared, “And I start looking around, and I see my dad running around, and he comes running around the corner, and he’s the only one that really knew I was on fire because he knows me and knows I don’t move that fast for anything, so I had to be on fire.”

Mears’ father was well aware that his son was on fire at this point, but he couldn’t get close enough to put the fire out without risking himself, as he was not wearing any fire protection! While his father came to his rescue and eventually put the fire out, Mears concluded, “That was a long 34 seconds.”

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The legend looked visibly distraught, reliving those gruesome moments, but he chimed in to lighten the mood with a joke about how he should have applied what he learned in grade school—to roll on the ground whenever on fire. Oddly enough, that’s exactly what Ricky Bobby did in Talladega Nights!

NASCAR fans choose reel life over real life as Talladega Nights references Mears’ incident


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When a user shared the incident from 1981 on Reddit, the NASCAR community instantly pointed out the similarity of the incident with a joke in the iconic comedy – Talladega Nights. “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” shouted Ricky Bobby after a crash left his car turned upside down.

Pit Crew Engulfed By Invisible Fire (more info in comments)
byu/phthophth inCatastrophicFailure

Another user outright quoted Ricky Bobby, “It must be a reference from this accident. First thing I thought of as well when Ricky Bobby running around shouting for help “Help me Jesus, help me Jewish God, help me Allah… Ahhhh help me Tom Cruise”.

In what can only be described as comedic gold, the marshals are left baffled by Bobby’s hysterical behaviour because there is actually no fire! As another Redditor pointed out, “Just like Talladega nights! (Except for there’s real fire!)”


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Whilst the scene was hilarious in isolation, some users couldn’t help but sympathize with Rick Mears’ real-life ordeal, “I feel bad for imagining the scene in Talladega nights where Ricky thinks he’s on fire”.

Another commended the users for figuring out the connection, “That’s some great trivia. Yeah it is and still today it’s one of my favourite comedy movies.“

Did you think what happened to Ricky Bobby could never happen in real life? That’s exactly what this user found out after watching the 1981 Daytona 500 disaster: “TIL invisible fire can kill me. Great.”, which truly showcased the horrors of an invisible fire. Not that funny in reality, is it? Just ask this Redditor, “Well, that seems like the stuff of nightmares”


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It’s safe to say that motorsport safety has come a long way since Rick Mear’s unfortunate incident as such scenarios become increasingly rarer, but was Talladega Nights somewhat distasteful for making this reference?