Constructed in 1958 in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains just outside Denver, Colorado, the Bandimere Speedway has been a part of the NHRA national event tour for 40 years. Situated 5,800-feet above sea level, you won’t find Bandimere in many performance record books, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been the site of some memorable moments — some good and some, in this case, remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Thirty years ago this week, the NHRA marked its return to Bandimere following a one-year hiatus while the facility underwent a $4.2 million facelift. Among those in the pit area was a young Don Gay, Jr., whose father, Don, Sr. had been a notable Stock Eliminator and early Funny Car competitor in the 1960s. The second-generation Gay had competed previously in Competition Eliminator and in Top Alcohol Funny Car, where he’d won three times before stepping up to the nitro ranks in 1989.
The then-20-year-old Gay, Jr. was making just his second start in a fuel Funny Car at Bandimere and was paired up with legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme during the final session of qualifying. With minimal experience in a vehicle of this caliber under his belt, Gay, Jr. made what nearly became a fatal mistake when his car lost traction early in the run. In his attempts to overcome the tirespin, his Pontiac Trans Am slapped the guardrail, knocking him unconscious and rendering his car a virtual runaway.
With the headers mashed against the fiberglass bodywork and the engine still running, the build-up of heat ignited the Pontiac body and quickly turned it into a raging inferno. The Safety Safari, unaware that Gay, Jr. was no longer in control of the car, passed and subsequently had to chase the burning car down, losing precious time to douse the flames.
In a still-frightening scene all these years later, the fire bottles in the nose of the chassis, which were never released by Gay, Jr., came under increasing pressure from the heat of the fire and erupted like a pair of bombs — thankfully doing so before the Safety Safari could return to the scene.
In a heroic move, Prudhomme, still clad in his fire suit and helmet, climbed from his machine and dove into what remained of the burning Pontiac, assisting the Safety Safari in removing Gay, Jr. from the chassis.
The effort that followed to save the young drivers’ life was so profound that it captured the attention of the producers of CBS’ then-new reality TV series Rescue 911, hosted by William Shatner. The footage captured at the scene went far closer to the pandemonium than what was shown on the Diamond P coverage, capturing in great detail the Safety Safari’s race against time to bring Gay, Jr. back from respiratory failure and smoke inhalation.
Gay, Jr. who suffered burns to his back from the sweat in his fire suit literally boiling, eventually made a complete recovery, but despite his young age and continued desire to compete, he never raced again. His brother, Shane Gay, later raced in Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster.
Prior to Don, Jr.’s career-ending accident, the Gay family had teamed with the Angel brothers to found the Houston Raceway Park, another of the new super-tracks of the sport along with the all-new Bandimere facility. The Gay family remained involved at the Houston track until the early 2000s.
Don Gay, Jr.’s crash and subsequent fire are often considered to be the defining moment when Prudhomme and fellow Funny Car racer Kenny Bernstein both made their decision to switch to Top Fuel in 1990.
The day Don Gay, Jr. tried to burn down the Bandimere family’s brand new track isn’t likely to be celebrated at this weekend’s 40th anniversary of the Mile-High Nationals, but to this day it remains one of the most memorable scenes in the history of the event.