Mark Story

He went to Kentucky Speedway to watch NASCAR — but it was his car that was on fire

A fire that started in the cab of the white pickup (center) at last year’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway spread to Tom Schlotman’s silver Nissan Maxima, left, totaling the car. It was Schlotman’s first NASCAR race. “Very surreal. Very surreal,” he says, “but memorable.”
A fire that started in the cab of the white pickup (center) at last year’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway spread to Tom Schlotman’s silver Nissan Maxima, left, totaling the car. It was Schlotman’s first NASCAR race. “Very surreal. Very surreal,” he says, “but memorable.” NBC Sports

Inside a Kentucky Speedway hospitality suite at the 2016 Quaker State 400, Tom Schlotman watched as black smoke rolled over the top of the grandstands from the direction of the parking lots.

Turning to his son-in-law, Jeremy Smith, Schlotman asked, “What burns black like that?”

Petroleum-based products, like rubber and car parts, came the reply.

Just then, an emergency sensor on Schlotman’s car fob started vibrating.

Looking at his daughters, Whitney and Molly, Schlotman said, “I think it’s my car that is on fire.”

Oh, c’mon, Dad, you know it’s not your car.

The 2016 Quaker State 400 last July 9 was the first NASCAR race Tom Schlotman, 61, had ever seen in person.

For years, the Cincinnati salesman had watched races on TV. So, as a Father’s Day gift last year, his family bought him tickets to see Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick and Co. trade paint at Kentucky Speedway.

It got better. When Schlotman told his brother, Michael, he would be attending his first race at Kentucky Speedway, Michael Schlotman — the chief financial officer for The Kroger Co. — said he would “make a few calls.”

That’s how Tom Schlotman came to have suite tickets and an upgrade to park his 2014 silver Nissan Maxima in a premium lot.

When Schlotman and his family pulled in the Speedway grounds, he parked behind a white pickup truck with a large grill in the back.

“I looked at that grill, and I thought, ‘They’re gonna plop that thing down right in front of my car, and that could be trouble,” Schlotman said.

So, fatefully, Schlotman cajoled a Kentucky Speedway parking attendant to let him pull up and park beside the white pickup instead.

Once the race started, Schlotman marveled at how much faster NASCAR racing seems in person than on TV. “It’s amazing how different it is when you are there,” he said.

Before the 267-lap race was even a third over, however, that black smoke came billowing over the grandstands.

Try as he might to reset it, Schlotman could not get the emergency sensor in his car fob to stop beeping.

“I finally just told my family, ‘I’ve got to walk out there and check on the car,’” he said.

Long before he reached the Maxima, Schlotman knew in his gut what he was going to find. “I asked a guy what car was on fire, and he said it was a black Maxima,” Schlotman recalled. “I said, ‘Well, it was gray when we drove it in here.’”

In real time, social media was aflame with speculation that the grill in back of that white pickup — the one which had worried Schlotman — had gotten too hot and ignited the fire.

However, the grill was innocent. As Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger explained to the Herald-Leader that night, the fire had actually started in the cab of the white truck — after an occupant fell asleep inside.

Speedway first responders pulled the man from the cab and he did not suffer serious injury.

“In the police report, it said the guy fell asleep with his cell phone charging and it overheated the console and the fire started,” Schlotman said.

Given that an unrestrained fire had broken out in a parking lot filled with thousands of vehicles, it was fairly amazing that only three were damaged.

The white truck where the fire started took the worst of it. The two vehicles parked on either side also were damaged. A red truck to the right was singed. The silver car to the left — Schlotman’s 2014 Maxima that he said had some 65,000 miles on its odometer — was totaled.

Suddenly, Schlotman had an unanticipated concern: How to get home to Cincinnati from Sparta — which pretty much defines “out in the middle of nowhere.”

He turned for help to the company, Race Management Systems, in whose suite he was watching the race. RMS had a connection with the team of Cup Series driver AJ Almendinger.

“They radioed down to the pits, explained the situation, and (the team) said there would be a car available to us when we needed it,” Schlotman said.

Many laps before Brad Keselowski claimed the checkered flag of the Quaker State 400 for a third time, Schlotman and family had departed Kentucky Speedway, leaving their burnt car behind.

For reasons of life perspective, Schlotman did not go home mad.

In 2012, his wife of 34 years, Susan, died from bladder cancer. “She was diagnosed and, four months later, she was gone,” Schlotman said.

Once you’ve lived through that, losing a car is not even a blip.

The story of Tom Schlotman’s burnt car has a happy ending. Kentucky Speedway footed the bill to have the Maxima towed. Car insurance paid for Schlotman’s new ride, a Toyota Avalon.

This year, Kentucky Speedway’s Simendinger called to invite Schlotman to sit in the general manager’s box for the 2017 Quaker State 400.

“I would have loved it,” Schlotman said. “I think being there as ‘the guy whose car burned,’ people would have made a lot over me. It would have been fun.”

Alas, attending the wedding of a family friend will keep Schlotman away. Said Simendinger: “I am definitely going to have him in my box for a race some time.”

Until then, Schlotman has the memory of his first NASCAR race — when his car, not that of race winner Keselowski, was the night’s true “hot rod.”

“Surreal. Very surreal,” Tom Schlotman said. “But memorable.”


Quaker State 400

7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kentucky Speedway (NBC Sports)