BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Two days after a fiery explosion killed a racer at Battle Creek’s Field of Flight Air Show, the victim’s dad said a blown tire caused the crash.
“We have determined that a blown tire started a chain reaction which ruptured a fuel tank causing the devastating fire,” Neal Darnell wrote in an email to News 8.
Darnell Racing Enterprises, a family-owned business based in Missouri, performs on the air show circuit nationwide.
In a 2019 interview on Facebook Live at a Dayton, Ohio air show, Chris Darnell explained how the semi, dubbed Shockwave, operated.
“Shockwave looks like a Peterbilt semi, but it has three afterburner jet engines off a Navy fighter called the T-2 Buckeye,” Chris Darnell said in the 2019 interview.
“Combined horsepower is 36,000 out of all three engines, and it makes 21,000 pounds of thrust. (It) holds the world record for semis at 376 miles per hour… You’ll get to see it at the show multiple times each day, and we’ll actually reach speeds over 350 miles an hour racing planes out on the runway,” said Chris Darnell, who noted he was the only person licensed to drive the jet-powered semi.
“There’s a lot of training going on. You’ve got a lot going on during a run. You stay very busy. It’s definitely a full-time job keeping this one going and, obviously, managing the other trucks as well,” Chris Darnell said in the Facebook Live interview.
Chris Darnell mentioned that a lot of people ask about the truck’s tires.
“They’re actually a steer tire from a regular semi,” he explained. “You just buy a brand-new tire, shave about 30 pounds off of it, get it perfect, so it’s balanced and it doesn’t cause vibration.”
Chris Darnell did not mention the level of danger inherent in racing a jet-propelled semi down an airport runway, but he did talk about the thrill of the ride.
“I call it the ultimate adrenaline rush. If you’re an adrenaline junkie this is for you… I call it an assault of the senses. It’s loud, you can hear this thing seven to eight miles away. It’s hot. We get to be right up close and personal to the crowd,” he said.
Chris Darnell said he grew up in the racing industry.
“I’ve been racing since I was a little kid. (I) was kind of born into it. I got to ride in the Shockwave for a smoke and fire show when I was just seven or eight years old. So, it kind of planted that bug in me. So this is what I wanted to do for a long time,” Chris Darnell said.
On Sunday, the air show paid tribute to Darnell with a missing man formation flyover.
The Thunderbirds aerial performance squadron also added Darnell’s name to its lead plane, where it will remain for the duration of the group’s flight season.
Fans donated to the Darnell family through buckets placed around the air show on Sunday and Monday, and the beverage tent donated all tips as well.
“I think the community has come together greatly, supporting the family, doing whatever we can and honoring (Chris Darnell),” said Suze Gusching, who started volunteering at the air show as an intern in 1988.
“It’s a family. The air show community is a unique industry,” Gusching said.
Clarence Chivers, who’s been volunteering at the air show for 25 years, agreed.
“Chris, he was like a member of the family,” Chivers said.
“All the performers are like family because they come here every year. Chris was synonymous with this event. The kids love him. He was one of the big draws,” Chivers explained.
A group of Battle Creek residents held a vigil near the airfield Monday. Several dozen people gathered at Columbia Avenue and Helmer Road, later walking to the airfield with signs showing their support for the Darnell family.
“This man gave his life giving us a thrill, and we’re taking time out of our holiday to show him and his family that we appreciate him,” explained Andrea Wilkey, who organized the vigil.