By David G. Firestone
When Glenn “Fireball” Roberts was elected to the NASCAR Hall-Of-Fame on May 22, I felt the need to do this article. Fireball’s racing career was a Hall of Fame worthy, no one can argue that, but it was the wreck that led to his death that has had the most lasting effect. His election to the Hall-Of-Fame came 2 days shy of the 49th anniversary of the 1964 World 600. During that race, he was involved in a wreck on the 7th lap, and suffered an 80% body burn. While fire protection was mandatory in NASCAR, and many other racing groups, the way this was accomplished was by taking a pair of cotton coveralls, and dipping them into chemicals, which made them fireproof, but were uncomfortable to wear. Roberts was asthmatic, and the chemicals were aggravating his asthma. So he had a doctor’s note stating as such, and was not wearing any fire protection for that tragic event.
6 days later, on May 30, the 48th Indianapolis 500 was held. On lap 2, Dave MacDonald spun and crashed, which ignited a huge fire, due to the car being badly designed, poorly built, and having a large amount of fuel on board. Eddie Sachs was involved, and was killed due to blunt force trauma. Bobby Unser was burned, as was Robbie Dunman. Dave MacDonald had his lungs scorched by the flames, and was very badly burned, and passed away later in the day.
These two tragic events would, in the long run, have a very bright silver lining. Shortly after these took place, the safety culture of racing improved with the introduction of Nomex. Nomex offered better comfort and fire protection. There were Nomex suits being used in racing, though at that time they were experimental. After those 6 days in May of 1964, Nomex became, and still is the standard for racing suits. SFI was founded thereafter in order to make sure that the suits are up to par, and are safe. The proof that these suits are safe is the fact that other than the addition of extra layers and some cosmetic design changes, the suits remain largely the same.
Interestingly, the driver suit changes were not the only safety changes made after that incident. The cars themselves got a makeover. USAC, in charge of the Indy 500 at the time, mandated that the Indy cars had a new fuel cell design added to them. This fuel cel, which was used in military helicopters at the time, was designed to help prevent a huge explosion in a wreck. In addition, the standard fuel in Indy car was changed to methanol, instead of gasoline. On the NASCAR side, changes were slower to come, but they did come, and now races are much safer.
The major lesson here is that safety is evolutionary and that these accidents, as tragic as they are, all have lessons to be learned. With the 6 days in ’64, it was that fire protection needs to be a forefront of racing safety. With the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster, which saw one driver and 83 spectators killed, and another 120 injured the lesson was that spectator safety should be a very serious consideration in track design. With Ayrton Senna’s and Roland Ratzenberger’s deaths in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the lesson was that car design needs to be more safety focused than what it was. With Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, The lesson is that sanctioning bodies in racing should be proactive with safety instead of reactive. These lessons have all been learned, and driver safety has been improved, but as has been said many times after these incidents, you can never take the risk of death out of racing.