By David G. Firestone
Memorial Day is a day to honor the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price keeping our freedoms free. Our servicemen should always be the focal point of Memorial Day. From Saratoga to Afghanistan, from Gettysburg to Vietnam, throughout the history of our country, our soldiers have fought for us, and will always be ready to fight for us. Never forget their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their loved ones.
Memorial Day is also known as one of the most important days in auto racing, with the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Indianapolis 500, and the Coca Cola 600. With the television contracts, and internet coverage, it seems a world away from 1964. 10 days in 1964 would set the ball rolling.
With the current safety culture in auto racing, we take driver safety for granted. Yet recent incidents, such as what happened with Aric Almirola in Kansas, and Sebastien Bourdais at the Indianapolis qualifying spotlight that not every safety system is perfect. Yet the culture of auto racing safety is so much different than it was in 1964. Events over the course of 6 days in May of 1964 changed the culture, cars, and uniforms of auto racing forever. Three deaths in two races over those six days demonstrated that current safety methods were ineffective at best, and 3 talented drivers lost their lives. The 1964 World 600 and the 1964 Indianapolis 500 helped introduce reinforced fuel tanks and Nomex driver suits, among other things. 50 years later, those events are still being felt
The World 600 began in the early afternoon on May 24, 1964. For the first six laps, it was business as usual, but on lap 7, on the backstretch, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett wrecked, and Glenn “Fireball” Roberts swerved to avoid them, and wrecked. He was trapped in the car by the pedals, and his car caught fire. Ned Jarrett ran and pulled Roberts from the car, and paramedics took him to the hospital. 39 days after the wreck, while still in the hospital from his injuries, he died from pneumonia.
NASCAR had rules concerning “fire retardant” uniforms but these were inadequate at best. These uniforms were cotton coveralls traditionally used by workmen that had been dipped in a number of fire retardant materials including Borax. These were not only ineffective, but were extremely uncomfortable to wear. They were known for inflaming the skin, and aggravating asthma. Fireball was not wearing these coveralls during that race, because he had a doctor’s note stating he should not wear them. There is some debate over what the doctor’s note was for, either for asthma or skin hives. It illustrates why these uniforms were not popular, they were so uncomfortable to wear that drivers did not want to wear them.
6 days later, on May 30, the 48th Indianapolis 500 was held. Dave MacDonald started 14th, and Eddie Sachs started 17th when the green flag dropped. MacDonald was racing a car built by racing innovator Mickey Thompson, which by all accounts was badly built and difficult to drive. The first lap led into the second, which saw Dave MacDonald lose control of his car and smash into the inside wall. The fuel tank instantly ignited and the car went across the track, and collected a number of other cars, including Eddie Sachs car, which also exploded on impact. Sachs was killed by the impact, but MacDonald was seriously burned, and his lungs were scorched, the lung damage proved to be fatal.
The writing was on the wall. There needed to be a change in racing uniforms. A material needed to be used that would be either fire resistant, or fire proof. One option was asbestos, which was used in auto racing uniforms, but that led to mesothelioma. In fact, Steve McQueen claimed that the asbestos suits worn for racing gave him his mesothelioma . There seemed to be no effective solution. However, events in Florida would change everything.
Nomex was created in the 1960’s for NASA. Its main use at the time was for the Apollo Command Module parachutes. NASA needed a material that could stand up to the heat of reentering the earth’s atmosphere, and still remain fully functional. While parachutes were a good use for Nomex, it soon became clear that this new fire retardant cloth had many more uses. It was also used in space suits, and eventually found its way into the public, being used for fire fighters, cooking gloves, and race car uniforms.
Depending on who you ask, Bill Simpson is credited with introducing Nomex to driver suits. The story goes that Simpson started making Nomex suits after learning about the material from astronaut Pete Conrad while Simpson was working as a consultant for NASA. One of the pivotal moments in the history of the suit was when Simpson had heard that a competitor had been badmouthing his products, and so, in something he said later was “the dumbest thing I have ever done,” challenged the competitor to a “burn off.” Simpson put on his suit and lit himself on fire.
Why did it take so long to make critical changes to driver uniforms? The events that took place in 1964 were tragic, and it clearly illustrated why the old system didn’t work. The only change made immediately after the events was the rule that fire retardant suits were now mandatory, regardless of how it made the driver feel. In today’s sports safety culture, there would be focus groups, meetings within the sanctioning body, and changes within a few months after the event. But by 1964 standards, just rigidly enforcing the rule was the best course of action, even if said materials either didn’t exist or weren’t publicly available at the time.
Remember that in 1964 race car drivers were seen as somewhat expendable. Driver deaths in racing were stunningly common back then. As such, while there was a need for improvement, it was not a priority for sanctioning bodies. The sad fact is that back then, driver deaths were part of the allure of racing. People would go to these events and hope to see a fatal crash, as crass as that sounds. As for the suits themselves, the only other options besides chemical dipped cotton were asbestos suits, aluminized cotton or aluminized Kevlar, which was not more comfortable, as it was like wearing aluminum foil.
There were a handful of drivers wearing Nomex suits in 1966. However, these were in more of a research and development aspect. Yes we have this new wonder material, yes it’s better than everything we have now, but will it work in a real-world situation? That was the question that existed in 1966. Competition Press reported that “During the past season, experimental driving suits were worn by Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory, Marvin Panch and Group 44’s Bob Tullius; these four representing a fairly good cross section in the sport. The goal was to get use-test information on the comfort and laundering characteristics of Nomex. The Chrysler-Plymouth team at the recent Motor Trend 500 at Riverside also wore these suits.” The test was a success.
With the success of 1966, in 1967, Nomex suits were unleashed on auto racing. While more expensive, the suits were safer than anything ever seen in auto racing up to that point. The early suits seem primitive compared to the 3-layer breathable suits worn today, but even the most important uniform advancement in the history of auto racing needed a humble start. 50 years after Nomex was unleashed on auto racing, it still the best material for auto racing uniforms. It says a lot about a material, when nothing better comes along to replace it for 50 years.
Sadly, while Nomex was one of the greatest innovations in auto racing safety, it wasn’t enough. There were many other advancements, from new car design, to the HANS Device, to SAFER Barriers that has led to auto racing being as safe as it is today. The culture of the sport has changed to put safety at the top of concerns. Drivers are no longer expendable, they are the focal point of all safety changes.
For 50 years, Nomex has been the best and most reliable material for firesuits, and I can only hope that another material comes along that is more comfortable and fire resistant than Nomex. If there is such a material, and it makes it way to auto racing, the sport will only get safer. Here’s to a good Golden Anniversary for Nomex!