Where did racing safety gear come from?

Where did racing safety gear come from?

If you've seen this week's episode of Cash vs Trash (CLICK HERE) you'll see we decked out MOOG in the latest, greatest race car safety gear we could find. Anyone who has even accidentally seen car racing will be familiar with all the kit MOOG was cloaked in, but you may not realise this gear hasn't been around the whole time people have been racing cars. 

Before the 1950s most race drivers wore overalls or work clothes, as the dirt and grime would build up through a race. Even today fireproof suits resemble boiler suits worn back in the 1920s and 30s, though they're totally different in construction. 

As an interesting comparison there is approximately 50 years between this photo of German Grand Prix ace Bernd Rosemeyer (above) and Danny Ongais (AKA "Danny On The Gas") below.

Ongais, a famed drag racer and Indy 500-winner, survived this stack at the '81 Indy 500 thanks to all his safety gear, and a metric butt-load of luck.Although the car had completely disintegrated and left him exposed his fireproof suit prevented burns and his helmet prevented him from headbutting concrete.

Fire is the biggest bogeyman for anyone climbing into a car, and it was the single biggest fear of most racing drivers in the 20th Century. The "fireproof" suits worn over the last 50 years are typically made from a synthetic fabric by DuPont known as Nomex, as it lasts much longer than Proban-treated fabric.

Three-time Formula One World Driver's Champion, Niki Lauda, is probably the most famous face of why fire-resistant clothing is crucial in race cars. Literally. The Ferrari F1 driver's horror crash during the 1976 German Grand Prix (above) was totally survivable without the fire, but as with so many crashes in that era the fire was what proved near-lethal.

Lauda's survival spurred a huge drive in improving car safety, the safety equipment and emergency response at the track, and the safety gear worn by drivers. The drivers were sick of seeing their friends like Lauda, Jo Schlesser and Roger Williamson perish in the flames.

Decades earlier things were far more relaxed. One of NASCAR's first superstars, Tim Flock, started wearing a specialised racing suit in contrast to many other drivers who simply wore mechanics' overalls or casual clothes they'd wear to dinner. With the huge risk of fire in those days racers soon started soaking their racing clothes in a soapy mix of Boric Acid or Borax to give them enough fire-resistance to get out of a burning wreck, though it was nowhere near enough to prevent deaths.

Eventually, after countless terrible firey, fatal crashes in the late 50s and through the mid 60s (like the terrible crash which killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald at the '64 Indy 500 above) enough was enough. Bill Simpson and Jim Deist (who had developed parachutes for drag cars earlier) came up with aluminised cotton boiler suits. 


Better came in 1966 after Simpson met Pete Conrad, a NASA astronaut who sold Simpson on the advanced Nomex material used in Apollo program spacesuits. This was the same year Mel Kenyon wore a Nomex fire suit from Hinchman , which had been developed with the assistance of DuPont, while racing the Indy 500.

Simpson's Nomex suits were worn by legends like Masten Gregory, Walt Hansgen, Marvin Panch and Bob Tullius, and by 1967 Simpson was the first to sell a commercial Nomex racing suit. He even proved his suit by setting himself on fire. 

Today, many drivers will wear their suit with several other layers underneath. To keep them cool a menthol insert is often worn, while additional layers of fire-resistant material helps extend the all important "burn time", which is amount of time a driver can survive a flaming environment. 

Back in the 1960s drag racing had their own problems with fire, so their results look more like what a volcanologist would wear when climbing into a live volcano. Above is the safety outfit of a top fuel drag racer of the era, featuring the terrifying breather mask and hood which was vital given drivers were pummelled with engine fumes, oil and tyre smoke during a run.

When engines exploded (which happened all the time) the flames, and burning fuel and oil, would coat the drivers as they sat behind the motor. At 200mph.

So it took a bit of time to get the cars stopped so the drivers could get out, which meant they needed to take one seriously firey ride. 

Fire killed many in drag racing and continues to be a huge risk in the funny car class, as the drivers don't just sit behind a several-thousand-horsepower supercharged V8 race engine but they have a one-piece body encapsulating them in the 300mph death sled. 

Helmet design hasn't changed a radical amount in the last 50 years, but it did go through a rapid development as motorsport started getting seriously fast (and dangerous) in the 60s.

Formula One's first World Champion, Nino Farina, is seen above in 1950 in the helmet he wore to win that year's inaugural F1 Driver's title. This style of hard lid hat was a huge step up from the soft canvas caps drivers had worn up to that point (see that photo of Bernd Rosemeyer at the top). 

By 1959 the open-face helmet was common place in racing series around the world, and some racing series like rallying and NASCAR saw it used well into the 1990s! However there were significant risks for open-wheel racers as they were still at the mercy of rocks being thrown up, or blinding rain spray. 

It wasn't until 1968 a full-face helmet was worn in a grand prix race, when American hero Dan Gurney donned one for the ferocious German Grand Prix. Held on the Nurburgring Nordschleife it soon ushered in a new era of far better facial protection for grand prix drivers - British driver Alan Stacey was killed at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966 after a bird hit him in the face at over 200km/h!

The HANS (Head And Neck Support) device was around before Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, but his death from a basal skull fracture was the single biggest push for racing authorities to mandate their use. Basically the HANS device prevents your neck from hyper-extending to a fatal point in a crash and it is believed to have saved countless lives since it was widely mandated.  

1 comment

  • Nick

    Very interesting article. This, combined with the info in the Youtube videos has me shopping around for proper safety gear for track days.
    It’s amazing how long it took before proper safety gear was mandated in pro racing…

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