Fire suits and fuel cells have done a lot for driver safety since the 1960s
In the early days of NASCAR, the clothing drivers wore during races was based mostly on one factor -- comfort.
In the car for hours at a time, and without the technology afforded to today’s competitors, a driver’s apparel often consisted of something he might wear on the street. Blue jeans were cheap and rugged, which made them a fine choice to wear in the 1950s. Many opted to pair jeans with simple T-shirts, usually related to their choice of automotive manufacturer or brand.
There were no fire suits, mandated gloves or helmets, although some drivers did choose to wear those items.
Tim Flock was one of the first drivers to wear what we consider to be a fire suit today. It wasn’t called a fire suit in the 1950s, though, because it wasn’t designed to combat fire. Flock’s get-up, while resembling today’s fire suits, was simply called a uniform. It was thin and had the same effect as wearing street clothes.
As those uniforms became more popular, the creation of the driving suit cooling liner was introduced. Modeled after technology used to keep Air Force pilots cool, the cooling liner -- which is available to view in the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- was made out of netting and had a hose connected to it.
With uniforms becoming more prevalent in the 1960s, drivers took to dipping their clothes in baking soda in an attempt to make them more fire resistant. Wholesale changes were to come, though, after the death of Fireball Roberts.
Roberts, who won 33 times in 206 races, was involved in a crash at the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Roberts’ car ignited, and although the driver survived the crash and the ensuing flames, he died nearly six weeks later due to complications from the severe burns he suffered.
Fire suits and fuel cells quickly underwent a rapid transformation. No longer would NASCAR cars have the same fuel cell one would find in a street engine -- it was too prone to leaks if a car were to flip upside down, and it would sometimes rupture in hard crashes.
Developed in the 1960s, the rubberized fuel cell prevented fuel leakage and helped minimize the chance for ignition upon a crash.
Uniforms gave way to actual fire suits with the quickened development of a material called Nomex, a fiber developed by DuPont that serves as a fire retardant. Fire suits must meet NASCAR’s strict standards of thermal protection performance to provide maximum protection before being approved.
When NASCAR’s popularity began to soar nationally in the 1980s, fire suits became a unique way to display sponsorships as well. Although safety is still at the forefront, today’s drivers wear fire suits that are custom-fitted, colorful and meticulously designed to accommodate a number of sponsors.