Fireball Roberts' death in 1964 led to the evolution of the fireproof uniform
The photo is at once humorous and surprising.
Apparently taken after a race in the late 1930s or early '40s on Daytona's old beach-and-road course, a driver is surrounded by onlookers. He's taking a swig from a soda bottle. There's nothing out of the ordinary there. The kicker is what he is wearing.
"The implications of what could have happened to the poor guy are stunning."
He's in a dress shirt and trousers, and his tie is slightly loosened. To top off the ensemble, the driver has a jacket tossed casually over one arm. It looks as if he's raced in his Sunday best.
Did somebody pull him out of church for the big event, which almost assuredly included NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. as either driver or organizer? Maybe, but whatever the case might be, the fellow is dressed to the nines.
That's the funny part, that anybody could have raced dressed like that. At the same time, the implications of what could have happened to the poor guy are stunning. The lone piece of safety equipment in the photo is his basic hard-shell helmet with leather ear flaps, the kind a jockey might wear.
Another quarter of a century would pass before focus on the safety of drivers' uniforms began to gather any real and sustained momentum.
Bermuda shorts and argyle socks
Fonty Flock gained notoriety for the Bermuda shorts and argyle socks -- yes, argyle socks -- that he wore en route to victory in the 1952 Southern 500 at Darlington. That wasn't the only time Flock wore shorts while behind the wheel of a race car.
In the earliest days of Ned Jarrett's racing career, he basically followed the crowd when it came to his "uniform." Everybody else had on work slacks and a short-sleeve T-shirt, so that became his clothing choice as well. The reasoning was practical, if short sighted.
"Basically comfort," said Jarrett when asked why drivers chose to wear such simple clothing. "We just didn't think that much about how much danger there really was involved in it."
At first, improvements came gradually. Drivers were required to dip what they planned to wear for the race in a solution that would help fireproof the clothing. It did not matter if the shirts were long- or short-sleeved, as long as they were treated.
Fireball Roberts was allergic to the solution and got a waiver after bringing a doctor's note to the track. That would haunt Jarrett, who was involved in the accident during the World 600 in May 1964 at Charlotte that cost Roberts his life.
Roberts was one of the first drivers to wear what would today be considered a rudimentary, but standardized, uniform. It looked good on him, but because it was not flame retardant, the suit was all but useless when it came to safety.
Jarrett pulled Roberts from his burning car, and while the early NASCAR superstar rallied in the coming days, he passed away several weeks later at age 35.
Two things came out of the accident, according to Jarrett, that advanced safety by light years.
"I think it was a historic time as far as racing was concerned," Jarrett said. "DuPont went to work immediately after that to make a fabric that was flameproof, that you could make a uniform out of. And Firestone went to work immediately after that wreck, that day, on fuel cells. Up to that day, we were using conventional metal gas tanks."
By September or so of that year -- maybe when the Southern 500 rolled around -- Jarrett was wearing a fireproof uniform. It was not a particularly difficult adjustment, not after what he'd been through at Charlotte.
"It really wasn't that uncomfortable," Jarrett said. "It was like a pair of coveralls, a little bit harder to get into, I guess, than just putting a pair of pants and shirt on. Most of us didn't wear long-sleeve shirts for convenience and temperature. I think that was the biggest thing we had to adjust to."
Back to the future
Jarrett's fireproof uniform was a far cry from what drivers wear today. Jarrett's suit featured a single layer of fabric, while many modern outfits are comprised of up to three or four in addition to fireproof long johns.
Gloves and a full-faced helmet were out of the question for the two-time NASCAR champion. Could he have imagined wearing such things while racing?
"No," Jarrett said with a chuckle. "Like many other things in the sport, I couldn't even have dreamed or thought of it. I couldn't have imagined that we could breathe and survive, really, because we were so used to the openness of [the cockpit]. I would've felt like I was suffocating, I think, with that kind of attire on."
Jarrett paused, then added, "But thank God for it."