If You Want To Go Racing, Take Your Safety Seriously


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

Bob is a former national championship winning road racer. His son, Butch, is one of America’s best road racers.

Back when I started racing in the 1960s, it was a different world in motorsports. Danger was everywhere. Driver deaths were a weekly occurrence, and parents didn’t want to hear that their children wanted to be race drivers.

Dinner table conversations (yes, back then we actually sat down at a dinner table every night) were not the place to let your dreams out if they included racing. But it was the danger in racing that really drew me into the sport.

My dad and Uncle Ted had taken my brother Jim and me to the Bloomsburg Fair (I think I was eight at the time), and we talked them into going to the sprint-car races that were so big at county fairs. The excitement and obvious danger hooked me. I decided then and there I was going to race someday. I had no idea what type of racing, as I didn’t even know there were other types, but I was going to race.

Over the years, I learned that I had didn’t have talent for the traditional stick-and-ball sports that I tried in high school. I kept going back to racing, but I learned not to talk about it at home.
I went off to college, where I found a few others with the same fascination for racing, and I learned more about it. Sports cars had entered my life and it would never be the same again. I decided I had better start getting the equipment together. Shouldn’t be hard, a helmet and fire suit. The fire suit was a pretty new thing then; flame-resistant underwear was yet to be introduced. What you did was order the suit (usually a Dunlap suit), and then boil it in a borax solution. It was quite uncomfortable to wear, and you had to retreat after a few washings. They really did not offer much protection.

Today’s driver protection is fantastic, and modern fire suits are like good wine, they improve with age. The fabric loosens up with each washing, and more air pockets are formed in the fabric. The flame-resistant underwear adds more air pockets and more protection.

Drivers thinking of practicing without wearing their flame-resistant underwear should think again. Tests have been done that show how much protection they are giving away.

Amy McSwain of PBI Performance Products makes an excellent presentation on fire-suit use that all aspiring racers should see. McSwain is a member of the NFPA Safety at Motorsports Venues Committee.

I have served on this committee since 2000 and am very proud of our work. This committee is made up of 30 individuals from every aspect of motorsport: race tracks, safety, NASCAR, NHRA, AMA, SCCA, manufacturers, insurance, rescue, medical, firefighters, team owners, drivers, etc.

Most of us are there because we love the sport. We have put together a working guide to assist track operators in the planning, training, personnel, equipment and faculties as they relate to emergency and safety operations at motorsports venues. This document is one that anyone who is involved in motorsports should be familiar with.

It was also the opinion of some of us that it was necessary to get this guide out before some overzealous politician decided that the government needs to be writing standards for motorsports — a truly frightening thought.

The full name of this document is NFPA 610 Guide for Emergency and Safety Operations at Motorsports Venues. You can review this report at www.nfpa.org/aboutthecodes/AboutTheCodes.asp?DocNum=610.

It would be well to mention that the document NFPA 610 is in the final days of public comment, ending Aug. 31.

With all the technological advances in the last 50 years, our sport is truly much safer. You see it in the cars we drive everyday and a case can be made that racing does, in fact, improve the breed. Crush zones, seat belts, anti-lock brakes are some quick examples.

Sure, you can say that these same results could have been realized by testing under controlled conditions, but would it have happened? Racing is a sport that really gets the juices flowing and that makes things happen. I feel that everyone in motorsports can take a great deal of pride in being part of an industry that gives back to society in so many positive ways.

And did my parents ever accept the fact that one of their children was in racing? One day my Dad read in the papers that I had won a race in Ohio. That prompted a call.

“If you are going to do it anyway, I want to be there!” He and my Mom attended many races over the years and really became fans. I know for sure that they were quite proud of their son in motorsports.

(Original Print Date: August 22, 2007)