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. That has all since changed, namely in the interest in safety but with an added promotional bonus.
NASCAR Hall of Famer 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 at first. Flock’s get-up, while resembling today’s fire-retardant jumpsuits, was simply called a uniform. It was thin and had the same effect as wearing street clothes.
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, however, after the death of Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts.
Roberts, who won 33 times in 206 races and was inducted in 2014, was involved in a crash at the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Roberts’ car ignited, and although he 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 someone would find in a street engine — it was too prone to leaks. If a car were to flip upside down, it would sometimes rupture in hard crashes.
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 as keep drivers safe.
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.