Editor’s Note, I was going to run an article on driver suits as a marketing tool, but I shelved that for now. I wasn’t happy with the way it was turning out so I decidied to run this instead. DF
Drag racing has been a popular form of auto racing, both to watch and participate. The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is the top of the mountain in drag racing. Four classes compete in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, top fuel, funny car, pro stock, and pro stock motorcycle. Each has their own unique uniform quirks.
Let’s start with top fuel. Top fuel dragsters are 25 feet long, nitromethane powered and run 10,000 horsepower. While they are traditionally open cockpit, in recent years canopies, introduced by Tony Schumacher have come into style. Schumacher said that when he drives, he wears a 5-layer suit, with two layers underneath that. As the fuel tank is at the front of the car, and the engine directly behind the driver, this style of suit is very necessary. He also wears the older sunglasses style visor, as does TJ Zizzo. I bought this visor from TJ and asked him why he has as much of it blacked out as he does. He explained that when he is in the car, he needs to focus as much on the track as possible, and it’s easy to get distracted. This visor style helps create tunnel vision, and helps keep him focused. He also said that he blacks out more of the visor, so it looks like this now.
Funny cars are the next category. The name came about when drivers would take a regular car, move the front and rear wheelbases forward, and add large tires on the back wheels. Fran Hernandez, who at the time was head of Mercury’s racing program is credited as the first person to call them funny cars, doing so in 1965. Funny cars are, like top fuel dragsters, nitromethane powered, but these cars are only 8,000 horsepower. The driver suits and helmets are identical in design to top fuel driver suits. Older helmets, such as this Cruz Pedregon model from 2011 have respirators built into them. Since the engine is in front of the driver, breathing in fumes is a concern. However with the new modifications to the cars, these respirators have all but disappeared from the sport.
Pro stocks are next. Pro stocks are 1,300 horsepower, the engine has to be made in the same place as the engine, and use 118 octaine racing gas, instead of nitromethane. Because no forced induction can be used in pro stock, such as turbo charges, superchargers, or nitrous oxide, the cars are very technical. While pro stock drivers tend to wear the same basic driver suits, many drivers choose to wear two-piece suits instead of one-piece suits. I’ve never seen that in NASCAR, IndyCar, or F1.
The last class we will cover is pro stock motorcycle. Pro stock motorcycles are rated at around 375 horsepower, are designed to look like their street counterparts, and the handlebars can’t be used to turn the bike. These uniforms are unlike any other uniform in drag racing, in that fire protection is not their major design function. If something goes wrong in pro stock motorcycle, the rider will most likely be thrown from the bike. As such, the riders wear traditional motorcycle leathers, so that if the worst case scenario happens, the rider won’t be skinned alive.
As with all auto racing classes, safety is fluid, it’s constantly changing. After Scott Kalitta was tragically killed in Englishtown in 2008, a controversial decision was made that due to the power and speed that top fuel and funny cars create, they would lessen the length of the race from a quarter mile, or 1,320 feet to 1000 feet. This hasn’t sat well with fans, but has saved lives in the long run. One of the most critical safety features led to the current safety culture. All top fuel and funny car drivers use t-shaped parachutes. These were invented by Bill Simpson after a drag racing accident. This led to him working with NASA as a parachute consultant. As fate would have it, he ran into Pete Conrad, who was a racer when he wasn’t an astronaut. Conrad introduced Simpson to a material used for parachutes called Nomex. Conrad suggested that it would be a great material for driver suits. Simpson agreed, and the rest is history.