By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Eric Rickman, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
Six Seconds Hot!
Six seconds. In the early ’60s, that’s the amount of time safety equipment pioneer Jim Deist figured his protective clothing needed to shield a dragster pilot from fire. The reason? In those six seconds, a rail with its chute deployed could slow enough for the driver to jump out safely.
Protective gear has come a long way since Hot Rod featured Deist in a February 1962 profile. But Deist’s efforts to develop insulated clothing were cutting-edge for the era.
Petersen Publishing Company’s Eric Rickman visited Deist’s shop and photographed him and his wife Marion as they conducted heat transmission tests on Deist’s insulated clothing using what the magazine described in the photo’s caption as a “specially constructed electric unit. Thermocouples show the heat applied and its penetration.”
Not many years earlier, drag racers—or racers of any kind, for that matter—were still wearing T-shirts and jeans at the track. As the cars grew more powerful, so did the risk of catastrophic fire, prompting sanctioning bodies to draft rules aimed at keeping their drivers safe. Many of those rules centered on the vehicle itself, while the drivers still had some latitude regarding what was considered “satisfactory fire protection clothing,” as Hot Rod called it.
Finding material that didn’t burn was a start. But it was only part of the equation. Racers also needed protection from the heat generated by fire—the penetration mentioned in the photo’s caption. What Deist was working on was clothing that was not only fireproof but insulated as well.
Two of the era’s best-known racers were called out in the story for inadequate insulation: Mickey Thompson’s “aluminized asbestos suit is completely fireproof, but must utilize additional stand-off insulation to prevent heat penetration, which could tend to broil the wearer nicely.” Likewise Tony Nancy’s “full suit of cycle riders’ leathers” was also deemed “insufficient” for its lack of insulation.
That point was graphically illustrated in one of the story’s photos, which showed leather that “shriveled instantly” when exposed to Deist’s heat test. By comparison, Deist’s “development suit sandwich” of fireproof material, aluminum heat reflectors and cotton insulation, showed “no penetration” while being exposed to 1,420ºF of heat for 15 seconds.
The Speed Equipment Manufacturer’s Association—SEMA—was formed a year after this profile was written, in large part to develop product specifications for the burgeoning automotive aftermarket. It was the founding members’ intent that a product that “meets SEMA specs” would be of sufficient quality and reliability as to improve its safety, and the safety of competition, as well.
Jim Deist was one of those founding members, and his work with the organization continued as SEMA evolved into the Specialty Equipment Market Association and its specifications program was spun off into the SEMA Foundation Inc. That organization evolved, as well, into today’s SFI Foundation, whose safety-related specs can be found in sanctioning bodies’ rulebooks across the spectrum of automotive competition.
And Deist’s six seconds? That has evolved some, too. SFI has multiple ratings for fire suits (spec 3.2A) based on the time it takes before the wearer suffers second-degree burns, ranging from just 3 seconds to 40.