Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thank You Bill Simpson

That is what Tony Pedregon said in a live interview with ESPN between walking away from the wreck of his car (and some assistance for his second degree burns from the first-response team at Pomona) and getting a hug and kiss on the forehead from (fellow driver) John Force on his way to the ambulance.

If you have not seen the fireball on the news (it has been on everything from NBC Today on Monday through the evening news, a pair of YouTube links are below the fold.

Tony Pedregon repeated that thought in a CNN interview Tuesday morning (80% of the way down), when he said "But I've got to shake the hand of the guy that makes the fire equipment because it did its job." The guy who invented the Nomex firesuit is Bill Simpson.

If you don't know about Bill Simpson and fire safety in auto racing, keep reading. Last year was the 40th anniversary of this innovation.

In the old days, when I was a kid, people died or were horribly scarred for life after an incident like this one. The only fire protection was from cotton clothing that had been soaked with fire retardant chemicals.

In one of those strange coincidences, Nomex, a fire resistant fabric invented by DuPont, and Bill Simpson, inventor of the drag chute used to reduce the need for braking when you may only have a quarter mile or two to slow down from 200 or 300 mph, came together through the US space program. You can read about it in his Wikipedia biography linked above. He learned about Nomex and figured out how to use it to make a fire suit.

One of his more legendary marketing ploys was to make a movie where he tested it himself by soaking it in gasoline and lighting it. The famous (infamous) video of Bill testing a fire suit can be found on his new company's web site.

A key thing to remember is that safety is not a static thing. Just this year, NHRA increased the level of protection required in nitro cars. As performance improves and speeds increase, the intensity of a fire will increase. Surviving a fireball of gallons of nitromethane mixed with oil fed by oxygen flowing in at 270 mph does not happen by accident.

Video of the Explosion:

The video embedded here consists of the replays of the event shown by ESPN to sort out what happened.

There is also a YouTube video (ESPN copyright violation) called "Tony Pedregon on Fire" that shows the live-to-tape broadcast of the incident as it happened. You can see, around the 1:06 mark, Tony shaking his burned right hand after he gets out of the car as well as the burned knees of his fire suit.

[Still incomplete ???]

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