Jerry Unser’s contributions to safety
Jerry Unser the Unser to race in the Indianapolis “500;” had a rough time of it in 1958. He qualified for the race in his third different car of the month, but then he failed to complete a lap due to the multi-car pileup on the first lap as his ‘McKay Special’ flew over the third turn wall.
Jerry flew over the third turn wall in 1958
For his attempt to start his second Indianapolis‘500’ Unser drove California home builder and developer Herb H “HH” Johnson’s Offenhauser powered Kuzma roadster, the “Helse Special” named after Johnson’s wife Else
Johnson operated Hobart Homes (“Your key to better living”) with partners Robert E Tyson and Arthur L Lynds, and built nearly 40 subdivisions in the southern San Diego suburb of Chula Vista an area which boomed in the post-war era. Johnson’s first entry at Indianapolis came in 1956 with the former Jack Hinkle owned Indianapolis track record holding Kurtis Kraft 500C for rookie Bob Christie. In 1957 veteran driver Jimmy Daywalt drove the Helse 500C which was reportedly the only car in the field that year that used carburetors.
Car owner HH Johnson sits in the Helse Special on '500' race morning 1956
The crew chief on the Helse entries was Southern California drag and salt flats racer Bruce Crower who first visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1954 with the Dean’s Van Lines team that finished second with driver Jimmy Bryan. Crower was an innovator with non-traditional ideas and in addition to being the Helse team crew chief Crower was a partner with Dave Schneider in a short-lived camshaft business.
These two photos show Crower's innovations on the 1957 version of the Helse Special
For 1957 Crower reversed the Offenhauser engine cylinder head so that instead of the typical long single exhaust on the right side, the ‘Helse Special’ featured four separate exhaust pipes that exited on the left side of the car. In addition to being part of the 1960, 1966 and 1967 ‘500’ winning teams, Crower would experiment with stock-block engines at the Speedway which culminated in 1977 as he built his own flat-eight engine which used Chevrolet Cosworth Vega 16-valve cylinder heads. Although the car that used the engine did not qualify, Crower and a partner won the Louis Schwitzer Award for engineering excellence.
The 1959 “Helse Special” that Unser drove was one of three new cars built in 1958 by El Segundo California car builder Eddie Kuzma which used front independent suspension instead of the traditional solid front axle and one piece tails with integral fuel tanks. In addition to the Helse entry, one car went to JC Agajanian for Troy Ruttman, and another to William Ansted for Eddie Sachs. All three teams struggled with the new lightweight roadster design, with the fastest laps posted in the 139 MPH range
An article in the May 21 1958 issue of the Indianapolis Star revealed that “just about everything has been tried by builder Eddie Kuzma and the mechanics, even stuffing inner tubes in the fuel tanks and inflating them to keep the fuel from swishing around too much and finally even cutting off some of the fuel tanks,” In addition to cutting off the fuel tank, Crower and his crew “rebuilt the Helse car virtually from the ground up” according to the Star.
The new 1958 Helse Kuzma entry was originally assigned to second-year team driver Jimmy Daywalt who left the team in frustration after suitable speed could not be found. Fred Agabashian was testing the car and crashed in turn two on May 21, his first crash in his twelve year career at the Speedway. Initially Fred was entered to drive a Kurtis-Kraft 500G chassis for Bignotti-Bowes racing for the 1958 ‘500,’ but in early April, he resigned after he accepted a large retainer from trucking magnate Pat Clancy to drive the "City of Memphis Special." Agabashian was testing the Helse car as a favor to Crower. Fred a former Bay Area midget standout suffered minor injuries to his left leg and hand in the crash and stayed overnight at Methodist Hospital.
After his brushed the wall in his first attempt, Fred qualified the ‘City of Memphis’ Kurtis Kraft 500G on May 24 the third day of time trials at a relatively slow 142.135 MPH which bumped Dempsey Wilson from the field. Wilson then climbed into the ‘Sorenson Special’ and bumped Agabashian from the starting field. Fred climbed into the D-A Lubricants Racing Associates Kuzma backup car but his four-lap average was not fast enough to bump back in and ended Agabashian’s string of consecutive Indianapolis ‘500’ starts at eleven.
Meanwhile the Helse crew defied the “railbird’s” prediction and worked day and night to rebuild the badly damaged front end of the Kuzma in time to qualify. All their work paid off as rookie driver Art Bisch bumped his way into the starting field on the third day of time trials May 24th with startling run of 142.631 MPH. Bisch started 28th and like 12 others, was involved the first lap third turn melee and the ‘Helse Special’ finished 33rd but the other two new independent suspension Kuzma cars failed to qualify for the 1958 ‘500.’
HH Johnson’s 1959 entry of the ‘Helse Special’ Kuzma was received by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on February 26 with no driver assigned. Unser was not formally announced as the driver until April 10th a week after Jerry had crashed the Bob Wilke owned AJ Watson built ‘Leader Card’ dirt car in practice at the Daytona International Speedway the day before the 100-mile race. Unser’s car spun and hit the fence in the 31-degree banked turn three but remained upright, but Unser spent the night in a local Daytona hospital after he complained of back pain.
Unser was one of several drivers including Rathmann the winner of the Daytona race at an average speed of 170 MPH that stated they would not race at the 2-1/2 mile Daytona Speedway again. Jim Rathmann told the Lima News that Unser explained to him that as he was “going down the backstretch just before the turn, the front end got light and washed out. There just wasn’t any control.” Rathmann explained that while he could find nothing wrong with the track itself that with straightaway trap speeds touching 195 MPH there was “no margin for error at Daytona.”
Unser later told his hometown Long Beach Press-Telegram newspaper that “running 150 MPH isn’t so bad but when you get up around 170 MPH as you do at Daytona, you can lose it before you know what happened. “ In response to the driver concerns and the deaths of both George Amick and Marshall Teague in Daytona crashes, USAC cancelled the scheduled July 4 1959 250-mile race at Daytona.
On Saturday May 2 the first day of 1959 practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Unser turned several relatively slow warmup laps at 133 mph before the bluish silver ‘Helse Special’ spun backwards in the fourth turn, slid 580 feet and hit the inside wall. That contact punctured the fuel tank and fuel splashed over Jerry. As the car slid across the track and hit the outside retaining wall broadside it caught fire.
Still conscious Jerry was trapped in the crumpled Kuzma by the bent steering wheel as rescuers fought to extinguish the flames before they could extract Unser from the car. Jerry reportedly told rescuers “My legs are on fire. Call my wife.” Jerry was transported to Methodist Hospital and admitted in critical condition with third degree burns on his legs, left arm and right hand which was also broken. The burns covered approximately 35 to 40% of Unser’s body.
In those days the USAC only “recommended” that driver’s uniforms be fireproofed and Jerry's clothing had not been fireproofed. A driver’s uniform in those days was not all that different than a jumpsuit or coveralls that a typical worker might wear to work. Made of a very flimsy material with no cuffs on the arms or legs the manufacturer’s tag stated “Untreated will burn, must be dipped.”
“Dipping” was a method to fire-proof the material by soaking the uniform in a solution of six ounces of boric acid and nine ounces of Borax dissolved in a gallon of water. After the uniform was saturated, it was hung to dry. The inorganic salts left the uniform crusty, stiff and abrasive to the skin, but would provide a driver a few valuable seconds of protection before the material would catch fire.
Some drivers dipped their uniforms in a solution of the newly-introduced DuPont X-12 anhydrous ammonia salt formula instead of the Borax /boric acid/water solution. The use of 2-1/2 tablespoons of X-12 per pound of treated typically cotton material and was considered more effective. The problem with both solutions was that “dipping” only rendered the coveralls resistant to an open flame for a few seconds and did not block the transfer of heat to the wearer’s skin. Another problem with a “dipped” uniform was that as the race progressed sweat from the driver’s body would dissolve the salts which reduced the effectiveness of the fireproofing.
According to Speedway Medical Director Dr. Caryle Bohner all the drivers in the 1958 ‘500’ had dipped their uniforms for the race, but that reaching such a percentage in pre-race practice was “impossible.” Dr. Bohner in charge of medical operations since 1951 had long advocated the fireproofing of uniforms. Dr. Bohner remarked that had Unser worn a fireproofed uniform “a tremendous amount of skin damage would have been prevented.” In the wake of Unser’s accident, Dr. Bohner reported that many drivers visited the infield hospital the next day to get their uniforms” dipped.”
Dr. Bohner reported two days after the accident that Unser’s condition had been upgraded to “serious” and that Jerry had asked for food, but he stated that Jerry would definitely miss the 1959 Indianapolis 500 on May 30. The same day, driver Tony Bettenhausen and mechanic Jack Beckley stated that as representatives to the 17-member USAC Board they would start action for the fireproofing of driver uniforms to be made mandatory.
An Indianapolis Star article dated May 6 1959 reported that doctors estimated that Unser would need 50 pints of blood during the forthcoming skin grafts and later that day most of the racers and crews lined up in Gasoline Alley to donate blood. Later that week, the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that Jerry would be hospitalized for at least six months and that his wife Jeanne and two young sons would live in Indianapolis until Jerry was released from the hospital.
The damaged ‘Helse Special’ Kuzma was officially withdrawn, and crew chief Crower and car owner HH Johnson negotiated with Art Lathrop of Racing Associates (comprised of Lathrop, Nelson G. Johnson and D. Coleman Glover) to purchase Racing Associates’ rolling 1956 Kuzma roadster. Bob Sweikert drove this older Kuzma chassis to a 6th place finish in its debut 1956, and then Johnny Thomson drove it in 1957 and finished in 12th place.
The D-A Lubricant sponsored Kuzma had become a team backup car in 1958 and as previously mentioned failed to make the 1958 ‘500’ despite a last day qualifying effort by Fred Agabashian. Al Keller who was named to drive the “new” Helse Special #57 on May 15 qualified for the 33-car starting field at 142.057 MPH to start 28th but dropped out on lap 163 with burnt piston.
On the morning of Wednesday May 13 USAC Competition Director Henry Banks posted notice that effective immediately USAC required fireproofing of long-sleeved treated uniforms at all times. While Pat Flaherty was the last driver to win the ‘500’ while wearing t-shirt some drivers still wore short-sleeved t-shirts during practice runs. Unfortunately the new USAC uniform rule came too late to help Jerry Unser.
On Friday May 15 Robert Long Hospital on the IUPUI Medical Center campus announced that Jerry Unser’s condition was downgraded to “critical and poor.” Unser had been transferred to Robert Long from Methodist to so he could receive dialysis. Late Friday Jerry fell into a coma then passed away from “blood poisoning” (uremia infection from his burns) at 10:15 Sunday morning May 17. On Monday May 18, fan and teams paused at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an hour in Unser’s memory. Jerry’s body was returned to Albuquerque for burial on May 20 in Sunset Memorial Park.
On Tuesday afternoon two days after Jerry Unser’s death, tragedy struck again at the Speedway as rookie Bob Cortner crashed in the north short chute and died a few hours later at Methodist Hospital from head injuries. 1959 was Cortner’s second try at the Speedway, the previous year a burned piston in the ‘McKay Special’ ended his rookie test with seven laps of the 10-lap 125 MPH phase completed.
Cortner who completed his 1959 rookie test the previous day before might have survived the crash had he worn USAC-recommended shoulder harnesses. Jerry Unser had certainly demonstrated the value of shoulder restraints in his wild flip the year before at the Speedway. In the wake of Pat O’Connor’s death the United States Auto Club (USAC) required roll bars and lap belts effective January 1 1959 but USAC did not mandate double over the shoulder harnesses until January 1963.
On Memorial Day during the 43rd running of the Indianapolis 500, two drivers escaped fiery accidents without burns which Dr. Bohner credited to the new USAC rule that required “dipping.” Mike Magill suffered a broken neck with in the first crash of the race when the Dayton Steel Foundry #77 flipped in turn three on his 46th lap and Ray Crawford suffered broken ribs and internal injuries but no burns when he crashed his Edgar Elder built machine in the same corner 70 laps later.
There were no real advancements in driver uniforms for many years, and there were exceptions to the “dipping” rule particularly in National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) stock car racing. Stock car star Edward Glenn Roberts, ironically nicknamed “Fireball” was burned over 80% of body in a crash during the 1964 World 600. Roberts raced in an untreated cotton uniform as he had a doctor’s note that exempted him from “dipping” as the boric acid/ borax mixture triggered asthma attacks. Roberts’ survived the fire but passed away from pneumonia 39 days later.
In the aftermath of the deaths of Roberts, Dave MacDonald and Bobby Marshman during the 1964 season the racing industry began to work for a better solution to protect drivers from fire. There were some aluminized driver uniforms which provided eight seconds of protection but were very hot and too uncomfortable for anything other than a short-duration drag race. Fiberglass uniforms (similar to astronaut suits) were also sold but they were extremely bulky and uncomfortable and rarely lasted long (a few races) before they fell apart at the seams.
Beginning in the late nineteen fifties DuPont Chemical teams researched and developed a fiber which would add thermal resistance to the physical properties of nylon, originally known as HT-1. Trademarked as NOMEX®, a pilot production facility was built in 1963 and testing with driver’s uniforms made with the woven fabric began during 1965.
Competition Press reported in January 1966 that “during the past season, experimental driving suits were worn by Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory, Marvin Panch, and Bob Tullius. The goal was to get information on the comfort and laundering characteristics of NOMEX®.” The Competition Press article reveled that testing found the “wearing NOMEX® underwear is essential. A single layer of NOMEX® is no good. The only significant protection is provided by two layers of material. In U.S. Navy tests, two layers of 3-oz. NOMEX® remained physically intact after flame contact for over four minutes, whereas a single layer of 6-oz. fabric burned through in 7-1/2 seconds."
Uniforms woven with NOMEX® fibers were the breakthrough racers needed - a light, comfortable fabric which was easy to clean and provided better protection but they were expensive, as a full set of coveralls and the required underwear sold for $75.00. J.B. Hinchman Incorporated of Indianapolis which made driver overalls worn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1925 was the first company in the United States to make and sell NOMEX® driver uniforms. The modern age of race uniform construction began in March of 1966 when Hinchman Racing Uniforms made the first race suit utilizing NOMEX® fabric for driver Mel Kenyon, who had been critically burned and lost the fingers on his left hand in an accident at the USAC Milwaukee race in June 1965.
Hill in his NOMEX uniform in 1966 Victory Lane
Led by STP Corporation’s Andy Granatelli and the two tire companies who paid for the uniforms (with sponsorship identification of course) acceptance came quickly and all the drivers in the 1966 Indianapolis ‘500’ including wore NOMEX® uniforms. That was a minor miracle, as full-scale commercial manufacture of the NOMEX® fabric did not begin until 1967. Rookie driver Graham Hill was the last driver to receive his 1966 ‘500’ uniform; the final shipment of fabric to Hinchman was lost in transit, and only after a search of DuPont headquarters was enough the material found to make that final uniform which Hill wore into Victory Lane.
As we watch drivers accept accolades in their colorful uniforms which have been become wearable advertising it is easy to forget the uniforms real purpose. In the years that have followed DuPont developed other more advanced NOMEX® fibers and competing manufacturers have emerged such as Carbon-X® which combined with modern multi-layer uniforms provide drivers today with the highest degree of safety from fire.
The photos that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies