x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Top 5: The men who helped revolutionise motorsport safety

Motorsport can be dangerous, but a lot less so due to the efforts of certain individuals who have worked to make it a safer business to be in, for both drivers and spectators.

John Fitch.
John Fitch.

Sir Jackie Stewart

For someone that left school early because of undiagnosed dyslexia, Stewart has done spectacularly well. First a champion shooter then a champion racing driver, he will, however, be remembered for his safety campaigning as much as his driving. He organised boycotts at several races during the 1960s until track owners relented and installed proper barriers, as well as supplied medical and fire crews. The chances of a driver being killed after five years in the sport when Stewart was competing were 60 per cent. How things have changed.

 

Barry Sheene

A bona fide legend, Barry Sheene was possibly motorcycle racing's most flamboyant and charismatic champion. But there was, despite the irreverent attitude, a serious side to him when it came to safety. He fought long and hard to improve the layout of circuits such as the Isle of Man TT and Silverstone, but his legacy extends beyond the sport with his invention of the back protector (initially using some old visors incorporated into a jacket), something every biker now uses.

 

"Big Daddy" Don Garlits

Your car is powered by a 10,000hp engine that drinks a mixture of nitromethane and methanol. It accelerates from 0 to 160kph in just over half a second and can reach speeds over 450kph. Now let's just say that engine explodes while you're achieving warp speed - would you rather it was in front of you or behind? Exactly. And it's thanks to Don Garlits that the world of drag racing is that much safer after he introduced mid-engined dragsters. A world champ and worthy inductee to the Automotive Hall of Fame.

 

Dale Earnhardt

Not a safety campaigner per se, Earnhardt nevertheless was influential in the mandatory application of the Hans device in Nascar and other fields of motorsport, albeit posthumously. One of Nascar's true greats, he died from a basilar skull fracture after crashing in 2001. Hans devices are designed to prevent this injury, which occurs when the head is not restrained. Earnhardt refused to wear one, referring to it as "that damned noose". He may have survived if he'd worn it.

 

John Fitch

Prolific racer John Fitch was also the inventor of many safety devices and countless thousands owe their lives to his sheer breadth of vision. Inspired after the carnage that occurred at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1955, he set about designing impact barriers that absorbed energy gradually and the Fitch Barrier System is now familiar to millions of US drivers as they're ubiquitous on the nation's highways. It's estimated that this invention alone (one of many he patented) has saved more than 17,000 lives since 1960.