Safety Systems, Inc
"Only fools race without Fire Bottles," the letter said. It's a strong testimonial from one of the legions of racers who have found themselves in the hot seat literally at some point in their racing careers. They're all indebted to Modoc's Don Skaggs for his invention and for their escapes.
The invention and subsequent marketing of Skaggs' development - The Fire Bottle System - has re-defined safety standards at every level of racing. It's also created a financial windfall for Skaggs.
"Several people have written letters and told about how it's saved their lives," Skaggs said of his system.
"The last time (Dale) Earnhart won (the Winston Cup championship), he thanked Fire Bottle at the banquet. When he flipped several times at Talladega a few years ago, he had the system on board and it survived intact We get business from DEI Inc, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd, and a lot of other guys at that level of racing."
Specifically, the Fire Bottle System is an on-board fire suppression system designed for most types of race cars. It's mounted in the car with tubing and nozzles pointed at the driver. In the event of an on-board fire, the driver pulls a T-handle that immediately releases a chemical called halon. The fire is extinguished quicker than conventional emergency personnel could reach the car.
"Halon is a liquid that turns into a gas," Skaggs explained. "It's the same product that's used in aviation and by NASA. We were looking for something that could put a fire out, but that wouldn't harm a driver if it was inhaled."
It's been a lot of years with a lot of left turns for Skaggs, now 61, since he became involved with racing as a 16 year old..
"I bought a '31 Ford sedan that was already set up for racing and entered at what we called the Richmond Midget Stadium (long since vanished from the city's far west side)," Skaggs recalled "I won the first race I was in. It paid $10.
That was all it took for Skaggs to become fully involved. Throughout the 1950's, Skaggs raced stock cars at regional venues like Eldora, New Castle , and Anderson . In the 1960s, he participated in the first and many subsequent American Street Association races. After abandoning racing for a decade to raise his family, Skaggs became fully involved again with a modified series. That's when the Fire Bottle System was born.
"My daughter married into a family that sold and serviced fire extinguishers. I guess that's how I started thinking about it," Skaggs said. "I had experience in tool and die work and designed valving at NATCO and at Ahaus Tool. We tinkered with it for a while, then we took it to a trade show in the cattle barn (at the Indiana State Fairgrounds) in Indianapolis . We sold $5,000 worth of product. There I thought Hey maybe I've got something here'".
He did. Fifteen years later, Safety Systems in Modoc is the lone manufacturer of the Fire Bottle System. Skaggs has 300+ dealers around the country. Revenues in recent years have exceeded all expectations and continue to grow.
"We're the number one supplier of extinguishing systems in race cars," Skaggs continued. "It's in every level of racing." Marketing and managing the sales of the system has become a full-time job for four people, including Skaggs' wife Marcia and son, Donald Jr.
Skaggs still knows his way around a track. He races an average of two nights per week from April to September in a series sponsored by Jasper Engine and Transmission.
This summer, He'll travel to Michigan , Tennessee and Wisconsin in addition to area tracks. Though he's only actually employed it once, Skaggs wouldn't be with out his system.
"I set it off at Winchester once," Skaggs related. "We really got away with a lot of stuff years ago. Now, I always run a safe car and that's one of the first things drivers needs to do. There's no use getting killed when you're just out to have fun."
Still, stories of Skaggs invention continue to spread like - well - wildfire.
"I had a guy
in Texas racing in a late model class," Skaggs said, "They had a big
pile-up right in front of the grandstand with three cars on fire.
Only one guy had the system. He set off his fire bottle. Maybe the
wind was just right that night, but it put out the fire in all three
cars. I sold a few systems that night."
Excerpts taken from a newspaper article that appeared in The Palladium in 2000.
DON SKAGGS FIRE BOTTLE SYSTEM RE-DEFINED SAFETY STANDARDS