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An Unheralded Auto Safety Pioneer

by Bob Hagin

January 29, 2001

Look deep inside a NASCAR driver's helmet (or any helmet, including the one you use when you're riding your mountain bike) and the chances are better than good that you'll find a sticker that states that it was approved by the Snell Memorial Foundation. The chances are also good that very few riders, skiers, skateboarders, drivers, racing's safety inspectors or members of the general public know what the Snell Memorial Foundation is or how it came into being.

It's origins go back to the mid-'50s and the death of a San Francisco area amateur Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race driver. William "Pete" Snell was at the wheel of his Triumph TR2 roadster when it rolled over at a race in Arcata near the California/Oregon border. It was in the days before rollover bars were mandatory on race cars and Snell died of a blow to the head even though he was wearing an "approved" driver's helmet made in England.

Our San Francisco SCCA region was (and is) a close-knit organization and the death of one of our own hit us very hard. We felt obliged to do something to ease the pain. The following is taken verbatim from the program of the Third Annual Sacramento (Calif.) Suburban Sports Car Race held on October 5 and 6, 1957:

"When Pete Snell died following a racing accident last year, a group of his friends and fellow competitors desired to do something to perpetuate his memory. Contributions were received from various sources and a moderate fund was soon available. It became a question of how best to use the money in a manner that would honor Pete's memory and at the same time benefit sports car racing drivers in general.

"The answer obviously lay in a project begun shortly after Pete's death by Dr. George Snively, a Sacramento physician and sports car racing driver. Dr. Snively had spent countless hours testing the various crash helmets available to drivers and was next planning to engage the services of a leading independent testing lab to further substantiate the results of his tests. It was at this point that Dr. Snively and the Snell Memorial Foundation joined forces and the necessary money for the latter tests was made available.

"The results of all tests performed were overwhelmingly conclusive. Of the sixteen or more helmets tested, two proved vastly superior to all others and certain of the models proved to be virtually worthless with respect to head protection in a violent accident. Certain government agencies were represented at the tests in addition to other racing groups and many publications devoted to motor sport. Dr. Snively received inquiries from all over the country concerning his studies. All types of racing associations have requested the test results as have nearly all other sports where head protection is necessary.

"It is indeed gratifying to know that this foundation, strictly through the efforts of Dr. Snively, has been able in the space of less than one year to make such an important contribution to safety in motoring. The work of the Snell Memorial Foundation has had a successful beginning and it is the intention of the trustees to continue to foster worthwhile projects which will further driver safety and protection.

"There is no finer tribute to be paid to the memory of Pete Snell than to attempt to prevent through qualified research, occurrences similar to that which caused his death. The Snell Memorial Foundation is grateful to the San Francisco Region, SPORTS CAR CLUB OF AMERICA for having it designated it as a beneficiary of part of the proceeds of this race. Your attendance here today, because of the funds raised thereby, will certainly in the future contribute to safer motoring both on and off the race course."

That tribute to our local SCCA region and to the enthusiasts who attended amateur races so long ago bore no byline but at the top were listed the names of two trustees, Marge Snell, Pete's widow and John P. Luce, a long-time SCCA member and racer.

The Snell Memorial Foundation is still in operation today in North Highlands near Sacramento. It's still the leading authority on the safety of activities that may lead to head injuries. And true to the tenets laid down over 40 years ago, it accepts no donations from industries associated with the manufacture of helmets so as to remain objective in its research. No one can calculate the number of lives world-wide that have been saved because of the pioneering and ongoing work of the Snell Memorial Foundation, but it must be huge. If you'd like more information on the Snell Memorial Foundation, you can log on at

Dr. George Snively died of heart failure at a relatively young age in the mid-'80s. And while William "Pete" Snell and the foundation that bears his name are well know in the safety apparel industry, that of George Snively is remembered only by some of us old-times who have long memories.