Racer Safety: Do You Have the Right Safety Gear?

In the last decade there has been an increased emphasis on driver safety in the big-league racing series of NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and the NHRA. And thankfully, much of that new awareness has also trickled down to the Saturday night dirt track racing levels.

RaceQuip Driver's Suit

All safety equipment isn’t created equal. By doing a little research, you can find quality safety gear that provides superior protection in the event of a wreck or a fire without breaking the bank.

No, we aren’t seeing custom-fitted carbon fiber seats and $3,000 carbon fiber helmets in the Street Stock classes too often, but we are definitely seeing an increased use of quality safety gear, head and neck restraints, and higher-quality racing seats practically everywhere we go. And that is much more important than the lightweight carbon fiber seat.

But the trap with the personal protective safety equipment is it can be tempting to simply turn your gear into a checklist. Helmet? Check. Driver’s  suit? Check. Gloves? Check. You get the idea.

Quite often, that checklist mentality for most of us simply comes from reading the rulebook. The thinking goes, if the rulebook says you have to have at least a single layer suit to race, well then by gosh, that’s what I’m going to buy. If that’s what the rulebook requires, then it must be good enough to protect me. And besides, the multi-layer fire suit is more expensive and I can spend that extra money on tires!

So you buy one of everything the rulebook requires you to have, check them off your list and go to the race track thinking you are all set. But the truth of the matter is the rulebook sets a minimum standard, and every racer should be aware of just how much safety they are getting with their hard-earned dollar.

To help you determine what safety gear is best for your needs, we’ve put together a few tips with the help of safety products manufacturer RaceQuip on the major areas where personal safety equipment is concerned. We aren’t necessarily saying you have to go out and purchase the most expensive of everything–in fact,  some companies like RaceQuip specialize in providing Saturday night racers top-level safety gear at very reasonable prices–but you should be aware that not all personal safety equipment is created the same. We’re all racing on a budget, so here’s how to get the best bang for your buck.


Driver’s Suit

The driver’s suit, or fire  suit, is probably the one biggest area where racers will try to get by with less than they truly need. In the spring and summer it can get awfully hot, so we understand the desire to use the lightest weight suit possible. Plus, often the only requirement in the rulebook is that the fire suit be SFI certified.

If you think the difference between three and 10 seconds isn’t very much, do a quick test. With your helmet on, buckle yourself into your race car and then have someone time you as you try to get out and see just how many seconds you need. Now imagine the car is on fire and try it again.

A current SFI certification is critical for any driver’s suit, but that isn’t a one-size-fits-all stamp of approval. The SFI designation for a driver’s auto racing suit is 3.2A, but there are additional levels for that designation. For example, an SFI 3.2A/1 suit is a single layer suit that is rated for protection against second degree burns in a gasoline-fueled fire for three seconds. That definitely isn’t very long, but it is better than nothing. An SFI 3.2A/5 rated suit is a multi-layer suit capable of preventing second degree burns in that same fire for at least 10 seconds. There isn’t a set number of layers for a 3.2A/5 suit, sometimes manufacturers can achieve this level of protection with one or two layers but it requires space-age (read, expensive) materials.

If you think the difference between three and 10 seconds isn’t very much, do a quick test. With your helmet on, buckle yourself into your race car and then have someone time you as you try to get out and see just how many seconds you need. Now imagine the car is on fire and try it again.

The major difference between suits costing $100.00 and those costing $1,000.00 are the materials used and the number of layers the suit is made from. The two main materials used to build racing suits are Fire Retardant Cotton (FRC) and Nomex. FRC can go by many trade names, like Banox, Proban, Pyrovatex, and others. All of these FRC products are created by treating the cotton fibers at the molecular level to be fire retardant. Nomex, on the other hand, is an inherently fire retardant man made fiber that can be woven into cloth.

Since an FRC suit and a Nomex suit will carry the same SFI rating, you can make an apples to apples comparison. Typically a Nomex suit will be built with a lighter-weight fabric than a comparable FRC suit. However, since cotton is a natural fiber, it is hypoallergenic and also wicks away moisture so it provides added comfort. The biggest difference between the two fabric choices is cost – a Nomex suit at the same SFI rated protection level will cost you around twice as much as an FRC suit. Regardless of which type of suit you buy, the experts always recommend a multi-layer SFI-5 suit for oval track racing – even if your series, sanction, or track will allow you to wear an SFI-1 single layer suit.



Like the driver’s suit, your helmet should also meet a minimum safety criteria. Every quality auto racing helmet has an “SA” certification which comes from the Snell Foundation. You will find the certification printed on a sticker underneath the liner of the helmet. The SA testing specifications are updated every five years, and the current certification is SA 2010.

RaceQuip Helmet

The Snell foundation updates its SA requirements for helmets every five years. So even though this new SportMod helmet from RaceQuip retails for less than $200, because it is SA2010 complaint you can be confident that it offers better protection than a SA2005 helmet that sold for several hundred dollars when new.

Even if your track allows you to race with a Snell “M” rated motorcycle  helmet you absolutely should use a full face helmet with a Snell “SA” rating. A motorcycle helmet does not provide the same level of protection as an SA helmet. Just think about the differences crashing a motorcycle versus crashing a race car – namely sliding down the road vs multiple  hard impacts against a roll cage.  A motorcycle helmet is designed to a different set of criteria and does not have to meet the same level of protection when it comes to being flame retardant and strong enough to protect your head after multiple impacts against a roll bar. It’s also important to note that an M rated helmet will not have TearOff posts or provisions for a Head & Neck Restraint.

Also, if you are currently racing with an SA 2005 or older helmet, we strongly urge you to consider upgrading to an SA 2010 model. First, your helmet is at least eight years old, the liner is starting to break down, and the shell may be fatigued .  And second, the Snell Foundation seriously upgraded the requirements with the 2010 testing  specification, so all SA 2010-spec helmets will provide a much greater level of protection than older models. When shopping, be careful not get too fixated on the weight of the helmet. While  lighter  weight means less strain on your neck in longer races, it also means more expensive construction. All Snell SA 2010 helmets have to pass the same tests, regardless of overall weight or shell materials used. In other words, a fiberglass helmet offers the same level of impact protection as a carbon fiber helmet.


Head and Neck Restraints

At some tracks head and neck restraints still aren’t mandatory, but given what we know now, no one should even consider racing without one. Even Hobby Stock cars attain enough speed to cause serious neck and back trauma or death if you hit the wall at the right angle.

Currently, there are four head and neck restraint systems that have passed the rigorous testing and received the SFI 38.1 designation.

Currently, there are four head and neck restraint systems that have passed the rigorous testing and received the SFI 38.1 designation. They are the HANS and Hybrid (both owned by Simpson), NecksGen Rev and the new kid on the block, the Leatt MRX.

All four systems use the same basic layout to keep the head from moving too far forward in a frontal impact, but each has its own features and design. If you possibly can, try different models on to see which you are most comfortable with. It really doesn’t matter which style you choose, as long as you get one and wear it every time you get in a race car.


Gloves and Shoes

Driver’s gloves and shoes have the same ratings as fire suits when it comes to protection from heat and flame. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can get by with wearing tennis shoes and no gloves at all, even if your track doesn’t check. After all, how good are you going to be at getting out of a burning car if you can’t unbuckle your harness because your fingers are too badly burned? SFI rated fire retardant gloves are typically made using Nomex backing and a leather palm. Lately, more racers report that they prefer the feel of soft suede on the palm of their racing gloves. They say that it improves their grip on the wheel.   Racing gloves are easy to get used to, and before long you will wonder how you ever raced without them.

Here's why you must regularly change out your restraints. As the nylon webbing is exposed to UV rays, the belt's strength is drastically reduced over time. In just 12 months of UV exposure it has just 50 percent of the breaking strength it did when new.

Here’s why you must regularly change out your restraints. As the nylon webbing is exposed to UV rays, the belt’s strength is drastically reduced over time. In just 12 months of UV exposure it has just 50 percent of the breaking strength it did when new.

Likewise, a good pair of racing shoes is also an important piece of safety equipment. Aside from the safety aspect, a racing shoe is designed to work within the narrow confines of a race car’s foot box, typically  on very small pedals.

When they do happen, most fires originate in the engine compartment from spilled fuel, and your feet are the part of your body closest to that origination point. They are also the last part to get out of the car when you are diving out of the window to get away from a car fire. That image alone should be enough to get you to consider a quality pair of fire retardant racing shoes.


Seat Belts

We once had a conversation with Brian Butler, owner of premiere racing seat manufacturer ButlerBuilt, about racing safety and were surprised that he spent as much time talking about belts as he did racing seat design. When we asked him about it, he said it is because even the very best racing seat is practically useless without a good set of belts. It is the belt system that holds you in place so that your racing seat can keep you cocooned and protected within its confines.

Seat Belt

Head and neck restraint systems are a vital part of the safety equation, and other innovative manufacturers are working to make adding a head and neck restraint system as comfortable as possible. For example, this belt system from RaceQuip is fully SFI compliant and has narrower two-inch wide shoulder belts for less binding–and thus, better protection–when combined with a head and neck restraint.

Unlike every other piece of safety equipment mentioned so far, the belts are unique because they stay in the car after you get out. That means they are subjected to an extra level of wear the rest of your protective safety gear does not. When you wash the car they get wet, and when your car is sitting in the sun they are exposed to damaging UV rays while you’re driver’s  suit and helmet are safely tucked away inside the hauler. That exposure to the elements will cause the materials to break down faster.

That is why your seatbelts must be changed regularly. SFI recommends replacing racing seat belts every two years. The science behind this is based on the tremendous drop in tensile strength of both nylon and polyester webbing after 24 months of exposure to UV rays.

Wait, you keep your car in the shop so they should last longer, right? Well, your shop lights also put out UV rays, so just plan to replace them every two years or any time your car has to be brought off the track on a wrecker. If you hit the wall hard enough to have to be towed in, you probably stretched the belt webbing and/or bent the harness hardware. Racing seat belts are consumable, they only stretch one time. Once they have done their job they need to be discarded.

When we spoke to Patrick Utt, RaceQuip’s President, he summed up grassroots racing safety this way: “If I made the rules for oval track racing, every racer would be required to wear an SFI-5 multi-layer suit, SFI-5 gloves, SFI-3.3 shoes, an SFI 38.1 head & neck restraint system, and a Snell SA-2010 auto racing helmet as the minimum standard – regardless of the class you race in.” That’s pretty good advice in our book. Following that advice may cost you a bit more up front, but there are safety companies like RaceQuip that specialize in providing top-level gear at a reasonable cost. And if it can keep you out of the hospital after a crash, then we all know it’s money well spent.


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About the author

Jeff Huneycutt

Jeff Huneycutt has been in the automotive industry long enough to collect more project cars than he can afford to keep running. When not chasing electrical gremlins in his '78 Camaro, he can usually be found planning unrealistic engine builds.
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