Mark Houlahan
Tech Editor, Mustang Monthly
December 14, 2009
Photos By: Patrick Hill, The Manufacturer

Driving Safety Equipment Guide
Driver Safety

Taking our cars to their limits in a controlled environment is some of the best fun we can all have with our clothes on. From drag racing to autocross and other high-performance driving events (HPDE), heading through the apex of a turn at your limits or blasting through the traps at the end of the quarter with your foot buried into the back of the engine will put a grin on your face that simply can't be wiped off, no matter how hard you try. Spending a weekend at the track is a great way to build your bench-racing story collection too, with tales of besting your previous track times, blowing the doors off of another racer, and other great moments.

Having the proper safety equipment during performance driving is just as important as having the right tires or a properly operating brake system. We're not just talking about seatbelts here, although that's a good start. No, we're talking about fire safety, helmets, supportive seating, and more.

Having the right safety gear not only means you have a better chance of surviving any sort of unfortunate track mishap, but for many HPDE sanctioning bodies, a minimum safety requirement is listed in its rules or on its website, some of which is even vehicle body-style specific.

We hope the following information not only prepares you for future driving events and track days, but informs you of just how important it can be to have the proper safety equipment on you and your Ford.

It's All In The Numbers
You've probably heard of the SFI Foundation, or at the least, heard the term bantered about when it comes to engine dampers, flywheels, and other high-rpm parts. SFI is a non-profit organization that issues standards for performance equipment. SFI standards are used by manufacturers and are often adopted by sanctioning bodies, thus our earlier recommendation to check with your event organizers to see what rules they are using and what safety equipment is required. Just about any piece of safety equipment you can think of (suits, gloves, helmets, belts, and so on) carries an SFI certification.

For driving suits, the SFI classification is 3.2A, which is SFI's rating for how long a selected suit or jacket/pants will protect the wearer from second-degree burns in a fire between 1,800 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The test is calculated in calories per unit area per time of exposure, which determines the Thermal Protection Performance (TPP) of the material. Simply take the TPP number of any suit you are considering and divide the number by two to get the approximate time of protection before second-degree burns occur. For example, if a 3.2A/5 suit has a TPP of 24, you have approximately 12 seconds of protection. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot better than a 3.2A/1 single-layer suit with a TPP of 6, which is just 3 seconds of protection. Now think about the worst-case scenario you might be in-upside down and on fire. Wouldn't you want to spend the money on a multi-layer suit?

Another foundation you might have heard mentioned in the past is Snell. The Snell Memorial Foundation was formed in 1957. The Snell foundation tests and develops standards for racing helmets. Helmets that meet Snell standards offer the highest safety factor you can get, higher than those set by the DOT and other federal agencies. Currently the Snell rating is SA-2005, which is its latest test for impact resistance, penetration by projectiles, fire resistance, and more.

If a buddy loans you an old SA-95 helmet, more than likely the track officials won't let you use it. The M-2005 rating is for motorcycle use, and while some sanctioning bodies/track locations allow the M-rated helmet, you're really better off having the safety of the SA-2005 helmet, especially for the fire-retardant properties.

Driving Suits
Important things to remember about driving suits (as well as all safety equipment) are to purchase the proper equipment for the rules you will be racing under and to make sure the product fits you properly. For instance, if you race at a strict NHRA-based dragstrip and your Mustang has a blower on it, technically you should be wearing at least a single-layer racing jacket. If you're more of a corner-carver and plan to run at an SCCA event, then you'll need a two-layer suit as a minimum (most drag racing venues have a single-layer minimum).

As a general rule of thumb, most drag racers wear a separate jacket and pants due to the long down time between runs. The separate configuration allows quick removal of the jacket between runs, while performing maintenance, or just sitting in the trailer waiting to be called to your lanes. When it comes to road racing, a one-piece jumpsuit-style suit is more popular because you're usually in the car longer (say, a 20- or 30-minute sprint).

Every company has different sew patterns for its suits, so one company's suit might fit and another company's suit in the same size might not. As much as the world is a mail-order environment these days, it's best to visit a dealer in your area or buy from a traveling dealer often found at events so you can try the suits on before buying.

A two-piece jacket and pants setup allows mixing and matching of sizes for the best fit if you have a specific build issue (e.g., short legs with a stocky torso). You should also wear the racing pants higher than you would normally wear a pair of your favorite jeans. The jacket should overlap the pants at least 5 inches for fire protection.

Remember what we said earlier-don't be cheap when it comes to your safety. Buy the best you can afford, preferably multi-layer with superior flame-retardant properties.

SFI Suit Spec TPP Time to 2nd-Degree Burns
3.2A/1 = 6 3 Seconds
3.2A/3 =14 7 Seconds
3.2A/5 =19 10 Seconds
3.2A/10 =38 19 Seconds
More info online:

A good helmet will not only protect your head from the impact of a crash, but will also fit properly and protect your face and scalp from fire. We know that most people will not go out and buy a driving suit, gloves, shoes, and more to go to the dragstrip twice a year, but you should at the very least purchase a properly rated helmet that fits you correctly. An SA-2005-rated helmet is the best safety equipment you can buy, and frankly, should be your first safety equipment purchase.

There are a few different helmet types, and you need to know what the proper helmet is for your use. The most basic of helmets is an open-faced design. You can get an open-faced helmet in SA-2005 rating, but the open-face design should only be used in a completely enclosed cockpit (production car with the windows up).

You must use a full-face helmet if you have a race-prepared car without side glass, your sanctioning body requires you run with your windows down, or you have a roadster/convertible. Full-face helmets are available in several styles with many options (tear-offs for dirt use, tinted visors for daytime racing, and so on), and are available in SA-2005 and M-2005 ratings.

Again, we urge you to purchase the SA-2005 helmet over the motorcycle "M" rating. The M-rated helmet is tested mostly on sliding forces, whereas the SA-rated helmet is tested for impact forces as well as fire-retardant capabilities. If you have facial hair (goatee, beard, and so on), many sanctioning bodies require a balaclava with your helmet, so pick one up when you're helmet shopping.

Buying a helmet is similar to buying a driving suit. Try it on before purchasing. It should fit snugly, pressing in the cheeks of your face just enough to feel, but not so much that it's distracting. If the helmet liner is pressing too hard, the helmet is too small and you should move up to the next size. Also of importance is how far the helmet comes down to protect your chin. Different brands sit differently, so be sure to try more than one brand.

Lastly, protect your helmet so it can protect you. Buy a helmet bag to carry it, preferably something with a liner and/or padding, not just a simple draw-string sack. If you drop your helmet, send it back to the manufacturer for inspection.

Kentucky Fried Helmet
We mentioned earlier that Snell has an SA-2005 rating for motorsports and an M-2005 rating for motorcycle use. They are tested and certified to different levels of protection from impact and sliding forces to fire retardancy.

While it is legal at some tracks to use an M-2005 helmet, it may possibly be the worst safety-equipment purchase you can make. Most motorcycle helmets are not made with fire-retardant materials. They don't have to be-they are designed to absorb the impact of your head bouncing off the ground going 55 mph, not protect you from fire. "On these things (motorcycles), you slide away from the fire. In a car, you're trapped in the fire," says AMA motorcycle racer Glen Castle. Any helmet manufacturer worth its weight in padding will say the same.

The guys at our sister magazine, Circle Track, decided to find out just what happens when you have a motorcycle helmet near a little heat. Think about these pics the next time you go helmet shopping and buy the right helmet. There are plenty of value-priced SA-2005 helmets.

The moral of this exercise? Don't wear a motorcycle helmet-it can melt to your head.

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Restraint Harnesses/Seats
We'd like to think everyone at this point is running at least a three-point factory-style seatbelt, but we know many of our readers are still sporting low-back seats and a single lapbelt. That might be fine for the cruise-night scene, but even if you want to take a parade lap at Road Atlanta, you better sport a three-point configuration at the least.

The one issue with a stock three-point belt is that it doesn't hold the driver in the seat (inertia reel simply kicks in on high g-force braking). If you're sliding around in your seat uncontrollably, you can't control the car. The steering wheel should be for steering inputs only, not something to hold on to for dear life when entering a corner at speed.

For performance track driving, a four-point restraint (or better) should be considered. The catch-22 here is that when using a four-point shoulder restraint, you have to use the proper seating along with it. A high-back seat with a locking seatback is a must for safety, as it protects the back and head in a collision, but having a seat with harness belt holes or a headrest on posts (integral headrest seats are a no-no) is required to prevent the shoulder harnesses from slipping off. Adding an anti-submarine strap (styles vary, but you can get a single- or double-strap variety-with double-strap being safer and more comfortable to wear) keeps the lapbelt from lifting and your body from sliding (submarining) under the lapbelt. For the serious track car, a multi-point restraint capable of head-and-neck support (HANS) should be considered too.

Whatever combination of belts and seats you use, the most critical thing is mounting the belts. The belt mounting has to be to at the proper angle and to a structural part of the vehicle for the belts to do their job properly. The same goes for aftermarket seats. They should be mounted to the original seat-mounting points in the car using the manufacturer's mounting brackets. Aftermarket performance seatbelts that are SFI-rated have date labels and a two-year lifespan, mostly due to their deterioration by the sun's ultraviolet rays. Once the belts expire, they need to be sent back to the manufacturer for re-webbing and recertification.

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While the driving suit, harness, and helmet should be your top priority when looking for safety gear, don't forget there are other safety items, some specific to the type of driving you will be doing and some specific to what you will be driving. For example, arm restraints are required in any open-cockpit car. Arm restraints attach to your forearms and your harness system, and prevent your arms from moving outside the confines of your cockpit.

A helmet support is another item that is optional but also very good insurance. In the event of a high g-force collision, the helmet on your head can impact your chest. The helmet support keeps the helmet in place and prevents that impact.

Driving gloves not only offer fire protection similar to the driving suit, but they also give you greater control with their high-grip surfaces. The typical driving glove is available in a leather palm and suede palm with a fire-retardant backing, usually Nomex. Suede is tackier and works well with any steering wheel surface (wood, plastic, or leather). Glove length is typically user-preference but you want overlap between your jacket sleeve and the glove. Lastly, sizing differs from company to company so be sure to measure your hand properly using company sizing guides.

Driving shoes, once again, are as much a safety item as they are a driving aid. A good driving shoe will protect your feet with an SFI rating complementary to your driving suit, giving you precious seconds of safety when needed. A well-designed shoe will fit your feet well, have ample arch support and padding, wear pads, a high-traction rubber sole, and most of all, be light and comfortable. Driving shoes come in various fitments, including ankle and high-top styles, to fit your driving needs and driving suit.

Lastly, don't forget the socks. Yes, fire-retardant socks finish off your feet protection. Standard socks, especially those made with synthetic materials, can easily melt right to your skin in a fire.

But Wait, There's More
This story covered the basics of driver safety, and we hope it has you thinking about your next driving event and how to increase your personal safety.

Don't forget-besides your own safety, there is the safety of your vehicle and those around you. Contemplate upgrades such as a proper restraint/harness bar or even a full multi-point rollcage. An onboard fire-suppression system is another thought. You should consider a minimum of a two-nozzle system-one for the engine compartment and one for the passenger compartment.

A separate fire extinguisher, reachable from the driver seat, is a simple purchase that could save you, your car, or someone around you. A properly secured battery, remote battery cut-off, and more are all things to consider. Ultimately, the sanctioning body's rule book section on safety should be your bare minimum of requirements. Good luck and be safe!

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