Driving Safety Equipment Guide - Dressed For Success
Consider The Proper Safety Gear For Your Next Performance Driving Event
From the January, 2010 issue of Modified Mustangs & Fords
By Mark Houlahan
Photography by Mark Houlahan, Patrick Hill, The Manufacturer
Driving Safety Equipment Guide
Whether you want to build...
Whether you want to build a sweet vintage racer and become a weekend track warrior, or you just want to be that much safer when you hit the dragstrip with your pals, motorsports safety is something to seriously consider. Make sure that if the bad stuff happens, you'll stick around to have fun again.
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.
A one-piece driving suit is...
A one-piece driving suit is available in single-layer and multi-layer. Different companies use different fire-retardant materials, so if your skin is sensitive to a certain material, know what you are buying beforehand. One-piece suits are a bit safer since there is no opening between the separate pants and jacket, but if you need special sizing, a one-piece suit can be ill fitting (too long in the legs, tight in the seat, and so on). They're also a bit hard to get in and out of if you plan on removing your suit between time slots.
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).
A separate racing jacket and...
A separate racing jacket and pants is often a better configuration for some people. Drag racers prefer the two-piece setup, as they can easily remove the jacket top between rounds at the track. Also available in single-layer and multi-layer configurations, the two-piece suit allows mixing and matching sizes for the best fit and comfort. For our needs, a 2X top and XL pants were a better fit than a one-piece suit.
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.
When purchasing a driving...
When purchasing a driving suit or pants/jacket combination, the SFI rating information will be sewn into the garment. This will let you know exactly what kind of protection you are getting.
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.
The garments usually have...
The garments usually have labels listing the materials used, as well. If you want to add sponsor patches or team patches to your suit, have the manufacturer do it, as the patches are sewn on with fire-retardant threads to the outer layer only before the suit's layers are sewn together.
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.
|DRIVING SUIT SFI INFORMATION
|SFI Suit Spec
||Time to 2nd-Degree Burns
|| = 6
|More info online: www.sfifoundation.com
One company's XL helmet may...
One company's XL helmet may not fit the same as another's XL helmet, so it is best to measure your melon and use these measurements to order the right helmet. As we said earlier, try to visit a local dealer to try on the helmet directly. It's much better to know how the helmet will fit you before laying down your hard-earned cash.
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).
The fully enclosed-style helmet...
The fully enclosed-style helmet is the preferred helmet for all motorsports activities. The full-face helmet protects the driver's head and face, while allowing airflow through the helmet. The Racequip Ridgeline full-face helmet shown here is made from hand-laid fiberglass and lined with fire-retardant materials. The Ridgeline is a great helmet that will pass all sanctioning-body safety rules so you can get on track right away.
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.
A basic open-face helmet is...
A basic open-face helmet is available in an SA-2005 rating. The open face is a good idea for driving schools where verbal interaction between the driver and instructor is paramount. For open-cockpit vehicles, an open-face helmet is discouraged due to dust and debris entry into the vehicle. Some still like this style helmet and simply use goggles for eye protection.
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.
Some helmets are "shorter"...
Some helmets are "shorter" than others and will not protect your chin simply because the fiberglass shell doesn't come down far enough. You want the helmet's shell to fully protect the face and chin, as shown here. This is a properly fitted helmet.
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.
A helmet bag is a wise purchase,...
A helmet bag is a wise purchase, as it will keep your helmet from getting banged around or scratched and is an easy way to transport your helmet to your driving events. Better yet, get yourself a gear bag for all of your safety gear.
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
Time from introduction of...
Time from introduction of flame to interior burn: 6 seconds, fully engulfed in 19 seconds
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.
Here's a close-up of the standard...
Here's a close-up of the standard latch link or duck bill-style of harness buckle. As you can see, the shoulder belts and anti-sub strap all slide onto the lapbelt first; then the lapbelt's buckle is slid through the buckle loop, and the latch is pushed down to hook the buckle and secure the whole setup. It looks complicated, but with use it becomes easy to latch. Note that this style of harness latch is not street legal.
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.
Something to consider for...
Something to consider for your harnesses are these shoulder pads. They simply wrap around the shoulder restraints and offer user comfort in prolonged driving such as endurance races and even daily driving.
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.
A standard five-point racing...
A standard five-point racing harness like this 3-inch model from Racequip, while not DOT-legal for street use, is the perfect solution for a track-only ride. If you're building a single-purpose track toy, with a fixed-back racing seat and a properly installed five-point harness, you'll be ready when the flag drops.
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.
When you order your belts...
When you order your belts you have a few decisions to make. The most critical is the mounting configuration. If you have a full rollcage or at least a harness bar, you can use the wraparound-style mounting. Your other option is to go with a bolt-in mount, where you will have to purchase mounting tabs to web your belts through. These tabs can then be used to bolt your belts into your car. The second decision you'll have to make about your belt purchase is how you want your belt adjustment to work. You can have your belts adjust by pulling up or down on the belt tabs. The belt adjustment is a matter of personal preference, but some applications and seat designs work better with one adjustment style over another.
For street use, a performance...
For street use, a performance seat upgrade from the likes of Cobra, Recaro, Corbeau, Konig, and even late-model retrofit seats not only offers more support for the increased acceleration, braking, and cornering forces that we see at the track, but they still allow access to the back seat, as well as full seat adjustment for varying driver configurations. This style of seat is not usually configured for using an anti-sub strap.
A fixed race seat, on the...
A fixed race seat, on the other hand, is configured for harness belt use, including the anti-sub strap, and usually comes with a fixed mounting bracket for strength and lighter weight. There are more options in fixed-back seats, and you can even have foam inserts custom-cut to match your body for optimum support.
Arm restraints are simple...
Arm restraints are simple devices. Depending upon the manufacturer, their adjustability can be either via D-rings/straps or hook-and-loop fasteners. They are worn on the arms and connect to your harness belt to prevent your arms from exiting the cockpit in the advent of a rollover. The NHRA and SCCA both require arm restraints on open-cockpit vehicles. Racequip recommends a contrasting color to your driving suit or jacket so officials can easily see that the restraints are in place. We picked a set of red ones to contrast with our black racing jacket and pants.
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.
While driving gloves do offer...
While driving gloves do offer a level of safety, being SFI-rated and built from flame-retardant materials, we can't ignore the fact that simply wearing driving gloves gives much greater feel when wheeling a car around a road course. Their grip allows steering inputs to be quick and precise with no slipping of the wheel through your hands, especially on classic cars with plastic or wood wheels.
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.
Helmet supports are available...
Helmet supports are available in SFI- and non-SFI-rated materials. As you can guess by now, the SFI-rated version is where we'd put our money. The two main styles of helmet supports are open and closed. The open version is a simple U-shape that slides over the neck from behind, whereas the closed version completely encircles the neck with a hook and loop closure strap. The closed version shown here is what we use. Don't confuse a helmet support with a HANS device. The HANS requires special harnesses, helmet straps, and more to integrate properly. The HANS isn't cheap, but if you are a serious track fanatic, it might be something to put on your wish list.
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.
Whether it's banging gears...
Whether it's banging gears at the dragstrip or making some hot laps at your favorite road course, part of a good e.t. or lap time is fast footwork. When you're wearing lightweight driving shoes you can react to gear changes faster. The slim profile of a driving shoe means more room in the foot well of your vehicle and less chance of hitting the wrong pedal. Driving shoes are available in many popular styles and SFI ratings. If there's ever an engine fire, remember that your feet are the closest part of your body to the firewall. Wear SFI-rated shoes and socks when on the track.
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
Don't forget-besides your...
Don't forget-besides your own safety, there is the safety of your vehicle and those around you
Measuring for proper glove fit is the same as measuring for a helmet. Use a length of string or yarn, or better yet a cloth measuring tape as shown here, and measure your hand as shown in the manufacturer's instructions for the best glove fit. As recommended earlier, if you can visit a local dealer, they'll be happy to measure and fit you for the best comfort and safety.
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.
When relocating your battery-for...
When relocating your battery-for more room in the engine compartment or to simply offset your vehicle's weight balance-if the battery is in the passenger compartment it needs to be secured in a battery box and vented to the outside of the car. A simple poly battery box, available from Summit Racing, Moroso, and others, will get the job done easily.
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!
An onboard fire-suppression...
An onboard fire-suppression system can either be automatic (temperature released) or manual (push- or pull-cable release). Generally a fire-suppression agent is stored in a cylinder mounted in the passenger compartment or trunk, and rigid tubing delivers the agent to nozzles located throughout the car. Of utmost importance is protecting the driver, but some install larger systems with extra nozzles in the front and rear of the car to minimize fire damage.
A dedicated fire-suppression...
A dedicated fire-suppression system might be overkill for a car you take to the track only a couple of times a year, but a fire can still happen at any time, which is why we recommend at the least having a portable fire extinguisher in your ride (frankly, we have one in every car we own). Dry-agent fire extinguishers can solidify over time, so we recommend removing your unit once a month and giving it a good shake for a few minutes. Better still, save your paint and the cleanup and use a HalGuard extinguisher from H3R Performance. Its clean-agent systems will kick any fire's butt and not make a mess doing it. The billet mounting brackets (rollbar-mount shown here) are even NHRA-legal.
A battery cutoff switch is...
A battery cutoff switch is required by many sanctioning bodies. The switch is usually mounted at the rear of the car, and is prominently marked with a decal so that safety crews can quickly kill power to the car in the event of an off-track incident.