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Racing Safety Equipment - Safety Dance

The art of racing and not getting hurt

Aaron Bonk
Nov 1, 2013

Assuming for a moment that compression ratios and scrub radii mean more to you than where exactly underneath your dashboard you're going to hide another wire or brake line, then the idea of flogging your Civic on some sort of racetrack hasn't escaped you. For you, enhancing horsepower and refining handling and braking are habitual, with the appropriate safety measures, at best, dawdling along as afterthoughts.

You're not alone. Safety isn't glamorous. But neither is being chauffeured home from the track in an ambulance. No matter what sort of racing you're up to, you'll find that whatever sanctioning body you're involved with has its own safety requirements--and their intricacies can be many. For example, NHRA wants its drag racers wrapped inside of entirely different systems of tubes and bars than NASA does its road racers. As it turns out, their standards are based upon all sorts of fancy statistics and the likelihood of how exactly you and your Accord might pummel yourselves up. Crashing at the top end of the quarter mile is an entirely different dynamic than doing so on the road course. The goal is the same, though: to keep you safe, alive, and driving back home in whatever you arrived at the track in. The appropriate amount of safety measures depends on your car, the track, the event, and you, the driver. (Check with the appropriate sanctioning body to make sure you're following all safety guidelines.)

Helmets And Neck Supports

Common sense tells you that you need some sort of helmet to withstand the impact of a crash and its associated flying debris and is probably the first thing you think of when considering a track day. If wearing a helmet isn't required, then you're doing the wrong kind of racing. Helmets have changed considerably over the years. A dome-shaped hide of leather fitted around your brain like your grandpappy used to wear has long been superseded by Snell- or FIA-certified shells made of more exotic, lightweight materials. For the most part, the Snell Memorial Foundation sets the standards for helmet performance. Such certification means that whatever helmet you're considering has passed all sorts of tests that you hope you'll never have to prove effective.

Helmet construction begins with a fiberglass or carbon-fiber shell protected by a thin enamel coating. The shell is what keeps things like metal and concrete from becoming part of your head, but it also absorbs the impact of a collision and keeps fire away from your haircut. A specialized resin that includes glass, carbon, and Kevlar is weaved into place, forming the outer core. Inside, a foam liner is added to absorb whatever impact the outer shell doesn't, followed by another nylon or Nomex liner. Modern Snell-approved helmets with their SA ratings, which are designed for racing, can withstand nearly 1,500 degrees F of heat for nearly 30 seconds and blows powerful enough to knock you back with 275 G's of force. As it turns out, the lighter the helmet, the better off all of this is since, upon impact, a heavier helmet will transfer more of the blow back to you.

Despite their Snell ratings, motorcycle and karting helmets are classified differently than anything you want, so don't even think about showing up with one of those. Although open-faced helmets are permitted in some forms of autocrossing, most other forms of motorsports require a closed-face design for better protection against impact and fire. Check with whatever sanctioning body you'll be participating in for the appropriate ratings. For example, some organizations might approve an older Snell-rated helmet while others won't. Also, be sure that your helmet fits snug. Once on, move it up and down and side to side; your skin should move with it. If your hair extends beyond your helmet, you'll need a hood sock, also called a balaclava. Hood socks are made of fire-resistant material and absorb sweat, keeping your helmet cleaner longer. Be sure to upsize your helmet to account for the extra material around your noggin. Finally, choose a reputable brand when selecting a helmet. Taiwanese knock-offs may be fine when it comes to your oil cap, but not so much for something that's covering your brain. But don't assume that a helmet's price tag means it's any better. A $200 SA-approved helmet is every bit as safe as a $1,000 one of the same rating.

Neck or helmet supports aren't always required but they're also never a bad idea depending on how fast you'll be going. Here, a donut-shaped collar wraps around your neck below the helmet, supporting it through turns, limiting head movement and keeping your chin from bouncing against your chest. It can also further prevent fire from reaching your face in the event of an accident. The most popular is the HANS device, which is a carbon-Kevlar-based collar that fastens to the upper body by a series of harnesses. Two flexible tethers attached to the collar span to the helmet to prevent rapid head movement during a collision.

Suits And Shoes

You'll need closed-toed shoes, a T-shirt, and long cotton pants at a minimum. The faster you go, the stricter the requirements and the greater the likelihood of you dressing up in a full-blown, SFI-approved racing suit that covers everything except your head, feet, and hands. SFI, which originally stood for SEMA Foundation Inc. before breaking away as an independent entity, is a non-profit organization that administers standards for many performance and racing components, like modern racing suits that are lighter and cooler than ever but are even more resistant to fire. Knitted materials especially lend themselves to a cooler you underneath the suit. A properly fitting suit shouldn't feel uncomfortable but should allow freedom of movement once in the driving position. You've also got to choose how many layers you need--a minimum of which only your sanctioning body can tell you. Single-layer suits will typically keep you cooler, but fire-resistant underwear is often required. When possible, choose a multi-layer suit made of high-end materials like Proban or Nomex for better burn protection. Although the first layer can burn in a matter of seconds, its fiery remains will protect the subsequent layers from instantly going up in flames. The 15 seconds that a proper suit can buy you in a fire doesn't sound like much, but consider the two or three seconds that it'll take your Levi's to light up.

Footwork is essential to a successful day at the track, no matter what type of racing you're doing. Whatever you're wearing should allow positive feel of the pedals and enough grip to not slip off. Laces should be tucked away and soles should feature heels with slight curves that allow for fluid rocking motions and easy side-to-side movement. Nomex-lined, fire-resistant footwear is a worthy upgrade. Consider your car's pedal layout and size before settling on shoes, though. Too-narrow of a shoe can make heel-toe driving difficult on OEM-type layouts where the pedals can be positioned farther apart. Race cars with custom pedal layouts are a different story. If it's your first time out and you don't plan on investing in the appropriate shoes, be sure that whatever sneakers you're wearing have thin soles with minimal grip around their edges. If necessary, sand the soles to avoid hanging up on your car's pedals.

Roll Bars And Roll Cages

Roll bars and roll cages exist to protect you. Stiffening up your chassis is a side benefit. For you to survive a crash, the structure must absorb whatever energy the ground, wall, or other car exerts onto it, giving time for the seat, harness, and other restraints to do their jobs. Roll bars and roll cages may be bolted into place using a series of plates and high-strength hardware or welded directly to the chassis. In terms of rigidity, nothing beats welding the assembly in place, but operating a street car with a series of tubes spanning around your exposed brain-holder rarely makes sense. Roll bars and roll cages are meant to be complemented with a driver protected by a helmet. An accident involving a roll cage and a driver without a helmet will never end well. Here, bolt-in roll bars and roll cages are ideal for cars whose primary purpose is street use. Whatever type of racing you plan on doing, any section of tubing that may come into contact with you while driving must be covered with high-density, flame-resistant foam padding--even when wearing a helmet.

Books can be written on the proper design and construction of a roll bar or roll cage, most of which can be glossed over provided whoever's fabricating or selling you yours knows the rules, which vary by sanctioning body and by how fast you'll be going. The most obvious of regulations is that the structure must consist of mandrel bends. Much like an exhaust system that's made up of smooth-bent tubing to promote appropriate airflow, mandrel-bent tubing results in a stronger structure when compared to crushed bends and are more impact resistant. A roll bar is typically mounted to the car at four points and a minimum of six for roll cages, with more elaborate, eight-point or higher roll cages also tying into the shock or strut towers, the firewall, and elsewhere for increased rigidity and crash support. No matter which style you choose, a seat-back support should be added to keep the driver's seat from catapulting about in the event of a crash. Here, the roll bar or roll cage ties directly to the seat for added protection--a safer and stronger alternative to mounting the seat only to the floor, much like the factory does.

Any proper roll bar or roll cage design is based off of mild steel or chromoly tubing and a main hoop that traverses the car from side to side, surrounding the driver. The hoop is the central part of the bar or cage of which all other sections span from. But there's more. Much more. Tubing size, material, welding procedures, and wall thickness, as well as door bar count, and the appropriate gusseting varies by organization and should be verified before beginning. Often times, the best place to start is to look at the competition and see what their cages consist of.

Racing safety equipment harness bar 02 Photo 2/2   |   Racing Safety Equipment - Safety Dance

Seats and Harnesses

Whatever seats your car came with were designed to get you back and forth to Burger King, not to take a hairpin at Buttonwillow. Their job is simple: to keep you inside of the car, away from anything hard, and to absorb energy in the event of a wreck. The aftermarket is full of all sorts of wannabe racing seats, but not all of them are suitable for the track--even if they do feature provisions for some sort of harness. Seats are manufactured in various materials ranging from fiberglass to carbon-Kevlar. Aluminum, carbon-fiber, and carbon-Kevlar form arguably the strongest and, when properly mounted to a roll bar or roll cage, can withstand a crash without being ripped from the chassis. Look for a seat's FIA rating to be sure it meets whatever rules a particular racing body calls for. Not unlike SFI approval, FIA--Federation Internationale de I'Automobile--oversees and sets many motorsports safety standards and, like SFI-certified gear, a seat's given approval lifespan doesn't last forever.

If you plan on visiting the track with your original seat belts, then get rid of your aftermarket, fixed bucket seats. The two should never be paired together. It should also go without saying that multi-point harnesses have no business being used with stock seats. Instead, only mix factory seat belts with non-bucket seats and multi-point harnesses for everything else. If you do retain your original seats and seat belts, be sure that they're in good condition and mounted properly. Keep in mind, though, that OEM seat belts are designed to stretch during an accident to limit the amount of stress placed on the driver; racing harnesses are less forgiving. Most harnesses are made from either nylon or polyster, the latter of which stretches less and provides more support when needed. Since all harnesses stretch, mounting them as close to the seat as possible becomes even more important.

In terms of multi-point harnesses, select a minimum of a five-point system that's SFI- or FIA-approved and consists of a quick-release latch and lap belt, two shoulder belts, and an anti-submarine strap, also called the crotch strap. The anti-submarine strap will prevent you from sliding down your seat in the event of a crash, which can transfer the impact onto sensitive organs. Instead, it allows your pelvis to absorb the impact--not your insides. It doesn't sound much better, but it beats shoving a kidney against a lung. Submarining can even happen without being in a collision. If you tighten your shoulder straps before your lap belt, you can easily be tossed forward under hard braking or cornering. Finally, if you use a submarine strap, route it through the seat's mounting opening and to the chassis--not over the front of the seat--otherwise it's worthless. In fact, your shoulder straps must also be routed through the seat's openings and connected directly to the roll bar or roll cage. Routing them around the outside of the seat could result in them loosening during a crash. How well a harness is fastened to the car's roll bar, roll cage or chassis will determine how well it works. Each must have independent mounting points using a minimum of SAE Grade 5 hardware, although Grade 8 is preferred. It's your responsibility to read the instructions that came with your harness and mount it properly, not the track official's.

Window Nets and Arm Restraints

Window nets pick up where the harness and neck support leave off, keeping the driver's head from slamming into something in the event of an accident. Many sanctioning bodies require an SFI-approved window net or head support in addition to a proper harness. For obvious reasons, the window net should be placed in the driver's-side window location and is generally tied into the roll bar or roll cage using a series of tabs and fasteners. A quick-release mechanism allows it to collapse in order to easily get in and out of the car. Window nets, as well as arm restraints, also help keep the driver's arm inside of the car during a crash. In many cases, the G-forces can be so extreme that the driver is unable to keep his arm from exiting the car--a dangerous thing if your Civic decides to flip.

Fire Suppression

Having a small, hand-held fire extinguisher with you during your next track day could be the difference between a mildly burnt fuel return line and a roasted hunk of an Integra. Dedicated race cars should have some sort of fire suppression system permanently plumbed into the vehicle that can easily be released in the event of an accident or once a specified temperature is reached. Separate systems can be plumbed into the engine bay and cabin. If a remote extinguisher is chosen, be sure to mount it someplace that is reachable even when fastened into your seat and with the steering wheel in place. A quick-release system of some sort should also be used so that the extinguisher can be quickly removed. Check with your sanctioning body to see what types of suppression chemicals are allowed.

All the safety gear in the world will never replace common sense. Before heading to the track, perform your own tech inspection to make sure everything's up to snuff. Your brakes, suspension, and steering should all be given a once-over. Plan ahead, read the sanctioning body's and the track's rules.

By Aaron Bonk
374 Articles

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