Before Heading Back to the Action, Take a Good Look at Your Safety Gear

Photography credit: Kristina Cilia

While the tracks sat cold, our thoughts didn’t stop racing. Many of us continued to mentally pull off feats of daring at places like Sebring, Mid-Ohio and VIR. We just couldn’t stop.

As the racing world comes back online, bit by bit and likely with some new rules, here's a question to ponder: Is your gear ready?

We’re talking about taking a good, hard look at safety gear—for both cars and bodies—to make sure that next outing fulfills the fantasy.

Sanctioning Bodies

Motorsports safety gear used in the U.S. tends to be sanctioned by three different bodies.

Snell Foundation: This nonprofit group tests and certifies helmets for all kinds of uses, from skateboarding and snow skiing to kart and car racing.

SFI Foundation: This nonprofit organization grew out of SEMA and today tests and certifies a wide range of motorsports equipment, from suits and window nets to clutch assemblies and even full chassis.

FIA: The same group that sanctions Formula 1 and WRC also maintains specs for safety equipment.

Most club racing groups follow the Snell and SFI standards, while FIA specs are more commonly used in the pro ranks—think IMSA and SRO Motorsports. Here’s the big thing: Read the rule book for the group sanctioning your events. And then read it again.

Each sanctioning body has its own take on things. The SFI, for example, might recommend that belts be recertified every two years. Another sanctioning body might require that step every five years.

Is the sanctioning body being callous to the safety of its members? No. The SFI sets standards to the lowest common denominator. Going back to belts, that’s likely par for a weekend dirt track racer who runs nearly every weekend and leaves the car out in the elements. The SCCA or NASA racer who runs six times a year and stores the car in a climate-controlled garage is nowhere near as hard on safety gear.

You have to use some common sense, though. Safety gear does wear out. If you store your race car outside or walk around the paddock in your driving shoes, for example, then yeah, your gear will deteriorate sooner.

You’d never expect your racing tires to last 5 or 10 years, right? Show your safety gear the same courtesy.

Driving Suits

Although driving suits don’t carry an expiration date, SFI states that they must be recertified every five years: “Each 3.2A/10 or higher level ‘manufacturer certified’ driver suit shall be inspected every five years by the ‘certifying manufacturer’ for recertification. After inspection, when the suit is determined to be acceptable for continued service, a new conformance label marked with the year of inspection shall be used.”

Time to Pain: The SFI evaluates driving suits by how much heat they can block—that is, their Thermal Protective Performance. This rating, the SFI explains, is “based on the garment’s capability to provide Thermal Protective Performance in the presence of both direct flame and radiant heat.” The TPP rating is based on the length of time the suit protects the wearer from second-degree burns.

Here are the SFI ratings with the corresponding TPP values and times to a second-degree burn:

 

BASIC INSPECTION: Before each race, or at least before each season, look over your suit. Does it have oil or grease spots? Those won’t help you during a fire. Are there any rips or holes? If so, send it back to the manufacturer for repair—and get it recertified while you’re at it. Does the suit still fit well? If it’s gotten tight, either back off the potato chips or order a new suit.

EXPERT ADVICE: Billy Glavin of HMS Motorsport reminds us that driving suits can and should be washed. He recommends a brand of specialized detergents and protectants available where most suits are sold:  Molecule. He also notes that most racers are moving away from dry cleaning, adding that as long as a suit is air-dried, it should offer years of service. (Also, he says, don’t put a suit in the dryer.)

Chad DiMarco of Subé Sports, the U.S. importer for Sparco suits, advises customers that if there’s even a chance that they might run a pro race, they should consider a suit that carries both an FIA and SFI rating. While this might sound pricey, DiMarco promises that even his least expensive suits have dual ratings.

Underwear

Most sanctioning bodies don’t technically require underwear beneath a modern SFI-rated, three-layer driving suit, but why risk it?

And even though balaclavas are recommended for those with facial hair, they’re still a good idea for anyone who wants to keep their helmet a lot cleaner.

BASIC INSPECTION: While there are no expiration dates or regulations concerning underwear, common sense dictates that holes and tears are not acceptable.

EXPERT ADVICE: Charlie James at Simpson Race Products says that baggy, scratchy, ill-fitting underwear is a thing of the past. Modern underwear is form-fitting and comfortable.

Shoes & Gloves

While shoes and gloves don’t carry expiration dates, more than one driver has failed tech inspection because these items were holey or tattered.

To avoid damaging them unnecessarily, don’t wear your gear while walking the paddock or working on your car. Inspect your gloves and shoes before the season starts, too, and make sure to grab them before heading out to the track—these items seem to be commonly misplaced.

When it’s time for new gloves, we recommend bright orange or red so they’re more easily seen by corner workers and other drivers.

Another thing to consider: Gloves with the seams on the outside are more comfortable and no longer cost a premium.

EXPERT ADVICE: “Gloves are more prone to holes and seam rips than other racing apparel, so that’s usually how they fail,” explains RaceQuip’s Patrick Utt. “Otherwise, it’s the same as the rest of your gear: Replace if they have oil stains, rips, tears, etc.” While the palms can wear out, he adds that usually gloves will first fail elsewhere.

Helmets

While the professional ranks typically require FIA-certified helmets, Snell rated helmets remain the norm in the amateur ranks.

Helmets certified for motorsports use the SA designation—short for special applications—and new standards are introduced every five years. The certification label features SA plus the year of the standard, and the SA2020 specs are expected this fall.

Most sanctioning bodies require a helmet to meet either of the last two Snell standards, meaning that, at least right now, helmets carrying either the SA2010 or SA2015 ratings are legal. Soon after the release of the SA2020 helmets, however, SA2010 helmets will be on borrowed time.

So, do you buy your 2015 helmet on closeout later this year or do wait for a new 2020 model? We prefer to replace ours every five years at a minimum, meaning it’s probably time to go helmet shopping.

BASIC INSPECTION: Helmets should be replaced after a bad shunt, and that includes being dropped on a hard floor.

EXPERT ADVICE: Snell recommends that helmets be replaced after five years of use. “Wear and tear, the simple act of putting on and taking off helmets, damage the comfort pads and energy absorbing foam liner over time,” the group states on its website. “Helmets with worn-out pads are at least one to two sizes larger than helmets in new condition. A poorly fitted helmet makes it more likely that the helmet will shift too much or even come off the head during a crash impact.”

Charlie James of Simpson Race Products tells us that while the SA2020 standard will be an evolution of the current one, it is much safer than SA2010. As helmets continue to get lighter, he explains, they also get safer. He reiterates the Snell Foundation’s recommendation: Even if the protective foam never gets compromised, the padding still compresses, meaning a well-worn helmet doesn’t fit as well as it did when new.

PRACTICAL ADVICE: Another reason to replace your helmet sooner rather than later: It just gets nasty over time, and no amount of cleaning will bring back that as-new freshness. A full schedule or racing in warm climates accelerates the decay.

Head-and-Neck Restraints

Head-and-neck restraining devices have become standard for road racing, and sanctioning bodies usually require recertification every two years. This means either sending them back to a factory-authorized agent or having one perform this service at the track. Recertification typically starts around $50 plus parts.

Billy Glavin of HMS Motorsport explains the service as a crack inspection from stem to stern plus fresh tethers—which, like harnesses, can be damaged by impacts, UV light and weather.

Today’s HANS Devices have come down in price, too, with adult models starting around $450. NecksGen offers its own restraint devices starting at $399. Once you factor in the costs of recertification, any needed parts and shipping, it might be time for one of today’s lightweight, more comfortable models.

EXPERT ADVICE: While a 15-year-old HANS Device can be certified for use today, these units have come a long way. As noted by Charlie James of Simpson Race Products, owner of HANS Device, today’s units are lighter than ever. The original HANS Device, for example, weighs about 1000 grams. The new ones can be as light as 400 grams—just about 14 ounces.

Headed to the track for a driver’s education event in a street car wearing standard three-point belts? James notes that Simpson’s Hybrid lineup is popular in this venue.

Belts

Both SFI and FIA rate modern harnesses. According to Billy Glavin of HMS Motorsport, the FIA standard is tougher because it’s aimed at higher-end forms of racing. That comes at a premium, though: SFI-rated belts top out in the $200-$300 range, while FIA-rated belts start at that price point.

SFI no longer stamps belts and related gear with a born-on date. The current tag features an expiration date, with the month being either June or December. The reason, the SFI Foundation explains, is to streamline the manufacturing process.

BASIC INSPECTION: Belts are definitely wear items. Check them closely for nicks, tears and sun damage. Friction with seats and roll bar tubes can also cause problems. Then inspect the latches, buckles and mounting points. If you see something wrong, fix it.

EXPERT ADVICE: Glavin tells us that IMSA teams can wear out belts in just a year thanks to all those laps, all that testing and all those driver changes.

Window Nets & Arm Restraints

Nearly all sanctioning bodies require either window nets (for closed cars) or arm restraints (for open cars). Center nets are becoming more common these days, too, with the SCCA now recommending them in all production-based and two-seater sports racing cars.

While not all sanctioning bodies spec an expiration date for these nets, the SFI Foundation recommends replacing them every two years—like harnesses and other soft goods, nets are susceptible to dirt, UV damage and impact strain.

EXPERT ADVICE: “Window nets take more abuse than any other piece of equipment,” says Billy Glavin of HMS Motorsport. “They are rolled, folded, hung on when getting in and out of a car, and are right there, out in the rain and sun at every event.”

Kill Switches

Kill switches aren’t considered replacement items, but they do fail. Does yours properly kill the engine? Are the terminals properly covered? And is the required sticker present?

Seats

The SCCA and other amateur racing sanctioning bodies have removed seat lifespan rules, while IMSA has adopted a 10-year standard. The FIA has long followed a five-year standard.

BASIC INSPECTION: Does your seat properly fit so that you’re safe and secure? If your bucket is three sizes too big, then are you properly supported in the first place? And is the cover loose, ripped or soaked in oil?

Now look at the hardware: Is everything properly secured and up to spec? If the seat has been through any bad crashes, it should be retired. It has done its job.

EXPERT ADVICE: While some people add rear braces, Chad DiMarco of Subé Sports is adamant that this shouldn’t be done with seats not designed for that. The human body can take a lot of g-loading, he explains, but only if it’s properly aligned. Adding a seat brace keeps the seat from moving forward as it should and puts added pressure on a driver’s back.

DiMarco adds that composites continue to harden over time. They can start to get brittle five years after manufacture, but new weaves and polyester resins can bump that lifespan to 10 years.

Roll Cages

Roll cages are not SFI-certified; individual sanctioning bodies state their own rules. Buying a car? Double-check that the cage meets the standards set by your group. (For example, SCCA and Lemons roll cage rules do not always match.)

Cage design has come a long way in the last few decades. Is your cage as good as it can be? While not always required, does it have easy-to-add gussets? Would an extra bar or two help? How are your door bars?

Not sure if your welding skills are up to the task? From the roll cage section of the Lemons rule book: “Don’t understand any of the above? See where it states ‘professionally made?’ You shouldn’t be doing this yourself.” A cage builder like Kirk Racing can always update a cage as necessary.

BASIC INSPECTION: All roll cages should be free of damage and rust. Check that the mounting points are still solid, as a roll cage isn’t nearly as effective when attached to rusty sheet metal. Check that the padding is SFI-rated, properly placed, and not chewed up by time, window nets or rabid squirrels.

Fuel Cells

Fuel cells might look tough thanks to that armored box, but they do age. The SFI standard says that the bladder found inside a fuel cell needs to be replaced every five years.

BASIC INSPECTION: Start with the outside of the cell and all of the peripherals. Do the check valves and dry breaks properly work? Is the cell itself properly secured? How are the lines and pumps? Are the required bulkheads sealed? Open the top of the cell and inspect the bladder and foam. If either is approaching 5 years old, or if something just seems old and brittle, replace it. It’s an easy fix.

EXPERT ADVICE: Deteriorating foam can cause fuel pickup issues, cautions Chad DiMarco of Subé Sports.

Fire Systems

A modern fire system contains a lot of moving parts and is a critical piece of safety equipment. Bottles should be recertified every two years.

The recertification process looks at the bottle itself—steel can rust—and checks the pressure gauge and inner workings. As noted by Brandon Marshall, brand manager for Lifeline USA, salts and deposits can accumulate around the silicone dip tube, the tube that sends the firefighting agent to the rest of the system. He notes that this isn’t an issue if the bottle is serviced every two years. “From IMSA, SRO World Challenge, etc., down to ChampCar, Lemons, etc., the bottles are stout enough to withstand that for 10 years,” he notes.

Mechanical or electric? While electrically fired systems cost more than mechanical ones, Subé Sport’s Chad DiMarco prefers the electrical systems: Just press a button and then flee the car. The cables found in mechanical systems can jam up, he notes. Just make sure the electrical system has a fresh battery.

BASIC INSPECTION: Is the bottle tightly secured and the release properly working? You can’t just pull the lever and fire the system in order to test it, but you can undo the cable and check its motion. And remember: The fewer bends in the cable, the better.

EXPERT ADVICE: “We’ve checked systems and found nozzles pointed right at the driver’s face,” states Billy Glavin of HMS Motorsport. “How are you going to control your car with a face full of fire-suppression material?” In addition to checking the location of the nozzles, he adds that lines should also be regularly inspected—anything crushed, nicked or broken? Release cables need to be lubricated and checked for free movement as well.

DiMarco reminds us that a fire system is designed to protect the car, not the driver. It should give the driver time to escape to safety. He recommends a handheld bottle as well for immediate, concentrated firefighting—once the driver’s out of the car, of course.

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