Track days: Is there such a thing as too safe?

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Jun 27, 2024 | Helmet, track day, Safety, gloves, shoes, Head-and-Neck Protection, Track Day Safety, Suit | Posted in Safety | From the April 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

[GRM+ members read this article first. Subscribe and gain access to more exclusive content for only $3/month.]

After a good friend successfully survived a major fire during a high-profile race, he dropped a tidbit of knowledge that has lived rent-free in our brains ever since: “Fire burns just as hot on a test day as on race day.”

[How I became a human torch and survived]

In other words, any time you’re in a car at speed on track, your risk of injury–or worse–increases. Those walls are just as hard, that fire is just as fiery, and a disaster is just as disastrous whether the clocks are running or not.

Yet personal safety regulations for non-competitive track days and even competitive time trials are less stringent than they are for wheel-to-wheel road racing. 

On one hand, these lighter requirements lower the barrier to entry for these events, which ultimately contributes to the growth and future of our sports. 

On the other hand, there’s no rule that says you can’t exceed the minimum requirements and protect yourself to a higher level. Why not take advantage of a full, road race-style personal safety loadout whenever you go on track? That’s the easy, no-excuses path.

But we live in the real world of budgets and varying commitment levels, so we’ll discuss a few approaches here that don’t comprise a head-to-toe, FIA-spec safety kit. Still, understand that anything less is a compromise. 

Now that you’ve been fully disclaimed, let’s work from top to bottom to get you kitted out.

Head First: Do You Even Have the Right Helmet?

The helmet is a crucial piece of any kit, so our recommendation here is a rigid one: Buy a Snell SA-rated helmet of the current generation or no more than one generation out of date. Nearly all track sanctioning bodies allow Snell SA helmets that are one or even two generations old, so this guideline is rooted in both theory and practice. 

Buying an out-of-date helmet can sometimes save you a few bucks, but that savings never seems to make up for the lack of approved lifespan. So always favor newer–unless the deal is just too good to be true.

Joe Marko, owner of motorsports supply house HMS Motorsport, backs us up on our helmet philosophy while providing some additional insight. “A helmet at any price level with a Snell rating is going to have the same protection against impact as any other helmet with that same rating,” Marko explains, “so that’s reassuring if you’re on a budget.

“But what you get when you spend more money is usually a more comfortable helmet with more custom fitting options and, most importantly, less weight. And that mass attached to your neck can really come into play from a safety perspective in a crash. A heavier helmet is going to have more inertia than a light helmet, so keep that in mind.”

We also recommend a full-face helmet over an open one. The shield against debris, insects, moisture and other potential hazards make a full-face helmet a worthwhile purchase. Plus, face protection in the event of air bag deployment is a nice bonus, particularly since so many cars on track are equipped with air bags.

Marko has overseen some air bag testing using helmeted drivers, and some of the results were surprising. “One thing that stood out was that a sun visor or an open visor on a full-face helmet gives the air bag an additional point of leverage against your head. So best practice in a car with air bags is a full-face helmet with the visor down and locked, or removed.”

But removal has its risks. Marko recounts an incident at VIR where “a car went passenger side into a wall, and the side mirror broke off, came through the window and left a big gouge on the driver’s visor–which was, thankfully, down–on its trip through the car.”

We’re also proponents of always donning a balaclava before pulling on that helmet. It serves as an additional layer of safety, as hair–including facial hair–is extremely flammable. Plus, this small investment will make your expensive helmet last a lot longer by keeping the skull funk at bay. Nothing destroys helmet liners like head sweat, and that’s pretty much all we expose them to. 

Neckst Up: Time for Head-and-Neck Protection?

The next piece of equipment we consider non-negotiable on track is proper head-and-neck support. The downside here is that there’s really just one choice for folks without a proper roll bar and harnesses: the Simpson Hybrid system. The upside is that it’s a really good choice. 

Unlike most head-and-neck systems, which rely on your over-the-shoulder harnesses for support, the Simpson Hybrid transfers your neck’s load to straps wrapped around your torso. This allows the unit to work with OEM-style, three-point harnesses. (It also works just fine with competition-style harnesses.)

We wear a Simpson Hybrid during all our new-car track testing. While we occasionally look like dorks for being the only people wearing one at new car launches, we’ll take that simple safety step over the alternative. We’ll also add that we’ve used our Hybrid in a wide variety of cars with a wide range of seats, and it’s never been intrusive or uncomfortable. 

Over the Shoulder: Could a Suit Make a Difference?

You’re also going to need some protection for your body, and here’s where the regulations of various clubs diverge the most. Some clubs have fewer regulations for clothing than you’d face walking into an Arby’s, while others specify a minimal amount of body coverage.

T.J. Huston, product specialist at OG Racing, a long-time supplier of safety equipment for motorsports, provided the following caution: “The first thing I’d recommend is to avoid synthetic materials for sure. Skin grafts suck. Nylon and polyester melt, and in any sort of fire situation that’s going to be a bad scene.” 

Sticking with natural fibers is your first course of best practices, but obviously, an SFI-rated suit offers the best protection. “Even the most basic SFI 3.2A/1 suit provides 3 additional seconds of protection against second-degree burns versus no protection,” Huston explains, “and that’s a lot of time when you’re bailing out of a car.”

A multi-layer setup offers even more time to escape, with today’s rather common 3.2A/5-rated suit offering more than three times the protection: 10 seconds until second-degree burns.

A modern, three-layer suit can offer several luxurious seconds of fire protection. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

But even safety industry pros realize that getting everyone at a casual track day into a suit is a challenge. Cost, heat and additional complication are all common objections, and the safety industry is conscious of them. 

Huston notes, for example, that there are lower-cost alternatives that are still better than pure street clothes. “Just wearing a fireproof base layer of underwear is going to provide a substantial amount of protection over regular clothing,” he explains. “And with modern materials, there’s more and more choices of fireproof underwear that looks more like ‘civilian’ athletic gear instead of pajamas.” 

He points to the TraqGear brand in particular. This company offers a lineup of tops and bottoms that resemble workout gear more than racing underwear, with fire-retardant tops starting at less than $125.

Marko reiterates the caution against synthetics: “Synthetic materials aren’t just not as good as natural fibers; they’re an active hazard that will cause additional damage in any fire situation. People love wearing athletic gear during track days, but the reality is avoiding those should be your bare minimum best practice for any clothing. Plenty of newer choices exist that are actually comfortable and temperature-controlling, like the Walero gear I wear for non-competitive track days.”

Hand Jive: Full Race Gloves or Something Else?

You should protect your hands, too, right? “Gloves are somewhere I’m probably going to recommend you go with a motorsport-specific item as well,” Huston notes. “Basically, you want your hands properly protected in a fire, so avoiding synthetics is particularly critical.” 

But he also admits that racing gloves can sometimes be a burden in a track day car. “Most race gloves make it impossible to use touchscreens,” he continues, “but companies are recognizing that and releasing touchscreen-compatible gloves, like the Sparco Arrow.”

While SFI-rated, mechanic-style gloves exist on the market, Huston notes they’re often not well suited for steering. “Most of the SFI gloves designed for mechanics are designed with handling hot parts in mind, not good tactile feel,” he notes. “So while some people like that they don’t have the long gauntlet, they tend to be really thick and not great for driving.”

Huston brought up another important point about gloves used specifically in non-competitive track environments: “Remember that during a track day, you’re communicating a lot with your hands, giving point-bys and interacting with other drivers on track. So a pair of brightly colored gloves that are easy to see might be better than the solid-black gloves so many drivers seem to like.”

Find Your Footing: What Kind of Shoes for a Track Day?

Our advice when it comes to footwear should sound familiar: Avoid synthetic materials. “Remember,” Huston adds, “SCCA doesn’t actually specify an SFI rating for shoes for wheel-to-wheel competition. Their shoe standard is an all-leather upper with a natural sole. So that brings a lot of athletic shoes into play. Pair that with some SFI-rated socks, and you’re eligible for an SCCA national road race.”

What about the shoes specifically designed for racing? “Most pure racing shoes are lousy at being real shoes,” Huston admits. “Wearing them outside the car is hard on your feet and hard on the shoes.” 

A few companies, however, have been dropping kicks that can serve as all-day wear at the track–in and out of the car. “The Sparco Race 2 has decent support, but it’s still more of a race shoe that you can wear outside the car, not one you necessarily want to,” Huston says. “The Sparco Pit Stop crew shoes are SFI-rated, too, and they’re more like an athletic shoe that’s still really good in the car as well.” 

Finally, Huston shouted out a new brand he’s just discovered called Chicane: “They’re premium priced, but they come out of the outdoor shoe space, and they’re the first motorsport shoes I’ve worn that feel like they were designed by an actual shoe designer. They have some of the best arch support in a racing shoe I’ve ever experienced.”

Where to Start

Head-and-neck protection for just a track day? We wear ours. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

“Sure, all these recommendations are great, but how should I prioritize them?” you say. Fair question, so we’ll defer to the experts. Joe Marko stresses three areas that are crucial to staying safe. “I always recommend people get proper gloves, proper shoes and the best helmet they can. Those are your main points of control with the car, so in addition to keeping you safe, they’re also going to help you practice proper technique.”

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Helmet, track day, Safety, gloves, shoes, Head-and-Neck Protection, Track Day Safety and Suit articles.
Comments
Tom1200
Tom1200 UberDork
2/23/23 11:32 a.m.

The one and only race car fire I've had was on a test day.

Spearfishin
Spearfishin New Reader
2/23/23 11:52 a.m.

Knit shirt on fella in last picture of the article is definitely either all synthetic fiber, or at best a cotton/poly blend. (At least to my eye... My dad owned a men's clothing store when I was growing up, so have some basis for my bold claim)

APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
2/23/23 11:55 a.m.

No that anyone should follow my lead but I tend to wear more safety gear the further the car is from a factory street car.  If I had a HANS that worked with 3 point belts I'd wear that most of the time but I don't. 

If I'm in an unmodified car I wear a helmet. I don't wear full gear in my Spec. Miata if I'm scuffing tires or giving rides.  My thinking is that all of the stuff that might catch on fire is factory and in good shape and I'm only driving at 7 10ths.

If I'm in a full on race car I wear full gear regardless of whether it's a test day/session or a race.  An untested car is more likely to have problems than one that's been proven. 

 

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
2/23/23 12:13 p.m.

What about street racing?   It's going to happen if track racing is too expensive. 
   Perfection is the enemy of good enough.
 
   In a lifetime of racing I had one fire. Working on the car in the pits.  Gas sprayed all over me and a spark ignited everything. 
          WHOOSH!!!  I dropped to the ground and rolled the fire out.  My eyebrows were shorter and a little of my hair got a little shorter.     But no burns.  
  I had a very expensive fire suppression system that If I'd tried to set it off I'd be dead.   
      Rules and money to solve them aren't always the answer In fact they can make things worse.  
 I refer to street racing. 
      Before any rule  should be made. Ask what it will cost and is there a less expensive way to solve the issue. 
  Look at HPDE  how many fatalities and serious injuries doing that has there been with zero requirements?  

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
2/23/23 12:22 p.m.

In reply to frenchyd :

Are you actually saying that your fire suppression system would have killed you while putting out a fire?

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/23/23 12:27 p.m.

In reply to APEowner :

There's some good advice there, and I would agree that the more of a stripped-out, high-strung race car you're driving, the more safety gear you should probably have on you.

In the end, you might look a little silly and feel overdressed for the event, but I'd rather be safe than "one of the cool kids."

kb58
kb58 UltraDork
2/23/23 1:11 p.m.

I was behind someone at a trackday event and as we slowed for a hard left turn, his car suddenly veered left, cutting the turn, crossed back over the track and went straight into a concrete wall. Cause was traced to either a broken brake disc or a popped brake hose, don't remember which. Was just dumb luck that no one was on that segment of track that he crossed, as it would then have involved multiple cars. Point being, even in "low speed" untimed amateur events, stuff can and does happen, and it's not always driver error. So, yes, be prepared to get wrecked.

APEowner
APEowner GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
2/23/23 1:14 p.m.
Colin Wood said:

In reply to APEowner :

There's some good advice there, and I would agree that the more of a stripped-out, high-strung race car you're driving, the more safety gear you should probably have on you.

In the end, you might look a little silly and feel overdressed for the event, but I'd rather be safe than "one of the cool kids."

When I'm not wearing safety gear it's not because I don't want to look silly and overdressed it's because I don't want to take the time to change (or maybe I'm just lazy) and I don't like to wear gloves.  I do try and make deliberate decisions about safety gear based on the risk of what I'm doing but I would never, ever criticize someone for wearing more gear than the rules require or having a lower comfort level than I do for something.

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
2/23/23 1:51 p.m.
APEowner said:
Colin Wood said:

In reply to APEowner :

There's some good advice there, and I would agree that the more of a stripped-out, high-strung race car you're driving, the more safety gear you should probably have on you.

In the end, you might look a little silly and feel overdressed for the event, but I'd rather be safe than "one of the cool kids."

When I'm not wearing safety gear it's not because I don't want to look silly and overdressed it's because I don't want to take the time to change (or maybe I'm just lazy) and I don't like to wear gloves.  I do try and make deliberate decisions about safety gear based on the risk of what I'm doing but I would never, ever criticize someone for wearing more gear than the rules require or having a lower comfort level than I do for something.

Personally I wear all my safety gear every time I go out on track -- I'd feel really stupid (if only for a short period of time) if I died in a fire when I had a race suit hanging in the trailer.

The two items not mentioned in the article are socks and balaclavas.  They're pretty inexpensive and easy to deal with, but one thing that's worth noting is that SFI socks tend to be a lot thinner than many street socks, so if you're trying on race shoes you want to make sure it do it with the kind of socks you'll be wearing on track.

 

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
2/23/23 2:54 p.m.
codrus (Forum Supporter) said:
APEowner said:
Colin Wood said:

In reply to APEowner :

There's some good advice there, and I would agree that the more of a stripped-out, high-strung race car you're driving, the more safety gear you should probably have on you.

In the end, you might look a little silly and feel overdressed for the event, but I'd rather be safe than "one of the cool kids."

When I'm not wearing safety gear it's not because I don't want to look silly and overdressed it's because I don't want to take the time to change (or maybe I'm just lazy) and I don't like to wear gloves.  I do try and make deliberate decisions about safety gear based on the risk of what I'm doing but I would never, ever criticize someone for wearing more gear than the rules require or having a lower comfort level than I do for something.

Personally I wear all my safety gear every time I go out on track -- I'd feel really stupid (if only for a short period of time) if I died in a fire when I had a race suit hanging in the trailer.

The two items not mentioned in the article are socks and balaclavas.  They're pretty inexpensive and easy to deal with, but one thing that's worth noting is that SFI socks tend to be a lot thinner than many street socks, so if you're trying on race shoes you want to make sure it do it with the kind of socks you'll be wearing on track.

 

Except it did mention both:

"Pair that with some SFI-rated socks, and you’re eligible for an SCCA national road race.”

"We’re also proponents of always donning a balaclava before pulling on that helmet. It serves as an additional layer of safety, as hair–including facial hair–is extremely flammable. Plus, this small investment will make your expensive helmet last a lot longer by keeping the skull funk at bay. Nothing destroys helmet liners like head sweat, and that’s pretty much all we expose them to."

You'll need to log in to post.

Our Preferred Partners
ANYxN2GWrqs7rNA8jemF5MQ6IJKAOSdhHkhRvGDaCsJOr1NP8QV8n1MmLLsGBH04