Jessica Zemken walked away...
Jessica Zemken walked away from this blaze unscathed. Photo by Joe Alexander
Southern Mississippi race car driver Scott Spicer had his eyes opened on August 12, 2006. It started innocently enough, just another hot lap session in his Pro Stock on a track where he frequently races. But as he came out of Turn 4 and headed down the frontstretch of the quarter-mile dirt track, the trailing arm broke. The car spun and rolled over four times.
"The last thing I said was 'land on your wheels, baby.' It never landed on its wheels-it landed upside down. All the gas started running down under the roof. Then poof, the fire came."
There was Spicer, upside down with his helmet touching the roof of his car, barely able to move in the tight confines of the Pro Stock.
"I realized there was no getting outta there by myself," said Spicer. "I tried to stay calm, popped my seatbelts, took the steering wheel off, then asked the Good Lord to forgive me for all my sins."
As the fire raged outside the car, safety workers and drivers alike ran to help Spicer. Unable to free him with the car upside down, Spicer's would-be rescuers, some wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt, heaved and pushed the car until they successfully flipped the burning heap onto all four wheels. It took almost a full minute before they could pull him from the wreckage.
"It opened my eyes to safety because you never think its gonna happen during hot laps," said Spicer, who was wearing a three-layer suit from Simpson Race Products. "Three, four, five times I felt the heat getting on me. I thought that I was burnt when I got out, but I wasn't."
USAC driver Aaron Pierce is...
USAC driver Aaron Pierce is pulling off his Impact Racing gloves.
Amazingly, Spicer came out of the blaze unscathed-not a single burn. While luck had a lot to do with it, he had the best safety equipment, which was his best defense. As a driver, you decide what kind of equipment you buy.
Last month, we featured a story on firesuits and what to look for when buying one. As you all know, the firesuit is just one part of the equation. It does little good to go out and buy a high-quality SFI 3.2A/5 firesuit and then race barehanded or in your favorite Nikes. It's like forgetting to put the icing on the birthday cake or putting the wheel on but only tightening half of the lug nuts.
The first thing you should know is that most driver accessories carry SFI ratings, just like firesuits. The only difference is the standard number. For example, a firesuit with a 5 rating would carry a tag reading SFI 3.2A/5. Drivers' gloves with the same rating would have a tag reading SFI 3.3/5. Unlike drivers' suits, not every accessory from the top brand names carries an SFI rating. But that doesn't mean they won't do the job when necessary.
Here at Circle Track, we say there are really no optional accessories when it comes to safety. However, there are varying degrees of how critical a certain accessory is. There are some you should never race without, while others may not be as critical.
One of those "don't jump in the car without them" items is a pair of gloves. Years ago, the late J.D. McDuffie badly burned his hands in an accident because he wasn't wearing gloves. We know that J.D. wasn't the only racer to drive barehanded, and he wasn't the only one to suffer burns on his hands. But before you bring up the age-old "doesn't make the car go faster" argument, consider how difficult it is to turn a wrench, degree a camshaft, or even eat a sandwich with third-degree burns on your hands.
Now that we've convinced you to buy a pair, there are a slew of choices out there. Gloves run the gamut, from as little as $25 to well over $100. Naturally, the price of the glove is relative to whether it has an SFI rating, one layer or two layers, Nomex versus Nomex III, and so on.
These Simpson Heatshield Speedways...
These Simpson Heatshield Speedways are the same type of shoes that kept racer Scott Spicer from burning his feet in a fiery crash at Southern Mississippi Speedway in August 2006.
Nearly every glove that we have seen has a leather palm. While other materials have been tried, leather still provides the best grip on the steering wheel and shifter. This is important because your grip is greatly affected by the type of glove you choose, which brings us back to a point made in the firesuit story-try it on! That one may seem painfully obvious, but here are a few things to look for when trying on a glove.
Comfort: Duh, it has to feel good.
Stitching: The gloves should have double or even triple stitching for added security. In addition, check with the manufacturer to see if fire-retardant threads are used, such as the Kevlar thread used by Crow Enterprizes.
Go Backward: Some manufacturers construct their gloves with reversed seams. This is a comfort feature that delivers a completely smooth interior with no bumps or ridges to distract your grip.
Grip: Whether you go for the reverse seams or not, grab something while you are wearing the glove (ideally a steering wheel) and see how much feeling or touch the glove allows. It may seem obvious, but the glove is what stands between you and the wheel. That touch you get from the glove determines how well you grip the wheel, the type of input you get from the wheel, and more. Think of it this way-heavy, bulky gloves can act as a vibration damper between your hands and the wheel. So you want to balance feel with protection. A high-quality glove made from Nomex III or Carbon-X gives you a lot of feeling with maximum protection.
Many drivers who run longer...
Many drivers who run longer races opt for heat shields for added protection on their heels.
Next to gloves, shoes may be the most critical component, again for that feel or touch. Companies have spent gobs of money and time researching different designs and materials. The result is more options than a Chinese buffet. From mid-tops to high-tops, there are dozens of options with prices to match. You can find shoes starting at around $50 all the way up to some that break the $300 mark. Now, unless you have an endless checkbook, there is no need to drop three Benjamins on a shoe. Count on spending somewhere between 80 and 120 bucks for quality footwear.
Just like the gloves, there are a few points to pay careful attention to when selecting a pair of shoes.
Shoe-to-pedal contact: Also referred to as grip, good shoe-to-pedal contact is critical for enhancing your performance on the track. Most high-quality race shoes have a sole that features grooves and tread designs to enhance grip. This is very important, as you don't want your foot slipping off the pedal during qualifying or the main. You'll also find that the sole wraps around the heel and the toe on certain shoes for added grip.
Pedal feel: This is a big one. Much like your hands on the wheel, the way the pedal feels through your foot will determine how well you get on and off the gas when going through the turns. Pedal feel is key, so be sure to try on the shoe before you buy a pair.
Internal workings: Some manufacturers include features such as aluminized foot beds. These inner workings of the shoe can't be seen but add a lot to its performance. Aluminizing the foot bed is an added way of creating a heat barrier without affecting that all-important pedal feel.
Laces and little things: Pay attention to whether the laces, threads, and other small items are fire-retardant. Remember to ask the manufacturer about these items.
The bottom line is a good race shoe should feel like a great pair of slippers-comfortable and flexible with a ton of feel in your feet.
Heat Shields: A popular addition to race shoes are heat shields. Originally developed with NASA technology, these shields attach to the heel of your shoe and deflect heat away from your feet. Heat shields are particularly useful in longer races, where heat from the motor transfers into the driver's compartment over an extended period of time. Some manufacturers, such as Simpson Race Products, have incorporated this heat shield technology into their shoes.
High-quality safety equipment...
High-quality safety equipment kept racer Scott Spicer from serious injury in this fiery crash. Courtesy of Scott Spicer
Long sleeve or short sleeve, turtle neck or crew neck, there are a number of choices when looking for fire-retardant underwear. Yeah, we know long-sleeve Nomex can get pretty toasty on a hot summer night, but you'll be safer. Guys wearing three-layer suits can get away without the Nomex sublayer (not that we would recommend it), but if you're wearing a single-layer suit you shouldn't even think about getting in the race car without fire-retardant underwear.
Figure somewhere around $90 for a top and another $90 for bottoms.
Here's a tip from safety guru and owner of Impact Racing, Bill Simpson: "If your budget doesn't allow you to spend money on fire-retardant underwear, then at least put a sweatshirt, a T-shirt, or something on under your firesuit. At least it's another layer."
Simpson's point is to give yourself every chance to minimize the damage in a fire. Sure, a T-shirt won't have the same effect as 100 percent Pyron(r) carbon fabric undies, but it's better than bare skin.
Depending upon the brand, fire-resistant socks cost between $15 and $30. That's cheaper than a dinner for four at Applebee's. For that price, why not give yourself an extra layer of protection beneath your racing shoes? Look for fire-resistant socks that provide comfort and good moisture wicking properties. Sweaty feet are hot feet, and believe it or not, that condition impacts the pedal feel we previously discussed.
Here's a little trick: buy two pairs of socks. That way, you will always have a fresh pair during those long race weekends. Any good Boy Scout knows that clean socks and underwear will keep you drier, warmer, or cooler in a wide variety of weather conditions.
We love 'em. Balaclavas, which are also called head socks, are a great way to give yourself added protection around your noggin. Most are knitted from Nomex, and like socks or underwear, it is important to buy quality. A poorly engineered balaclava can make you very hot on a Saturday night in July. So check with the manufacturer as to the type of fabric used for the head sock. For example, Impact Racing offers a proprietary brand of knit fabric in its underwear and balaclavas called ImpactMAX(r). This fabric is specially designed to wick away moisture while retaining its thermal properties.
When looking for a balaclava, choose one with a long bottom section that covers your neck down to your shoulders. Had Dale Jr. been wearing one of these when he wrecked that Corvette in 2004, he would not have burned his neck. A good balaclava costs about $40 to $50.
Dale Jr. could have opted for a helmet skirt instead of a balaclava and escaped burning his neck. We see very few short trackers wearing these, as they are more popular within the drag racing fraternity. But they're a great idea. In reality, wearing a balaclava and a helmet skirt is probably overkill for the Saturday night racer, but you can never be too careful when it comes to fire safety. You should wear at least one or the other.
Helmet skirts, like head socks, are usually woven from Nomex or Carbon-X and will run you about 70 bucks.
Spicer walked away without any burns because he made the right choice when it came to safety equipment. When he e-mailed pictures from his wreck, he included the following note. So take some advice from a fellow racer.