Well, the off-season is officially upon us. In many parts of the country snow is falling on the ground; wrapping paper still litters the living room; and our new President is warming up for his inauguration party. Now is the perfect time for you to head out to the shop and assess the most important part of your racing operation ... you. We'll cover seven areas of safety and performance that cover, protect, and affect the guy or gal sitting behind the wheel.

Also known as your helmet, it could be one of the most important pieces of safety equipment that you own. Let's make the assumption that you read "The Phantom Impact" in Circle Track's Feb. '08 issue. That story tells you, in no uncertain terms, why you should make sure that you are wearing a motorsports-rated helmet as opposed to a motorcycle helmet. Here's a hint ... it has to do with fire retardency.

If ever there was a product in racing that you should not shortcut on, it's your helmet. Don't be afraid to spend more money on your helmet. Wal-Mart's $99 special has no place on a racer's safety equipment list.

Now, even if you have the Cadillac of all helmets, ask yourself this question. Were you in any type of accident during the past season? If the answer is yes, you need to closely inspect your helmet for any signs of damage. This includes both the interior and exterior. While a small scuff or hairline crack may look innocent, the liner of your helmet could be compromised.

"Sometimes the evidence is not visible," says Bell's Kyle Keitzman. "During the '06 Indianapolis 500, Darren Manning backed into the wall. The impact generated over 100g's but there was no outward damage to the helmet's shell, however you could actually see the outline of the back of his head in the lining."

If you hit the wall hard enough that you can see the outline of your head in the inner liner, it's safe to say that your helmet is now junk. If that inner liner is damaged there is no way possible that it will provide the same level of protection in another accident.

Hairline cracks or other damage can be hidden by ornate paint schemes. Your best bet if you suspect your helmet might be damaged in any way is to send it back to the manufacturer. It will be more than happy to inspect and fix it.

Not to sound like a broken record (perhaps you've read about this subject in past issues of Circle Track), but your racing suit is the number one line of defense between you and the one thing no racer wants to face, a fire. The quality of that suit is what separates you from going to the hospital or just going home. Realize this; the majority of racer burns are caused by heat transfer, not direct flame. In other words, it's a rare occasion when a racer gets burned by flames that have penetrated his/her suit, they get burned by the intense radiant heat that is the result of a fire. Given enough time, the heat literally "passes through" the suit and its protective layers.

Let's have a quick review. Thermal Protective Performance, or TPP, is the measurement of protection offered by a firesuit against both convective and radiant heat. The SFI Foundation uses TPP to determine firesuit ratings in accordance with SFI Specifications, forming a basis for the safety regulations adopted by many racing sanctioning bodies.

The purpose of measuring TPP is to determine the length of time the person wearing the firesuit can be exposed to a heat source of approximately 1,800 degrees F before incurring skin blistering or second-degree burns in laboratory conditions. Higher TPP ratings equate to better protection. Find your suit's rating in Chart A below and then determine if you can get out of the car faster than you can get a second-degree burn.

While it may be cool or hip to go commando when you're out partying, the racetrack is the last place you want to skimp on your underwear. Wearing fire-retardent underwear also happens to be one of the easiest ways to get additional insulation into your racing suit. That's because using multiple layers of fabric helps keep the heat source away from your skin longer. The layers create air gaps that have to heat up before that heat can transfer. The extra seconds gained with each layer are precious to you safely escaping from a burning car.