The outcome is never certain when the green flag comes down. We don't know who is going to win, how that driver will get to the front, or what is going to transpire between the start and the ending. Along the way, there could be some circumstances that loom as threatening to the driver. Those situations have no element of predictability, but there are certain steps that can be taken to help determine the outcome.

Regardless of the kind of car, class, or racing, safety must be the top consideration. The selection of the fireproof racing suit and protective helmet is a decision that is basically automatic, though there are areas where the driver could stand to be a little more knowledgeable in plenty of cases. Once you get beyond the basics, the landscape goes from black and white to gray. In many cases, if the safety section of the rule book doesn't say you have to wear it, many drivers simply won't.

The excuses for omission are many. They range from concerns of comfort to concerns of economics. The economics argument is easy to defend but just as easy to dismiss. If you aren't prepared to do it right, don't do it at all.

Safety gear is designed for the purpose of protection--often protection from one's self. The idea that "it can't happen to me" is exactly why certain smaller aspects of safety should be used. In fact, it's the reason any aspect of safety should be selected.

As the '06 racing season unfolds, the latest innovations will be on display. Helmets have been carrying the latest Snell certification (starting October 1, 2005), and the idea of using one that was certified for racing in 1995 will no longer be acceptable in most cases (Those with the Snell 2000 standard generally remain acceptable). It forces a driver to buy a helmet every 10 years at a minimum, but helmet purchases should be far more frequent than that.

The helmet is one part of an overall safety package, and the smart racer thinks of safety as a grouping, not a collection of individual items with priority rankings. A protective item doesn't have to cost hundreds to work, but not having it can cost thousands.

Start at the Bottom

While there is a strong increase in the use of the protective racing shoe, it is still an afterthought to many racers, simply because the rule book doesn't say "must." The manufacturers of the modern racing shoe have done their homework. There is plenty of thought put into the product being offered, and safety remains the central focus of that thought.

"The shoe selection rests with the driver," says Debbie Bishop of Simpson Race Products. "We make shoes for all types of racing, and that's what the driver needs to look at. For example, we offer a shoe that is all leather, and then there's a style that is suede and leather. The leather is easier to clean at dirt tracks, which makes it popular with Sprint racers."

"We offer the mid-top or the high-top shoe, which is an issue of style," says Jeremy Curtis ofG-Force Racing Gear. "There has to be consideration of the foot space in the car."

"Our shoes are pretty basic," offers John Crow of Crow Enterprizes. "Comfort is the number-one consideration after safety. They are all manufactured to be protective. From that point, it becomes driver preference as to the style. The size of the footbox has a lot to do with it. For example, Formula guys, with their heel-and-toe style of driving, need a shoe like a mid-top so that it doesn't restrict ankle movement."

The use of materials such as fleece Nomex offers the protection inside the boot while the outer layers are designed to protect from heat and flame. Shoes are also designed with the thought of pedal feel, as non-slip soles allow the driver to keep control of the pedals without fear of slipping off the brake or accelerator.

The footbox is likely one of the hottest places in the cockpit under normal conditions. Under less than normal conditions, its proximity to the engine can turn the area from footbox to oven in a hurry. For this reason, some shoes are designed with additional protection in the heel area. If your shoes aren't, there are added steps you can take.

"We offer a heel boot that's popular with many," added Curtis. "It's a Nomex shield that slips onto the shoe. A lot of drivers wear them on just the right foot, but there are those who will use them for right and left. They're made from Nomex inside and out and are very protective."

While there is plenty of thought given to the design of the shoe itself, there can be no detail left to chance. For this reason, Simpson has made Nomex laces available on its Fusion shoe and made it an upgrade for any shoe sold.

While the companies take steps to keep the cost of items like shoes in the "affordable" range, the consideration should start with protection, followed by comfort. Style, while important, should be low on the priority list. Fortunately, unlike sports such as bowling, the idea of a gaudy specialized shoe is unwelcome. The protective shoe is generally stylish and appealing and a natural fit to a racing ensemble.

Handwork

It wasn't that long ago that in-car cameras found drivers of major-league stock cars sawing on the wheel in their bare hands. Not anymore. You won't find that picture without a penalty of some sort these days, and wisely so.

The hands hold more than a steering wheel in our lives. For most, the same hands that grip the wheel are also the hands that are used during the week in the course of doing the job that brings food to the table and extra income to buy parts for the race car. Protecting your hands means protecting your future.

"When we look at a glove style, we consider natural fit and curvature as part of the design process," says Bishop. "We want to develop a product that molds easily to the grip of the hand. It's a driver preference when it comes to gloves. All drivers are not going to like all gloves. The decision is made on the feel and the material."

"It's safety first and comfort next," adds Crow. "Our Wings gloves have an SFI 5 rating. They have two layers of Nomex, and the palm area has one layer of Nomex. If you have a lot of material in a glove, it's hard to get the comfort because the material will bunch up. I put on every pair of gloves. I wear a large, so some are too small and some are too large, but I look them over and make sure the threads are right. A glove is the type of thing that you put on and decide. If it feels good, you'll buy it. If not, you'll ask what else is available."

"Gloves have gotten better now than they were a few years ago," says Curtis. "It's a better product, and it's being offered at a point where the average racer can easily afford them. We have our Pro RS model, which features reverse seams for greater protection and comfort by being stitched externally. The Pro 5 has an SFI 5 rating for protection."