The need for speed should always be overruled by the need for safety. While it may not be the common mindset even today, catastrophic on-track events have drawn attention to the concept. The era of invincibility is beginning to wane, but there's still plenty of work to be done.

The smart racer is constantly assessing his or her safety equipment. It's not a project for the off-season: That's just a good time to upgrade. The best time to actually upgrade safety equipment is before it becomes a problem.

You simply cannot expect products to last forever. It stands to reason that safety equipment has a life, just like engine components and suspension components. Failure to regularly check your safety equipment is like failing to check your oil.

The driver should be protected from head to toe with the best possible protection offered. Likewise, the area surrounding the driver should be free of threats to the driver's well-being.

Start with the Suit

The technology involved in making the driver's suit has focused on comfort and protection. On the surface, you may think comfort doesn't belong, but it's a very viable concern.

"We had to continue raising the bar for today's suit," said Chad Liberto of Sparco Safety. "Today's suits are lighter and not as cumbersome. You can make a suit that has much higher levels of safety, but it would be so uncomfortable that the driver couldn't focus on his task. The latest suits are lighter for a reason."

The predominant material in a modern suit is Nomex, which has proven itself through time. "The Proban suit has a limited life," says Kevin Larkins of Speedway Motors. "After so many uses, it starts to lose its protection capabilities. Nomex is much better."

"Proban is a chemically treated material and you can only expect to get 25 to 50 washings as a best case," says Simpson Race Products Vice President Doug Doolen. "Nomex is clearly superior. Testing was done by DuPont on the Thermo Man, a stainless-steel man with 122 heat sensors. They took the data and extrapolated it to translate it to survivability."

Simpson is using a filament Nomex in some of its suits. It contains no Kevlar and testing has found the outer layer puffs up, creating an air pocket that adds insulation to protect the driver in a fire situation.

One size does not fit all when it comes to driver's suits. A good fit helps the protection aspect, and it is critical for the comfort part. Liberto pointed out a common error when buying a suit, whether it is a replacement or your first piece of apparel. "The best way for a non-professional racer to determine if the fit is right is to put it on and sit in the seat," he says. "Everybody will try it on and walk around, but that is not the critical need. You're going to be strapped in with your legs bunched up and your back hunched over. It gets tight in some places, maybe even uncomfortable. The fit can affect the safety. If it's tight on the skin, the heat gets through there."

Heat leads to fatigue, a threat to driver performance. Fire is another source of heat, and the fire protection aspects are considered in every element of the suit. While the suits are designed to do their job, there's a critical aspect to remember: "Nothing is fireproof," says Bob Stroud of Stroud Safety. "You can weld pieces of steel together with heat. Remember that these suits are fire-retardant. What you're buying here is time, the time needed to extinguish the fire."

Time can spell the difference between holding your breath or riding in an ambulance. Today's safety equipment is designed to protect the driver as long as possible with the goal of increasing the protection time. The driver can help the cause by thinking about all of his or her apparel needs. "Nomex underwear can cut the burn percentage in half," says Doolen. "This is an important layer of driver protection."

The life of a racing suit depends upon a number of factors. First, the quality of the initial material must be evaluated, i.e., Nomex is better than Proban and will last longer. Second, your individual application and care weigh heavily on how long you can expect to get the right protection.

"If you can't afford proper protection, you can't afford to race," stresses Stroud. "These suits come with care instructions, whether it's washing or dry cleaning. We recommend dry cleaning for two reasons. First, it helps the colorfastness; keeps the suit looking nice. Second, it gets out the dirt, synthetic materials, and the like that regular soap won't. Keep the suit clean."

"Longevity is determined by care," says Liberto. "Most of us race hard and the suit takes the toll. Over the years, the protection will diminish. Nomex is delicate. We recommend replacing the suit every two or three years. The use factor is why you'll see the pros go through 5 to 10 suits a year." "A driver's suit will fray or it will discolor," says Larkins. "A good rule of thumb is to replace it every couple of years; sooner if there is a sign of wear."

Taking care of a suit means more than washing it. When wearing it, you need to treat it like a special piece of apparel. "Treat your suit like your Sunday suit," adds Liberto.

If you happen to have been involved in a fire, you really need to evaluate it--even if you escaped unharmed. "It's a no-brainer: You want it to protect you. If a fire happened and it was put out, visibly inspect the suit. The burn process could create a weak point. You need to pay attention to your safety gear. If you have that weak point, you don't want to think about it if you're in another fire," says Liberto.

"You need to make sure there are no holes or tears in your equipment," adds Stroud. "Use common sense in this situation. These suits use special threads and special materials. Don't let your wife or girlfriend fix the suit. They can't do it. The materials, the machinery, and the methods are all different."

One horror story includes an attempt to replace a zipper. A driver's suit was given to a seamstress for a new zipper, but the replacement zipper was plastic. The zipper would have fused in a fire, essentially trapping the driver. Fortunately, the suit was discarded before something like that happened.

Head Protection

It was a long-standing joke about buying a $200 helmet for a 25 cent head, but head injuries are no laughing matter. Manufacturers are taking their responsibility seriously and constantly looking at ways to improve existing protection. They want the latest and greatest on the shelves each time a driver makes a selection.

"We're always introducing new ideas," Doolen says. "We look at the weight of the helmet. We look at its construction. We have to pass the Snell certification tests. The 2000 standard was difficult to pass. We've got some new stuff in the works; some that will take a 1/2-pound of weight off and still have the protection needed at high g's."

Damage to helmets can come in many ways, some not obvious. You need to inspect it after each incident.

"First, make sure your helmet is up to date before you use it," says Stroud. "Look at the outside and make sure it's not cracked. Get a new helmet after impact if you're not sure about the safety of the helmet. Use common sense."

"We offer a helmet inspection service," says Doolen. "If there's a crack in the gel coat, visible damage to the shell, damage to the liner, things like that, the helmet has to go. Remember, a good helmet is the last line of defense."

For the most part, sanctioning bodies and racetracks will make helmet recommendations, but it will usually require your helmet to meet the latest Snell standard, in this case, Snell 2000. Some places still allow Snell 95 helmets, but if your helmet is older than that, see if a museum would like to display it.

Other Apparel

A complete driver's safety package covers the driver from head to toe, including the underwear, head sock (balaclava), gloves, and shoes. These elements require inspection and replacement, especially the outer layers. "Gloves and shoes have a quicker wear because they are at a contact point," offers Liberto. "You need to inspect them for holes and rips."

"Make sure your shoes have soles and tread," Stroud remarks. "Duct tape around the shoe will do you no good, yet we still see it out there."

One criticism of lower-level competitors is their unwillingness to buy and wear special gloves or shoes. In failing to do this, these drivers leave themselves open to paralyzing injuries to their hands and feet.

"If you don't respect your body," Stroud says, "that's your problem. But when you're racing beside someone, you're affecting them, too. You need to think about doing all you can do."

SOURCE
Snell Memorial Foundation
North Highlands
CA  95660
Simpson Race Products
830-625-1774
www.simpsonraceproducts.com
Speedway Motors
P.O. Box 81906
Lincoln
NE  68501
4-02/-474-4414
Stroud Safety
Oklahoma City
OK
www.stroudsafety.com
Sparco Safety