Most seatbelt manufacturers, such as Simpson Race Products, recommend that your restraint system be replaced every two years. Plus, SFI requires belt manufacturers to recertify every two years. So two years is the magic mark. But there is a new wrinkle in 2007. Beginning in January, belt makers must meet new specifications if they want their restraint systems to meet the SFI 16.5 spec. The new specification includes changes to the minimum width of the webbing, the minimum breaking strength of the webbing, and the total load-carrying ability for the whole system.

Naturally, with a new spec looming, it is a good idea to check with your track and sanction as to the spec they require. Don't wait until the last minute to do this, as some sanctions (such as NASCAR) already require racers to have driver restraint systems that meet this new specification.

Window nets fall into the same category as seatbelts. Check with your track and your sanction to see what SFI rating they require and then be sure your equipment is up to spec. In the case of belts, nets, and your racing seat, it is critical that you check and recheck all mounting hardware, brackets, and so on. Ensure that these items are correctly mounted and free of rust, dirt, dents, and dings. If any of these items are not properly mounted, the results of a crash will be catastrophic.

"Check your suit thoroughly. Make sure the rating is in line with your series and your track," says Patrick Utt, owner of Safe-Quip and Race-Quip. You should be looking for any oil or chemical stains that could impede the fire retardancy of the suit. You should also be on the lookout for any holes or rips, especially if the suit was stored for any period of time.

According to the majority of manufacturers and the Snell Foundation, helmets should be replaced every five years. Naturally, if you have a child who races and has grown, he or she will probably need a new helmet before that five-year period expires. So be sure to check the fit. A good-fitting helmet should squeeze your cheeks like your Aunt Edna. A loose-fitting helmet is a bad thing.

As with every other piece of safety equipment we've discussed so far, make sure your Snell or SFI ratings match the requirements of your track and sanction.

Check for cracks outside the helmet. According to Snell, constantly dropping a helmet on a hard surface may eventually degrade the helmet's performance. However, the real damage occurs when a helmet with a head inside contacts an object. So, if you had an accident and your head hit something inside the car, you need to go over that helmet with a fine-tooth comb.

Assuming the outside looks OK, check the liner inside. Glues, resins, and other materials used in helmet production can adversely affect liner materials over time. Hair oils, body fluids, and cosmetics, as well as normal "wear and tear," all contribute to helmet degradation. Typically, there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods, and other technology.

If your helmet is within the five-year range and has a good-looking outside but a mashed-down or degraded liner, some manufacturers make interchangeable or replacement liners and cheek pads. This is a great way to upgrade your helmet without spending money on a brand-new one.

Snell recommends replacing competition helmets every five years. Since HANS(r) Devices are made with similar materials and resins and are exposed to similar environments, it's a good idea to give your HANS a five-year limit, too-unless, of course, you were involved in an accident. If you crashed, you need to triple-check your HANS(r) Device. If there is any sign of structural damage, replace it. Remember, HANS(r) Devices, as well as other head-and-neck restraints, are designed to absorb energy in an accident. If you had a hard wreck and your HANS cracked, that means it did its job. Again, if you see structural damage or think you see structural damage, don't take any chances-replace it.

Now that you have tended to the car, there is one very important area that we haven't discussed: you, the driver. Most of us spent the off-season chowing down on a variety of delectable treats over the holidays. Now is the time to attack the result of those indiscretions. A friend of mine, whose specialty is road racing, wasn't planning on racing in this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona. But then he got the call to drive for a team, one week before the event. He had just seven days to get in shape to run 24 hours-not the best scenario. Granted, the Rolex 24 is an endurance race and a different animal from short track racing. Now, you may not think you're an endurance racer, but you are.