To borrow a question and answer from Randy Quaid’s character in the totally realistic* racing film Days of Thunder: What is the one thing you absolutely have to do to win a race?

You have to finish the race.

In the movie, Quaid’s character was talking about avoiding DNFs.

In this space, we’re talking about keeping yourself in one piece to live and race another day. It’s not lost on us that the element of danger is part of the fun of racing. But recklessness need not be.

We want you healthy. Healthy and winning. So as we head into this year’s racing season, here are a handful of safety equipment-oriented things to be thinking about.

Editor’s note: *- denotes insincerity

man in a race car with helmet giving a thumbs up
(Image/Summit Racing)
SFI logo

Safety Ratings
If you don’t already know, a group called SFI Foundation sets the standard for quality assurance in the vast majority of aftermarket and performance products and safety gear, with helmets being the notable exception. SFI specifications are used by the majority of racing organizations and sanctioning bodies worldwide.

Snell Memorial Foundation is the recognized leader in certification for racing helmets. There is a difference between DOT-approved and Snell-approved helmets. Most classes of racing will not accept helmets approved solely by the Department of Transportation.

Certification Expiration Dates
Valid expiration dates are subject to racing class and product type. The date stamp on each product rated by either SFI or Snell will dictate acceptance by race officials.

You are responsible for determining what safety equipment is required and correct for your particular brand of racing. In drag racing, the respective rule books for the NHRA and IHRA have those details. For circle track racing, there will be different rules and requirements specific to each racetrack.

Simpson Bandit Series Helmet

Helmet design and use is determined primarily by four features:

  • Field of vision
  • Internal lining
  • Face shield material
  • Ventilation

Field of vision is a major influence in what a particular helmet design is used for. Typically, circle track and motorcycle helmets will have a much wider field of vision than a drag racing helmet.

Most racing helmets have a fire-retardant Nomex liner, but not all helmets are lined with fire-retardant materials. This may be a determining factor in whether a particular helmet is accepted for racing use.

Most face shields are made from tough-as-nails polycarbonate, a glasslike polymer that offers transparency, toughness, flexibility, scratch resistance, and ultra-violet light screening—all of which must pass Snell’s testing procedures.

Because of a helmet’s insulating properties, they will trap heat—affecting both a driver’s comfort and ability to breathe. So any driver wearing a helmet for long periods of time should have a helmet with a fresh-air system which will decrease the chance of driver exhaustion because of low oxygen levels.

Unique to most endurance racing applications, driver air systems are designed to pump fresh air into the driver’s helmet. If you’re a road racer or circle track driver, you probably already know about these.

Some classes of racing now require helmet-restraint systems that limit a driver’s head movement during an impact. If you’re buying a helmet for use with a restraint system, you’ll need one with the proper attachment points. Helmets that meet these requirements will have a SAH2010 Snell rating and not the standard SA2010 rating.

Fire Suits
When buying a fire suit, suit material and proper fitment need to be at the forefront of your buying decision. Please educate yourself on your individual racing class requirements before purchasing a suit.

Every fire suit manufacturer has a fitment reference chart. It is important for your fire suit to fit you properly for the best-possible protection in the event of a fire. It’s important to remember that fire suits are designed to fit over a driver’s regular clothes. The four measurement points taken for proper one-piece suit fitment are the same as for fire suits.

When buying a suit, you must decide between single-layer and multi-layer protection. There is roughly a $200 price difference between a standard single- and an entry level multi-layer suit. We encourage drivers to spend extra on a suit that exceeds the minimum requirements for safety.

Here’s why:

The standard single-layer suit has a second-degree burn-through time of about three to seven seconds. An entry level multi-layer suit will increase this time to about 20 seconds. These suits have a life span of about five years with proper care.

Do not dry clean your fire safety suit. Dry cleaning solutions contain flammable chemicals that can actually feed a fire. Machine washing your suit at home is acceptable, though you should avoid abrasive detergents and bleach. Safety suits should be machine washed on a gentle cycle and air dried away from direct sunlight. There are cleaning kits available that are specifically designed for fire safety suits.

Ford Racing Mustang 5-Point Safety Harness

Safety Harnessess
In any licensed racing series, you’re going to need an SFI-certified safety harness. Drag racers—and most any other type of racer outside of stock cars—will typically be looking for 16.1 SFI-rated harnesses. Stock car harnesses need to have a 16.5 SFI rating and will often feature a six- or seven-point harness instead of the more-common five-point harness.

You have a few options regarding how you choose to install your safety harness. There are two common installation types for safety harnesses—bolt-in and wraparound. Both types typically require a roll cage or roll bar for proper installation. If being installed in a vehicle without a cage, reinforcement plates should be welded to the vehicle floor to give the harness a rigid mounting point. We typically recommend wraparound harnesses because proper mounting and installation won’t require altering your roll cage or roll bar.

The two common latch styles in racing safety harnesses are latch harnesses and camlock harnesses. Latch-type harnesses are the most cost effective due to simpler mechanics, but ultimately you need to decide which type of latch system you prefer from a user experience.

Winning isn’t everything
In the 1950s, UCLA football coach Henry “Red” Sanders, and later, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi famously told their teams: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”

And hey, we get it. We like checkered flags and Victory Lane as much as anyone.

But with all due respect to coaches Sanders and Lombardi, unless they were running some 10-second quarters we don’t know about, we must respectfully disagree.

We want you to win too. Not just once, but over and over and over again. And keeping you in one piece is priority one and the first step in piling up those victories.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay safe out there.

And win.

Author: Matt Griswold

After a 10-year newspaper journalism career, Matt Griswold spent another decade writing about the automotive aftermarket and motorsports. He was part of the original OnAllCylinders editorial team when it launched in 2012.