by John Ruther, Chief Driving Instructor, PCA Chicago Region
Whether you are new to track or autocross driving or a driver with years of experience, selecting the appropriate safety equipment is one of the most important decisions you can make.
Most Safety Equipment items are rated and approved by one of several agencies. Helmets are approved by The Snell Memorial foundation (SNELL) and the Federation de l’Automobile (FIA). Other racing equipment items are approved by either the SFI Foundation (SFI) or the FIA. The appropriate approval of all safety equipment items will give the user the confidence that their items meet the required safety standards.
To participate in a Driver’s Education event you must wear, at a minimum, full-length cotton pants, long sleeved cotton shirts, cotton socks and full coverage shoes and a helmet rated SNELL SA 2015 or later. The SNELL SA rating stands for Special Application which means Auto Racing. If you are going to be driving an open car, your helmet must be a full face one with a shield. It is highly recommended that the Driver also wear Arm Restraints.
For Autocross events, you must wear full coverage shoes and a helmet rated at SNELL SA 2010 or later. If the car does not have a windshield, the occupants must wear eye protection specifically meant to protect eyes from flying objects (shatterproof eye protection).
Novice DE Drivers
Incremental best describes how new drivers should approach their selection of safety gear. Your first few events will be at slower speeds and with an instructor and you will be making the decision as to whether this sport is for you.
This is why I suggest that your initial purchase be limited to a name-brand, entry-level, full-face helmet and a balaclava. Name brand because you want quality. Entry level, because all helmets must meet a minimum level of safety requirements and the features that make them expensive (materials, strength above the minimum standard, weight, custom fit, integrated electronics, hydration systems, etc.) are not necessary for the novice driver still determining how frequently they will be driving on a track. Full face because if you are in an incident and the airbag goes off, the full-face helmet will provide more protection from the airbag deployment which comes out like a hammer.
Finally, I recommend a balaclava (head sock) because it will absorb the sweat and keep it from running into your eyes and it will also keep the oils from your hair and scalp out of the lining of your helmet. It also makes it easier to use a communicator when you are working with an instructor.
Intermediate DE Drivers
After you have been driving for a season or two and are sure this sport is for you, the next level of equipment usually involves Nomex (i.e., fire retardant material) driving gloves and driving shoes.
Leather and carbon fiber steering wheels can become slippery in the summer when your hands are prone to sweating. Nomex driving gloves not only prevent your hands from slipping on the wheel, but also provide fire and abrasion protection should you be involved in a crash.
Things to consider when looking for gloves:
- Proper Fit – Make sure the gloves fit snugly but are not too tight as they will be very difficult to put on and take off during hot days if they are too tight. The fingers should also not be too long.
- Palm grip – Most gloves now come with fire retardant silicone or leather grip areas on the palm and fingers that provide optimal grip while staying light and flexible.
- Cuff mechanism – Make sure the gloves you purchase are able to keep the glove snug against your wrist.
- Pre-Curved Design – The glove is sewn with the fingers in a pre-curved position which results in less bunching of the material in the palm area when you grip the wheel.
- The Gauntlet – This is the part of the glove that covers your wrist and lower forearm. Make sure this overlaps the cuff and sleeve of what you will be wearing (long sleeved shirt or racing suit).
- Seams – Seams can either be inside or outside. An inside seam glove has the seam between your finger and the glove, while in an outside seam glove the seam is on the outside of the glove resulting in less irritation of the seam on your fingers.
Many track day enthusiasts drive their entire career using sneakers or other non-racing shoes. This is especially the case when driving a PDK type of car where the need to work the pedals is reduced.
Racing shoes are usually narrow with thin soles and a curved heal. These features allow for more room, easier access, and better feel of the pedals, and make it easier to role on the throttle or to heel and toe the brake and gas in a manual transmission car.
Things to consider when looking for shoes:
- Proper Fit – Most Racing shoes are relatively narrow. However, for drivers with wide feet, OMP (an Italian safety equipment manufacturer) makes an EE width racing shoe.
- Sole construction – Most racing shoes have very thin soles. This improves pedal feel, but they are for driving not walking around the paddock. When you get out of the car, put your casual shoes on. The soles of your racing shoes will last much longer.
- Mid top or High top – Most racing shoes are mid-top and a few are high top. These are required by the approval agencies to provide additional support and protection. Make sure the shoe you purchase is tall enough so the cuff of your racing suit (if you have one) fits inside of the shoe.
- Construction – Racing shoes are typically made from leather or suede. Leather shoes are more durable, but tend to be hotter if the leather is not perforated. Suede shoes wear more quickly and the lighter colors show scuff marks and the colors tend to fade more readily. All approved racing shoes will have a Nomex lining to protect from fire.
Experienced DE Drivers
As you become more experienced, your lap times tend to go down and your speed tends to go up. This is the point where you may want to consider the next levels of safety equipment. This generally means a six-point racing harness and a Head and Neck Restraint. Depending on the car, this can also mean replacing the stock seat with a seat which contains harness slots for all harnesses to pass through the shell. Even though head restraint seats provide excellent lateral head protection, they are not legal to be used if your car is driven on the street. The use of a “proper race seat” with harnesses and a head and neck restraint will also require adding at a minimum harness-bar or roll-bar to attach the belts.
In the Chicago Region of the Porsche Club of America, you are required to use proper race seat, a six-point harness and a head and neck restraint if you want to drive in the fastest run groups.
An additional piece of safety equipment you may want to consider is a Nomex driving suit.
Up until recently, racing harnesses were available in either five or six-point configuration. However, the FIA recently changed its stance on five-point belts and now only approves six-point harnesses. The difference between a five- and six-point harness is the number of belts that attach the harness system to the car. Specifically, the five-point harness has a single anti-submarine belt attachment under the seat and the six-point has two anti-submarine belts. In either case, the belt comes up through a hole in the bottom seat cushion between your legs and attaches to a pair of lap-belts with a central buckle. There are also a pair of shoulder harnesses that attach to the same central locking mechanism. In most harness systems the anti-submarine belts are permanently attached to the central buckle. Use of a Cam-lock buckle is far preferable to the “old style” Latch & Link system.
Things to consider when looking for a Racing harness:
- The width of the shoulder belts. They are generally either two or three inches. The two-inch ones work best with a HANS device.
- Pull-Up or Pull-Down lap belts. Pull-up means you pull up on the lap belts to tighten, pull-down means you pull down. Some belts can be made to work either way. The vast majority of the new belts are of the Pull-Up type. Personally, I find these easier to get tight.
- The quality and smoothness of the adjusters for the belts. The better belts use aluminum adjusters and are smooth and easy to adjust.
- Mounting hardware. Some belts are designed to work with the GT3 sport seats. If this is the type of car you have, it is definitely a plus. Other harness systems attach with a spring-loaded clip on end that attaches to an eye-bolt. And in many cases, both the submarine belts and the shoulder belts just wrap around a bar.
- The color.
Head and Neck Restraint
A Head and Neck Restraint (generically called a HANS Device for Head and Neck Support) is required when using a six-point harness. These types of belts keep you tight against the seat while driving. However, in an impact the belts are designed to stretch as the body decelerates. It is during the deceleration process that the head continues to move forward in a frontal crash, putting enormous, potentially fatal, stress on the neck resulting in a basal skull fracture.
There are several brands of approved Head and Neck Restraints. Each of these has pluses and minuses, but they all accomplish the same thing – they prevent your head from snapping forward, protecting your neck from injury. Some of these devices are lighter (i.e. more expensive) than others. However, this really is of little consequence, since the device is secured to your body by the shoulder harnesses so lighter is not necessarily better or more effective, it’s just more expensive.
All Head and Neck Restraints come in a variety of sizes and angles to fit the specific driver and seat configurations. Please see an authorized dealer for advice on which type and size is best for you. All authorized dealers are trained to install the mounting posts to the side of your helmet.
Nomex Racing Suits
Nomex Racing Suits provide protection from fire and are a comfortable and convenient outfit to wear during a track day event. They are much more comfortable and cooler than jeans in the summer and warmer in the spring and fall. When you are not driving, you can unzip the top portion and wrap the sleeves around your waist, providing a quick change to a short sleeve shirt in the summer.
Suits vary widely in price and the more you pay, the lighter, cooler, and more comfortable they become. Features the more expensive suits have include:
- More tailored fit
- Flat, anti-rubbing seams
- Semi-floating bellows at the legs, arms, lower back, and neck maximizes your freedom of movement.
- Extra breath-ability in the lower back, hips, neck, and under the sleeves improves comfort.
- Pre-curved sleeves and legs to maximize comfort.
From personal experience, I would purchase the best suit you can comfortably afford. With proper care, they last many years and improve the overall driving event experience and safety.
For anyone other than the most hard-core competitive Autocross driver, the suggestions for the novice and intermediate DE drivers would apply. Many of our very active, talented, autocross participants find that a helmet is all they need.
If you want to progress to national competitions, then things like six-point harnesses and the like might be appropriate, but for the typical autocross participant, those are overkill.
What types of safety equipment you need and which brands and features make the most sense for you is very dependent on where you are in your driving career. Starting with the basics and incrementally building your equipment as your experience grows is generally most appropriate for people entering the sport.
Finally, working with a trusted and experienced supplier is critical when choosing this type of equipment. Most of these safety equipment items require advice on fitment and compatibility for the type of driving you are planning to do. Purchasing safety equipment items on-line should be avoided as all of these items need to fit properly to be effective and comfortable.
Since all brands of equipment fit differently, you will be much better off if you can go to a Safety Equipment supplier that stocks a wide variety of helmets, harnesses, head and neck restraints, suits, shoes, gloves and seats. In the Chicago Region, the oldest and most well-known supplier is Northstar Motorsports, located in Barrington, Illinois. Their website is https://www.northstarmotorsports.com/.