National Auto Sport Association
  Competition Safety  

How Safe is Safe Enough?

by Ken Myers

So, you have decided to go racing. You want to know what safety equipment you will need to add to your car and what you will need for yourself. This article will discuss these factors and others, too. Keep a few general ideas in mind as you read this article. First, just because a piece of equipment is legal, this does not mean that it is safe. Second, just because a part is safe, that doesn’t mean that it will be legal in the class that you wish to use it in. You must understand that racing is inherently dangerous. So safety in racing is more a matter of a degree of safety. Nothing in life is absolute, except death, and I think death is the opposite of safety. So, what is safe enough?

This article will focus on sports cars but the safety message will apply to all forms of racing. All sanctioning bodies (like NASA) will have their own set of rules regarding the safety preparation of your car. Usually, as the preparation of the car is increased, so is the speed, and therefore, the safety equipment within the car needs to be stronger. In general, if you want the safest race car made, start with a car that was designed for racing. Your street car was never designed to be raced, therefore adding aftermarket safety equipment is a compromise between safety and convenience of installation.

With a few exceptions the statement of “How safe do you want to be, how much money do you have?” is as true as, “How fast do you want to go, how much money do you have?”. But some lower classes of racing will not allow safety equipment that is as safe as allowed in higher levels of racing. Other rules set minimum safety equipment levels with no maximum. Run a 4-point roll bar in wheel-to-wheel racing? To me this may not be safe, for other experienced drivers, this is overkill. After all, they’ve been racing for years and never seen anyone hurt. But where do you stop? For instance, a 4-point roll bar is not as strong as a 6-point bolt-in cage which is not as strong as an 8-point weld-in cage. How safe is safe enough?

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many other decisions must be made regarding the construction of the cage. Tubing size, tubing type (DOM, ERW, Chrome-moly), gussets, mounting location, bolt-in, weld-in, how many door bars, window net, window net mounting style, and many other items should be discussed with your fabricator or safety equipment supplier. Look around at the track to see what your competition has done in their cars.

The cage should be padded for the driver’s protection. The legal minimums in SCCA is to pad 6 inches around the driver’s head with 1" thick foam. NASA believes in your safety and requires that you also pad any tubing that your arms or legs can contact. Your body deforms and harnesses stretch in an accident so pad out a little extra length. Broken bones are no fun. The padding you purchase should be made specifically for auto racing and be high density and flame resistant. Pipe insulation at the hardware store looks similar but is not made the same. Buy the good stuff!

The cage is just part of the entire safety picture. After the cage comes the seat. The seat really should be tied directly to the cage. A hoop of roll cage tubing should come directly from the cage and under the seat. The bottom of the seat should be bolted to this framework and the back of the seat should be bolted to the harness bar of the roll bar. If the car should crash, the driver would then be tied directly to the cage. This is the safest place to be in the race car. Mounting the seat to the floor is not the best method, but this is the usual procedure.

The seats that come from the car manufacturer may be good for around town driving but they were never intended for racing. Each aftermarket seat is manufactured with a different purpose in mind. Some seats were designed for extra support for street driving, some for autocross, some for racing. Be sure you know the difference! Just because a seat has cut-outs for harnesses, doesn’t necessarily mean that it can withstand a high speed crash. Seats with articulated backs were generally not designed for racing. Seats designed for autocross were not designed to withstand the forces of a 120 mph crash into a concrete barrier. If you wish to be as safe as possible, look at what the professional race drivers use. In NASCAR you will find full containment aluminum seats with rib supports, helmet supports, shoulder supports and leg extensions. In road racing you will find Kevlar/Carbon Fiber seats as well. Many of these professional drivers have their seat custom made for added support and safety. Experience has told us that fiberglass seats get brittle with age and tend to break under impact. I would stay away from this type of fabrication for speeds exceeding an autocross. Purchase an high-quality aluminum seat or an FIA rated seat. Remember, FIA-rated seats are only good for 5 years.

NASA has a new rule requiring either a right side head support on your seat or a right side net. The head support or net needs to restrain both the head and upper body in an accident. Care needs to be given to installing a system that will prevent injuries in a side impact. Your harnesses and HANS device will not prevent injuries in a side accident.

Harnesses are carefully designed to mount to the frame and roll cage of the race car. When mounting to a production car, the lap belts should be mounted per the manufacturer’s instructions and you may not be able to use the stock seat belt mounting locations. The shoulder harnesses should connect directly to a harness bar on the roll bar. All belts should be installed per the instructions to minimize injuries under high G-loads. If wearing a HANS device, follow their instructions, too.

Fuel cells, in general, are not required by NASA. If you are going to install a cell, make sure that it is FIA FT-3 legal. Don’t be fooled by inexpensive plastic cells even if it comes in a steel container. These are not as safe as the proper rubberized bladder.

The fuel cell must be installed correctly and securely. Always use the proper AN fittings to avoid leaks and fire. The foam inside the bladder provides not only fuel slosh baffling but also helps suppress explosions. This foam ages, however, and must be checked/replaced after a few years to avoid clogging the fuel filter. The bladder also ages, check with the current NASA rules for replacement requirements.

Fire suppression is an area that one should not scrimp on. A hand-held fire extinguisher will probably do the job in a Showroom Stock car, but as the preparation level increases, so does the chance of fire. A good Halon 1301 fire system cannot be beat for non-toxic fire extinguishment. Five pounds will probably be enough for two compartments, but use ten pounds to protect three compartments. You can also use a separate system for the fuel cell. Automatic systems are available that are heat activated. If you would like to be more environmentally green, a AFFF fire system may be best for you. These are a water and foam system that will quench the fire.

Once all the major equipment for the car is installed, look around your driver’s compartment. Are there any sharp edges or corners that could be rounded off or padded? How about putting a pad over the steering wheel hub. Remember, your harnesses stretch in an accident.

Think of safety equipment like life insurance, buy as much as you can afford. Racing is expensive, if you can’t afford the proper safety equipment, maybe you shouldn’t race. Ultimately, the decision is yours, choose the level of safety that you feel comfortable with.

Personal Driving Gear

So far we have gone over the safety gear for the car for racing. Some of the points made above are valid for personal safety equipment as well. I’ll repeat them here. First, just because a piece of equipment is legal, this does not mean that it is safe. Second, in personal safety gear, what is required is usually only a set minimum. Again, safety in racing is a matter of degree of safety. How safe do you wish to be?

The driver’s helmet has changed a lot over the years since the time they were made of leather. Sanctioning bodies now require a Snell certified helmet for racing. SA-rated helmets are made for auto racing and should not be confused with M-rated helmets made for motorcycle riding. Current helmets carry a SA-2005 rating but SA-2000 is still good for most organizations. Not all helmets are created equally. Choose a helmet that fits you correctly. The more expensive helmets will often have the added benefits of a lighter weight. Having extra weight on your head in an accident is asking for extra injuries. Remember, as we get older, we injure more easily and we take longer to heal. Buy the lightest helmet you can afford.

Open-faced helmets are fine for autocrossing but for road racing, if you care about your face, wear a closed-face helmet. In an accident, debris and car parts will be flying. The steering wheel will come to you as the suspension is crushed. Your harnesses will stretch as we discussed earlier. Fire may also be present in an accident. Protect what is important to you.

Make sure that your helmet fits correctly. Most people will select a helmet that is too large. A helmet should fit snug but not so tight that it is unbearable. With the helmet on, check for horizontal and vertical movement. Grab the helmet and move it from side to side and up and down while facing a mirror. Did you notice any skin movement? You should. Now, with the chin strap fastened, try to roll the helmet forward off the top of your head. If it comes off, the helmet is too large. Allow the helmet to be on the too tight side rather than too loose. The helmet can be like a pair of shoes, they do break-in a little with time.

If you have facial hair or long hair protruding from the helmet, you will need a balaclava. Also called a hoodsock, it is made with fire-resistant material and will require a 1/2 to 1 size increase in your helmet. Be sure to wear your sock when trying on new helmets. An added benefit to the balaclava is that it will absorb sweat. Balaclavas are easy to wash where helmets are not. Your helmet will stay fresher, longer and the balaclava will keep the sweat out of your eyes.

Over the past few of years, major developments in fire resistant material have allowed suit designers to reduce the number of layers and give equal or better protection than before. Currently, NASA allows 2-layer SFI-5 rated suits to be worn without underwear. This will allow you to wear just a cool cotton t-shirt under your suit to absorb sweat and keep you as cool as possible. However, we recommend that you always wear fire resistant underwear when racing, even when it is not required. When looking for a new suit, look for features to allow freedom of movement when sitting down and driving. Suits that are designed to look stylish in the pits may bind on you in the driver’s seat. Suits that incorporate knit material for venting will be cooler and therefore, more comfortable.

If driving in a hot climate, consider a cool suit under you driving suit. Allow room for this when picking out your driving suit. Some cool suits also have a hood for better cooling of the head. If you choose one of these suits, you will have to get a larger helmet.

If buying a single-layer suit, you will be required to wear fire-resistant underwear. In my own un-scientific experiments I found that one layer of Nomex will burn through in about seven seconds. With two layers, the first layer still burns through in seven seconds but the charred-remains protect the second layer from burning. At least two layers are required for the system to work.

Now that you know that, how many layers do you want on your gloves? Don’t worry about steering wheel feel, you’ll get used to the extra layer right away. Besides, your hands are your way out of a burning car.

Fire resistant socks and shoes complete the list. Make sure your shoes were designed for the job. Non-synthetic uppers are a must. If you decide to wear leather tennis shoes, sand the sole of the shoe to round off the edges so that your foot does not get caught on the edge of the pedals.

We have now discussed the personal gear that you will find required for racing. If you check out other forms of racing like dirt track or go-kart, you will notice another piece of equipment that the drivers wear and I highly recommend for all forms of racing...the helmet support. Also known as a neck brace, these donut-shaped collars perform three functions. First, it supports the neck from the high G-forces in turns. Second, it will help prevent fire from going under your helmet. Third, and most important, in an accident it will help keep your chin from hitting your sternum. Dirt racers know about this because they are constantly banging on each other (trading paint). Take a hint from these guys, it may not be required but buy a helmet support! In a NASA Officials Training School we found that these helmet supports also help keep the head and neck in alignment in an accident and your airway will more likely be kept open in case you are knocked unconscious in an accident. (These devices have not been tested by the SFI to the 38.1 requirements and have not been proven in the same way to prevent neck injuries. Never use the foam neck collar at the same time as a SFI-38.1 head and neck restraint.)

Although I still believe in the helmet supports, a SFI 38.1 certified head and neck restraint (such as the HANS device) is much better. Many sanctioning bodies already require these devices. This is my personal choice when I race.

Carefully check your driving equipment, 2-3 weeks before your race, for holes, rips and loose stitching. Replace worn items before the tech inspector tells you to. If you get into an accident and your helmet saves your life, buy a new one and put the old one in the trophy case. The helmet may not look damaged but it was designed to take only one impact. If you get mad at the races and throw down your helmet, throw it away. You could continue wearing it at future races, but what is your life worth to you, a few hundred bucks?

As with the safety equipment in your car, you should look at your personal gear like life insurance, buy as much as you can afford. If you can’t afford to be safe, maybe you can’t afford to race.

This series of educational articles is designed to help increase your performance and safety on the race track. Mr. Myers is the owner of I/O Port Racing Supplies and is a NASA’s Safety Tech Inspector.

Questions or comments can be directed to Ken Myers at 925-254-7223 or email to ken@IOPortRacing.com.

 

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