Unlike all the other “fun” trinkets pertaining to your Camaro, safety gear is the one group of items you hope you’ll never get the chance to find out how well they work. Unfortunately, many people buy it like they purchase car insurance. That is to say they shop price on the faulty and dangerous assumption that they’ll never have to use it. We call it the “other guy” state of mind where people just figure that the bad turns in life always happen to someone else. Well, when things go sideways and you find yourself upside down and on fire, do you want to be wishing you spent a few extra bucks for a fire resistant helmet or a better driver suit? Just like insurance, you should shop like you’re gonna’ need it and that your life depends on it, because it will.
Now, shopping for safety gear can get a bit daunting, but there are several organizations that certify equipment to various standards. Your first task is to determine what sort of driving you’ll be doing. After all, autocross racing is going to require a different level of safety gear than open road racing, where speeds can exceed 140 mph. Road course gear will differ from drag racing gear requirements, and once you figure out where you’re going to pilot your Camaro, you’ll need to check with the specific sanctioning body to find out the minimum they require you to have on hand. If you’re going to engage in various types of events (let’s say, drag racing and autocross) make sure to buy gear that will pass tech at both, even if it ends up being overkill for one of them. After all, it isn’t possible to have gear that’s too safe.
When buying gear you’re going to come across SFI ratings. The SFI Foundation is a non-profit organization established to issue and administer standards for automotive and racing equipment. They were originally run by SEMA (in fact, “SFI” stood for “SEMA Foundation, Inc.”), but they are now completely independent. Participation in the program is voluntary, but since many race sanctioning bodies require SFI certification, most manufacturers play in their sandbox. You’ll find that safety gear comes in various levels of SFI ratings, so when you shop, try to make sure they are all of the same ratings. After all, having a driving suit that provides 10 seconds of protection and gloves that provide only 3 seconds, makes little sense. Both the SFI and Snell websites offer a ton of safety-related information, so be sure to check them out.
The helmet is Impact's SA2010 compliant 1320 model ($295) and features interchangeable sizing cheekpads, a fire-retardant Kevlar chinstrap and a 1?8-inch polycarbonate shield. Rated at SFI 3.2A/5 the G4 gloves ($109) offer protection along with good dexterity and grip. The Racer driving suit ($599) features a matte-finish Futura Nomex shell with a their ImpactMAX cool and comfortable fire-retardant liner, floating 360-degree sleeves, expandable lower back gusset, box quilting, inset front pockets, and a banded collar. .What is your life worth? Yeah, you could buy bargain-basement safety gear, but this high-quality gear loadout from Impact has a suggested retail price of just $1,108. The M/T Sprint shoes ($105) provide good pedal feel along with an SFI 3.2A/5 rating.
What is your life worth? Yeah, you could buy bargain-basement safety gear, but this high-quality gear loadout from Impact has a suggested retail price of just $1,108.
- The helmet is Impact's SA2010 compliant 1320 model ($295) and features interchangeable sizing cheekpads, a fire-retardant Kevlar chinstrap and a 1?8-inch polycarbonate shield.
- Rated at SFI 3.2A/5 the G4 gloves ($109) offer protection along with good dexterity and grip.
- The Racer driving suit ($599) features a matte-finish Futura Nomex shell with a their ImpactMAX cool and comfortable fire-retardant liner, floating 360-degree sleeves, expandable lower back gusset, box quilting, inset front pockets, and a banded collar.
- The M/T Sprint shoes ($105) provide good pedal feel along with an SFI 3.2A/5 rating.
No matter where you race, chances are you'll be required to have a helmet. But which type? Nothing sucks more than failing tech and sitting on the sideline because you bought a helmet that doesn't have the right certification. Also, some organizations are fine with an open-face helmet, while others require a full-face. Again, if you're going to run in a variety of events, then go full-face, since nobody is going to fail you at tech for not having an open-face helmet. Helmets are comprised of several components: the hard outer shell is the main defense against impact. Inside of that, there's an energy-absorbing material (EAM), often referred to as the liner. This liner also helps absorb impact energy and reduce trauma to the head. Lastly, there's padding, which is only there for comfort and sizing, since it doesn't absorb any impact energy. All helmets will have some sort of chinstrap to keep it in place, and full-face helmets will have a clear face shield. We shed a tear whenever we see someone driving on track with their face shield up. It's there for a reason, so please keep it down. Carbon-fiber helmets are fairly common today and can easily set you back over a grand, but their light weight really ratchets up the comfort level. Also, various helmets are shaped differently, and therefore, fit quite a bit differently, so make sure you try them on before buying.
Two groups certify helmets: SFI and Snell. We've found that most organizations call out for the Snell rating. The three designations are SA, M, and K. The K designation is for karting, so just toss that one out. The M is mostly for motorcycling, while the SA designation is for competitive auto racing. The main difference between M and SA is that the SA is tested for flammability, while the M is not. After all, when you crash on a motorcycle, you're typically tossed away from the vehicle and any resulting fire. Some autocross groups, like SCCA Solo, will let you slide by with an M rated helmet, but resist the urge to save some cash. Buy an SA-rated brain bucket. Remember, buy it like you'll need it. There will also be a date code listed. They run in five-year increments (2000, 2005, 2010). The rules typically state that you need to run the current year (2010) or the prior year (2005), so now that the SA2010 helmets are out, the SA2000 helmets will no longer pass tech for many higher speed events. So, if you see a smoking deal on an SA2005 helmet, consider the fact that in a few years, when the new SA2015 standard goes into effect, it will be put on the "no-fly" list. With that in mind, it might make better financial sense to buy the latest and greatest SA2010 standard. Lastly, if you see an H in the rating (e.g., SAH2010), then the helmet is certified as head-restraint ready (think HANS device).
After helmets, the next most common piece of gear is gloves. In addition to providing more grip on the wheel, they keep your hands, which we're all very fond of, protected from damage in case things go from bad to worse. Gloves, just like driver suits and shoes, are SFI rated to various standards. As a rule of thumb, the higher the rating (i.e., the more protection), the greater the cost. These Impact gloves carry an SFI rating of 3.3/5, which means they will protect you from a second-degree burn for a minimum of 10 seconds. (See chart elsewhere in this article.)
Another common piece of safety gear is shoes. Your Camaro is controlled with your hands and feet, so like gloves, it's imp ortant to have shoes that are comfortable and provide good pedal feel. Unlike the sneakers you wear around town, driving shoes have thin soles for better feel. These shoes from Impact have an aggressive sole design for precise pedal control in addition to a fire-retardant inner lining. Like the gloves, they are rated to SFI 3.3/5.
Like helmets, driving suits are big-ticket items. Again, people tend to price shop instead of buying based on comfort and protection. There was a time when racers just wore jeans and a cotton T-shirt (if they were really serious, it would be a long-sleeve shirt). Today, safety is taken a bit more seriously, and thanks to the aftermarket, you can be safe without having to take out a second on the house. A common specification is SFI 3.2A, which tests a suit's fire-retardant capabilities. This spec rates the garment's ability to provide Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) to both radiant heat and direct flame. This data is then converted to the time it takes before a second-degree, or skin-blistering, burn occurs. The SFI Spec 3.2A also tests thread heat resistance, zipper heat resistance, and multiple-layer thermal-shrinkage resistance. They also perform an after-flame test. Here, a direct flame is applied to the fabric and then removed. The time it takes the fabric to self-extinguish is measured and this after-flame time must be 2.0 seconds or less for it to pass. The cuff material must also pass the same test. Many people think that the SFI ratings represent the number of fabric layers in the suit, but due to the wide range of materials used by manufacturers today, it's possible for driver suits with various numbers of layers to have the same SFI rating. However, because most burns are caused by heat transfer rather than direct flame, using multiple layers of fabric provides greater insulation due to the air gaps. This is also why you don't want a fire suit that fits too snugly.
Multiple layers of fabric help keep the heat source from the skin longer because they create air gaps, and air is a poor conductor of heat energy. One way to get extra air gaps is to wear racing underwear. These should be worn with every driver suit, but especially single layer suits since it will double the minimum protection time. According to Kelli Willmore of Impact, "Nomex undergarments are always recommended and can add 10 to 20 seconds of additional fire protection. Wearing them with a suit also adds a cooling effect as well, and many of our racers prefer to go this route. As the body sweats it creates a sort of air-conditioning effect. We've have heard this time and time again from our racers."
Take care of your gear. You spent good money on equipment so don't go wearing your suit or gloves while working on your car in the paddock or pits. Not only could you end up looking grungy, but letting grease, fuel, oil, or other fluids soak into the fabric isn't a great idea since this can support flames and lower the gear's protective ability. Even fluids that don't burn are hazardous since they produce steam when exposed to heat. When cleaning your gear, follow the manufacturer's instructions and discard a suit if it's ever involved in even a small fire. What we have found to work the best when washing a suit is a detergent that is as close to neutral PH balance (such as Woolite) using cold or warm water. The suit can be tumbled dry on low heat for about 15 minutes to remove excess moisture and then hung up to dry the remainder of the way. "When washing and drying it is important to wash the suit right side out with everything all zipped up and Velcro'd up so the Velcro and zipper don't snag the material," relayed Kelli.
It's fairly common to want to dress up your driving suit with some patches to highlight races you've been in or to support sponsors, but it's imperative you do it the right way. As Kelli explained, "We recommend that the patches are made from a fire-resistant material (such as Nomex). If the racer is in need of sponsor branding, the most ideal scenario is to have the embroidery done by the factory during the assembly process to ensure the suit stays within SFI or FIA specification. Impact embroiders only the outer layer, ensuring the integrity of the suit is maintained. The addition of embroidery after the suit is assembled could reduce the TPP and decrease the suit's ability to protect from heat transfer. The FIA's specification specifically states the embroidery is not to penetrate both layers of the suit. We (Impact) have added patches onto crew and driver's suits using the original material and thread used in the manufacturing of the suit. It's never recommended to embroider a suit after assembly and penetrate that inner layer. That's a big "no-no" and would render the suit unusable in FIA-sanctioned events."
If you're really serious about safety, then you need to consider a head and neck restraint system like a HANS device. These work by coupling the motions of the head and neck to the torso. This coupling transfers the load that would have been taken by the head and neck areas and transfers them to the helmet tethers and yoke, which is secured by the shoulder belts. This means that the g-forces are distributed over a larger area that includes the chest and shoulders. Some racers think that the HANS device restricts the neck motion too much and makes it hard to look around. This isn't the case if the tethers are properly adjusted. In short, a properly fitted HANS device, along with a helmet equipped with the proper anchor points, will drastically lower the chance that you'll wind up severely injured, or worse, in a bad accident at the track. People often mistakenly think that seemingly exotic equipment like this isn't needed unless you're going very fast, but the truth is that how fast you go isn't always relevant, instead, the critical factor is how quickly you stop.
Even more important than the SFI Rating, in terms of safety, is the piece of equipment’s TPP value. The TPP, or Thermal Protective Performance, is a measurement of that garment’s ability to provide protection to both radiant heat and direct flame. The higher the TPP value the longer you can hold out before second-degree burns occur. Given this, you can have two garments with the same SFI rating, but different thermal performance. For example, two driver suits could each have an SFI rating of 3.2A/5, but one could have a TPP value of 19 (10 seconds) and the other could have a value of 25 (13 seconds). Just know that if a garment has a certain SFI rating, then you have at least the minimum amount of time to get clear of the danger. According to Kelli, “Depending on what the racer wants and needs, we can fabricate a heavier suit with more layers as long as we have submitted that layer to SFI and it has passed the required testing. We research and design our suits to exceed the TPP test, however, we also keep the weight and breathability in mind as driver fatigue is often a safety concern in hot and humid climates.The first step to getting the racers to use safety products is to make sure they are actually comfortable in their safety products.”
|SFI Rating||TPP Value||Time to 2nd Degree Burn|
The key differences between SA and M Rated Helmets
- SA standard requires flammability test while the M standard does not.
- SA standard has rollbar impact test while M standard does not.
- SA standard allows narrower visual field than M standard (Some SA helmets aren’t street legal).