Ed Note: This is part two of three in the series of articles on the safety measures I have implemented in Project CrossTime. Part One focused on how I needed to get my butt in gear and get serious about safety. In this segment (Part Two), I’m writing about driver safety — the items I wear while in the car on-track to protect myself in the event of an accident. Part Three will concentrate on safety measures installed on the car itself. (Special thanks to Jane Absalom for the lead photo above).
When it comes to driver safety equipment, most everyone wants to get the best bang for the buck without sacrificing quality, materials, or function. As I said in part one of this series, cost is a big barrier to entry into racing, and safety equipment often takes a back seat to performance mods. But, it doesn’t have to! You can get top-notch, certified equipment at a reasonable price.
The number one thing to keep in mind with safety equipment is price doesn’t always mean a difference in quality. In order for a product to carry an SFI, FIA, or Snell SA certification, it must meet the requirements of those organizations — regardless of price. If it doesn’t meet those requirements, it doesn’t get the certification sticker. And if it doesn’t have the sticker, chances are the racing sanctioning body isn’t going to recognize it as safe and won’t let you run with it.
That is why RaceQuip was always on my list from the start. Its mission statement is to deliver “The Best Value In Auto Racing Safety” and it’s been doing just that since 1975. It makes value-priced SFI-rated racing suits, shoes, gloves, harnesses, nets, restraints, Snell SA-rated helmets, and more. The majority of my gear came from RaceQuip, with the addition of a head and neck restraint from HANS through Summit Racing Equipment. Follow along as I go through the items I will be wearing while racing this year.
Finding the Right Helmet
In my introduction article on CrossTime, I told you my first purchase was RaceQuip’s new medium-sized Vesta15 Snell SA2015 Full Face Helmet (P/N: 283003) from Speed Parts Distributors in Olive Branch, Mississippi. I really like it. It has a hand-laid, composite fiber-reinforced polymer shell with an expanded polystyrene liner that is covered in Comfort Fit Nomex fabric. I’m not exactly sure what it is for (maybe to fit my big nose), but it has a pronounced snout which looks really cool. Although my friend Chris (who also bought one) found it a little distracting, it doesn’t bother me at all and the peripheral vision is excellent.
After my first event trying to jamb my sunglasses inside the helmet, I went back and bought the dark smoked shield (P/N: 205004) to eliminate that problem, which I highly recommend! They actually have a few different shield finishes you can choose from. I’d also recommend picking up a few extra screws that hold the visor in place if you are going to be swapping back and forth (better safe than sorry). The helmet also comes with a carrying bag, but I upgraded and bought a nice wool-lined bag (P/N: 300003) to keep the gloss-black finish from getting scratched up.
The Snell SA2015 rating is the major reason for buying a new helmet. The biggest upgrade with the 2015 rating is the helmet must include M6 threaded inserts for head and neck restraint anchors, which was also on my purchase list.
You’ll be spending a lot of time with your noggin stuffed inside of a helmet, so make sure you get one that fits correctly. It should be snug enough that it doesn’t wobble around on your head, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re in a vise either. I also tried on RaceQuip’s Pro15 helmet which meets those same Snell SA requirements, but it didn’t fit as snuggly as the Vesta15 helmet on my narrow head, so I paid a little more ($349.95) to get the Vesta and I love it.
Regardless of brand, or even model within a brand, you should try on different styles and sizes. Make sure it is the right fit for you.
When I purchased the helmet, I received a RaceQuip catalog and noticed it was introducing a new Premier Line. It wasn’t on its website yet, so I placed a call to Roger Mealey, the marketing director for RaceQuip to see what it was all about. “We’ve always been concentrated on the budget-conscious racer, but for years dealers have been asking us to expand our product line with higher-end offerings,” Roger said. “In 2019, we will be rolling out more new products in this new Premier Line. Our first introductions were the Vesta15 Carbon Fiber and Matrix helmets that are already available and our Chevron-5 Nomex SFI-5 rated Racing Suits will be available by February 2019.”
Lucky for me, Roger told me they had one medium prototype of the Chevron-1 suit at headquarters they didn’t need anymore if I would like to try it. I’ll never look a gift-horse in the mouth, so I jumped at the opportunity. The Chevron-1 is a single-layer, lighter-weight suit than its multi-layer brother, which is usually required in door-to-door type racing. In the type of racing I’m doing (HPDE, Autocross, and Time Trial), a racing suit isn’t even required, but I like having some insurance. The Chevron-1 is perfect because it exceeds the SFI 3.2A/1 rating which should buy me a little extra time to get out of the car over just wearing cotton.
The suit I received (P/N: 130903) looks fantastic in black with a contrasting white Chevron pattern box quilting down the front. It’s a single-layer Pyrovatex FRC construction. It has 180-degree floating arm gussets, knit stretch panels on the sides for flexibility, a two-piece adjustable belt, boot-cuff legs, and a heavy-duty two-way brass zipper. Being new to racing, I wasn’t sure why you needed that zipper until I had to go to the bathroom and figured out just how convenient that was!
The medium size fit my height (5’ 10”) perfectly, but I will say it is pretty generous width-wise for my 170-pound frame. The extra width doesn’t bother me at all . . . heck, it’s probably more comfortable because of it! Even if it looked like a chicken suit I wouldn’t care, as long as it serves its purpose when needed. And, unless you want to pay a ton of money to have one custom-made, you won’t find a better deal at around $120 for a great looking suit with an SFI-rating.
I stuck within the RaceQuip family to round out the rest of my personal safety equipment needs because of the great value. Seeing I’ll be running the Miata roofless, I decided to get some Arm Restraints (P/N: 391002) in the event of a rollover. The polypropylene webbing is adjustable, both on the 2-inch cuff that goes around your arms and the 1-inch-wide tethers that attach to your harness. The high-grade steel hardware holds the webbing tight.
Once you’ve got the cuff’s set to your arm size and tethers set to the length needed to keep your arms in the car, there is nothing more to do other than make sure you pass the loop through the shoulder harness buckle before you lock it in. Note this very important point: be sure the restraint loops are on the shoulder harness buckle so it keeps the arm restraint away from the latch.
I had never used arm restraints before, so they took a little getting used to at first, but now I don’t even notice I’m wearing them. I was used to using my left arm very exaggeratedly out the window to point other drivers by me on-track, but honestly, I shouldn’t have been sticking my arm out the window anyway. I am a big proponent of wearing arm restraints in open cockpits. I don’t care if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, if you roll, you can’t keep your arms from flailing around. The arm restraints are only $29.95 from RaceQuip and can save you from having to learn to drive with your feet.
Your hands are probably the most critical appendage as a driver — they connect you to the car. As such, companies offer many different options for gloves and RaceQuip is no different. My advice here is to try them on and find the ones that are right for your hands. I ended up choosing the large-sized 359 Series Double Layer SFI-5 Outseam Angle Cut Gloves (P/N: 359605). The gloves are double-layered Nomex and exceed the SFI 3.3/5-rating.
The glove appears as though it is inside-out (which I guess it is) — the seams are on the outside. I chose this glove because I thought it would provide added comfort not to feel the seams. It turns out this style glove was developed for F1 drivers about 20 years ago when they complained the seams hindered their “feel” of the steering wheel (great minds think alike!). I’m glad I chose them; they are extremely comfortable! When you wrap your hands around the steering wheel, you don’t feel a seam.
Roger added “While at the PRI show this year, when someone was looking at the gloves in our booth, I would do the normal thing and start pointing out all the features. Finally, I realized all I had to do was say try it on. The first comment was usually something like Wow”!
Racequip also makes the outseam glove with just a cuff instead of the long angle cut gauntlet. I chose the long angle cut gauntlet to provide more protection up my arm, but I fell in love with them because they make it easier to pull the gloves on. The suede is super soft and supple, while the mitered fingers keep the glove from bunching up when gripping the wheel — I wish my winter gloves were this comfortable! For $69.95, they are worth every penny.
RaceQuip offers two styles of shoes that both exceed the SFI 3.3/5-rating and I got a chance to try both on at Speed Parts. I chose a size 11 305 Series Euro Carbon-L SFI Racing Shoes (P/N: 30500110) not only because of the cool-looking suede and Euro styling with the Carbon-L pads on the toe, but they just seemed to fit a little tighter across my B-width foot. Not that they are narrow by any means, but if you have a really wide foot, you may want to go with the 303 Series shoe that is all suede.
Both the 305 and 303 are very comfortable for driving and have a molded-rubber sole that extends up the heel a little ways to reduce wear. The ankles are padded with an Achilles flex opening for added comfort when downshifting and the liner is a flame retardant Pyrovatex material. By the way, RaceQuip stocks sizes from 1 to 20, so I think they probably have every possible road racer covered (I’d love to meet the guy wearing size 20 shoes and watch him dance on the pedals!). The 305 shoes cost $89.95 from RaceQuip.
Finally, it was time to address the last line of defense for my skin — SFI 3.3 Rated FR long underwear. RaceQuip offers tops and bottoms in sizes from extra small to 5XL. The machine-washable, lightweight Aramid and FRC Blended fabric wicks moisture very well and dries quickly.
My personal recommendation is to go one size larger than the suit you order. I wear a medium suit, so I assumed I should order the medium underwear (P/N: 421993-top and 422993-bottom). While it “fits,” it is a tight fit and is really tough to get off after you’ve been sweating. Seeing I needed more than one set of underwear anyway, I went back and bought the large size bottoms (P/N: 421995) and top (P/N: 422995) and I like those much better.
Much like Henry Ford, RaceQuip offers any color you want as long as it’s black. A good idea so it doesn’t show dirt, but on sunny days when I get out of my black suit for some heat-relief, I don’t get much because the underwear is black too. I actually take my suit and underwear off if I’m not in the car anyway so I don’t get my racing gear all messed up working on the car, but I would like to have an option for a white top, at least. The bottoms and tops I wear list at $59.95 each on RaceQuip’s website.
The last pieces of my ensemble were fire retardant socks and a hood. The socks are available from size small to 2XL, while the hood is one-size-fits-all and comes in either single or double layer. Both items exceed SFI 3.3 certification and are machine washable.
There isn’t much to say about socks. I will say they don’t stretch much and are rather tight around my calf, but they need to be so they protect your lower leg. As for the hood, I got the double-layer which features flat seams for comfort. While it is comfortable, my advice here is to make sure you have the eye-opening pulled down to your eyebrows when you pull your helmet on so it doesn’t bunch and push the seam against your forehead. The socks list for $24.95 and the double-layer hood lists for $39.95.
Because I installed a rollcage, racing seat, and harnesses in the car, it was imperative that I buy a head and neck restraint. I’ll be honest here, I didn’t do a ton of research into all the different head and neck restraint devices on the market. I am no expert in this field, but I can tell you there are a ton of different options out there with varying ways the tethers connect and even different ways to wear them. There are also huge swings in price from $300 to $1,200. The one common connection, however, is that they anchor to the helmet in the same place. Summit Racing has six different companies that sell restraints with more than 300 SKUs — it can all get very confusing.
Not knowing a lot about head and neck restraints, and without a place to try them on, I wasn’t going to take a chance from a picture on a website. Instead, I talked with some more experienced drivers to see what they used and allowed me to try theirs on. I really liked the HANS Performance Sport II my friend Chris has, but after researching them on Summit’s site, I decided to upgrade a bit and went with the medium-sized HANS Pro Ultra-Lite Series Model 20M with quick-click anchors (P/N: DK 14237.421 SFI).
Made from aerospace-grade carbon, the Ultra-Lite saved me more than 200 grams over the one Chris has. That didn’t matter that much to me, but what stood out was it said it allowed for easier entry/exit from smaller, tighter vehicles — which the Miata certainly is. The sliding tethers allow a great range of movement, I don’t feel hindered from seeing around me at all once I’m strapped in.
The HANS comes complete with pads, tethers, and anchors for one helmet. I really like the quick-click anchors, they make it much quicker to get the tethers unstrapped from the helmet, make a loud click to know they’re locked, and have a bright orange pull string so corner workers know how to release it. Well worth the upgrade! The price for my HANS was $449.00 from Summit Racing.
The final suggested retail price for the safety-specific items I am now wearing was $1,293.60. While this total is more than I paid for the car, it didn’t break the bank, and you can do it for less, if budget is a real issue for you. I have been wearing these safety items for about five events now, and I really think I made great decisions for my particular car and monetary situation. I have the safety equipment necessary to protect me for the majority of situations in which I might need to utilize them. Some people may believe that not all of these items are needed, or even that I need more, but I believe I have provided myself with enough safety gear.
I asked Roger for any other thoughts on product selection or things I might not be considering to pass on to readers and he had some good ones. He said, “safety equipment can often be used for several years, so look over the horizon at what may happen in the future. Could you possibly be allowed to drive a friends car where you would be required by rules to wear different gear? Do you have thoughts of moving to a different division? If so, then that open face helmet you use for autocross or timed events might not work for a wheel-to-wheel division, so maybe you should go ahead and buy a full face helmet. The same holds true for your suit. An SFI-1 may be all that’s required for your current division, but if you move up in class will an SFI-5 be required? Keep those things in mind when making your purchase.” These are great considerations from an expert in the field.
Sure, safety equipment can put a dent in your wallet, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a dent in my wallet than in my head. Whether you mirror the decisions I made or go your own way, please make sure to address safety in your race car. No one wants to look back and think “I wish I would’ve . . . .” I hope part two of this series gave you some insight into the decisions I made for my personal safety. Stay tuned for part three where I discuss the items I put IN the car to protect me while on the track.