Track days have become incredibly popular over the last few years, and we are seeing more opportunities pop up for car guys to spend a day at the track testing their skills and finding the mechanical limits of their rides.
Whether your ride is a sports car fresh off the showroom floor, a classic hot rod you have rebuilt from the frame up or simply your daily driver, a day on a real racetrack allows you to push both your car and yourself in ways that you never can (or should) on the street. Being able to blast around a closed course at wide-open throttle and barrel into turns with no worries of oncoming traffic or clashing with the authorities can be a religious experience for most car guys and gals.
If you have never taken your ride to a local track day or autocross event, we definitely recommend you put it on your bucket list. By and large, track day events are quite affordable, the people involved are welcoming and there usually are times set aside and instructors available for beginners. Practically any car or truck is allowed to participate as long as it isn’t actually falling apart and leaving shrapnel all over the race track. Although there may be friendly competition for lap times, the atmosphere is generally laid back with everyone looking to enjoy their cars and have a good time.
While your car may need only minimal preparation, there are a few requirements for your personal safety, which prompted a conversation.
RaceQuip’s Patrick Utt, who has owned racecars and participates in track days himself.
“The high-performance driving experience (hpde) or track day event is a lot of fun,” Utt agrees. “These days it isn’t just about how much power you can make with your engine. It’s also about handling and having the right chassis and suspension package. That has moved the proving ground for many performance enthusiasts away from the drag strip to a road course facility.”
RaceQuip is a dedicated safety products company specializing in personal safety equipment (everything from driver’s suits and helmets to seat harnesses) for the budget-minded driver, so we asked Utt to guide us on what we need to get started.
“Many times safety equipment is mandated by the track or even the track’s insurer, so you’ll want to check with the track before you go. But most insurers and organizations are realizing that there is a ready-made set of rules that are easy to understand and enforce, set forth by the SFI and Snell Foundations.”
Both are so influential that most tracks and sanctioning bodies, from HPDE all the way to the highest levels of professional racing, require every piece of personal safety equipment you wear – from the helmet to driving shoes – to have a certification from one of the foundations. (www.SFIFoundation.com)
The SFI Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to design tests and set standards for the quality and effectiveness of specialty performance and racing equipment. While the SFI is involved with many areas of the race car, probably its most important area of concern is personal safety equipment. The Snell Foundation is very similar except it concentrates solely on helmets.
While the SFI or Snell certification is by far the most important factor when choosing safety gear, there are still many variables when it comes to choosing the best pieces of safety equipment for you. At many track days, the only requirement is a Snell SA compliant helmet, so we’ll start there.
An auto racing helmet is designed to take a blunt force hit from a roll cage multiple times, while a motorcycle helmet is designed to protect you from sliding forces if you fall off your bike and skid along on the asphalt. Another difference with a motorsports-specific helmet is it will be made from more fire-retardant materials than a typical motorcycle helmet. For these reasons and others, we definitely recommend using a motorsports-specific racing helmet even if the track still allows use of a motorcycle helmet.
An auto racing helmet will be Snell certified with an “SA” designation while a motorcycle helmet will have an “M” designation, which will be on the Snell decal found somewhere inside the helmet.
The Snell Foundation releases an updated helmet testing certification every five years. Right now the newest designation is SA 2010. An SA 2015 designation is coming, but those helmets won’t be on the market until November 2015. So if you are in the market for a new helmet now, it isn’t worth waiting for the new designation. Generally, most tech officials will allow a helmet from the current as well as the previous generation certifications. So that means in 2014 and until November 2015 you can race with either an SA 2010 or SA 2005 certified helmet.
Even if your helmet still qualifies, it is never a good idea to use a racing helmet that is more than 10 years old, even if you are only using the helmet a couple times a year. Over time, the foam liner – not the soft stuff for comfort, but the denser material behind it that protects your head from impact – can break down from the glue used in the helmet, sweat, and just general wear and tear. So after five to seven years of use, you really should look into replacing your trusty old helmet with a new one.
It is critical to find a helmet that fits you properly. The general rule when sizing a helmet is to measure your head around the forehead just above the eyebrows with a cloth measuring tape and compare that to the manufacturer’s size chart. If you do not have one, you can use a piece of string or yarn to find the size of your head, then lay it out flat on a table and measure the length of the string.
The helmet you choose also should be one you are comfortable wearing for extended periods and should fit snugly around your head and cheeks to the point that it is almost uncomfortable. This is because the soft foam padding will break-in over time and compress a bit. A helmet that is too comfortable when new will be too loose once you’ve worn it for a few sessions on the track.
And if you are replacing a helmet you already have, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the sizes are all the same from one manufacturer to the next. Just because you wear a large with Brand X, doesn’t mean Brand Y’s size large helmet with provide the same fit.
“Another consideration you will need to make with your helmet is whether you want an open-face helmet or a full-face design,” Utt adds. “If you are allowed to run either, we really recommend a full-face helmet to our customers for a number of reasons.
“An open-face helmet does leave some vulnerability in an impact because it does not cover your face. Unless you are using goggles, your eyes are also exposed to dust and grit. Plus, many people don’t think about it, but in an HPDE event where people are driving street cars, the windshield is glass instead of Lexan like in a race car. Even though modern cars all have safety glass for the windshield, you still don’t want small particles of that stuff getting in your face in the event of an accident.”
“Finally, if you ever decide to move up to a racing series,” he adds, “many organizations will not allow an open-face helmet. So starting out with a full-face helmet will keep you from having to purchase another one on down the road. Cost really isn’t an issue, either. We have full-face helmets that are fully compliant with the latest standards that can be had for as little as 20 bucks more than an open-face helmet.”
One last caveat: Unless you have unlimited funds, resist the urge to spend big bucks on the top-of-the-line carbon fiber helmet with all the options. The biggest feature that the carbon fiber helmets have to offer is slightly less weight. As long as the helmet is SA 2010 certified, it will provide the same protection in the event of a crash.
“When you are driving a street car around the track in anger, you might be surprised to find that you’re going to get some blisters,” Utt says. “It is definitely worth investing in a pair of racing gloves, just for your comfort. Rather than try to use a set of mechanics gloves, you might as well get a set of racing gloves because if you do any other racing in the future, you can use them. Plus, the racing glove is going to be made with a leather palm which will give you a much better grip and feel through the glove to your hand.”
A good racing shoe is the one piece of personal protective equipment that will also help improve your comfort behind the wheel. Generally, you will want to wear a narrow shoe for a day at the track because you’re going to have a lot of footwork going on between the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals–especially if you are going to be doing any heel/toe footwork.
“If you notice, that is why racing shoes are always made with the sole molded right to the side of the shoe,” Utt says. “They don’t stick out on the sides like a work boot or even a running shoe. That way it won’t get hung up on the pedals. Typically, they also always have soft rubber soles so that you have good pedal feel as well as a rounded heel to help you roll your foot on and off the gas. If you are driving hard, a good racing shoe will help make the experience that much more fun.”
Driving suits aren’t typically required for a track day or HPDE, but they aren’t a bad idea if you plan to get into this sport seriously. Utt says that there are affordable one-piece racing suits available for under $100. A suit in this price range will be a single-layer FRC (Fire Retardant Cotton) suit, so it will be comfortable and not too hot while also providing protection in case of a fire.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to have those expensive, man-made fibers like Nomex or Kevlar to make a decent fire suit. In the old days the fire retardant in cotton based suits were washed out over time, but that isn’t an issue today. Chemists have found a way to treat the cotton fibers on a molecular level so the suit will not lose its fire retardant quality no matter how many times you wash it.
If you choose not to purchase a fire suit, Utt recommends wearing loose fitting, comfortable clothing with long sleeves and long pants. Cotton is also a good idea because it will breathe and if there is a fire it won’t melt like some man-made fibers like Rayon, etc.
Finally, we get to the one piece of personal protective safety equipment that will actually help improve your lap times. If you are going to be doing track days regularly, a good five-point harness set is also one of the cheapest ways to shave seconds off your lap times that you will find.
“That’s because a good racing harness helps hold you in the seat so you aren’t having to hold yourself in place while trying to drive,” Utt says. “I’ve had that experience in a track day car, and I guarantee you won’t realize how much effort you are expending trying to keep your body in place if all you have is a standard three-point seatbelt. This is one of the first things you might want to consider if you are going to be doing these events regularly, because not only will it make you safer, it’s also a cheap way to be faster. You’re going to be more comfortable in the car so you can concentrate on hitting your marks and driving the perfect line.”
The one drawback with using a quality five-point racing harness is that it does require a fixture to mount the shoulder belts. In racecars or dedicated track day cars with a roll bar or roll cage, the top of the shoulder belts simply mount to a bar that runs behind the driver’s seat right at shoulder level.
But if you are using your daily driver, you probably don’t want a full roll cage making it difficult to get in and out. There are, however, many manufacturers that build kits for performance cars that allow you to install a removable harness bar. In this case, you simply install the bar and five-point harness before heading to the track, enjoy a day of high-performance driving and then remove the entire assembly after returning home.
So there you have it. We’ve given you the full rundown of the major safety equipment options you can choose from before your next high performance driving experience, but that doesn’t mean you have to go out and destroy your bank account buying all this gear at once. If you’re on a budget, start with just a good quality Snell SA full-face helmet and add other pieces of safety gear as you can afford them. And remember, don’t be fooled by the marketing hype. You can save a lot of money by buying safety gear that is designed to fit your needs. As long as it has appropriate SFI or Snell certifications it will provide the same level of protection as the high-buck fancy stuff you see the professional guys wearing on TV. So get out there and have fun!