Track days: Is there such a thing as too safe? | Articles
After a good friend successfully survived a major fire during a high-profile race, he dropped a tidbit of knowledge that has lived rent-free in our brains ever since: “Fire burns just as hot on a test day as on race day.”
Head First: Do You Even Have the Right Helmet?
The helmet is a crucial piece of any kit, so our recommendation here is a rigid one: Buy a Snell SA-rated helmet of the current generation or no more than one generation out of date. Nearly all track sanctioning bodies allow Snell SA helmets that are one or even two generations old, so this guideline is rooted in both theory and practice.
Buying an out-of-date helmet can sometimes save you a few bucks, but that savings never seems to make up for the lack of approved lifespan. So always favor newer–unless the deal is just too good to be true.
Joe Marko, owner of motorsports supply house HMS Motorsport, backs us up on our helmet philosophy while providing some additional insight. “A helmet at any price level with a Snell rating is going to have the same protection against impact as any other helmet with that same rating,” Marko explains, “so that’s reassuring if you’re on a budget.
“But what you get when you spend more money is usually a more comfortable helmet with more custom fitting options and, most importantly, less weight. And that mass attached to your neck can really come into play from a safety perspective in a crash. A heavier helmet is going to have more inertia than a light helmet, so keep that in mind.”
We also recommend a full-face helmet over an open one. The shield against debris, insects, moisture and other potential hazards make a full-face helmet a worthwhile purchase. Plus, face protection in the event of air bag deployment is a nice bonus, particularly since so many cars on track are equipped with air bags.
Marko has overseen some air bag testing using helmeted drivers, and some of the results were surprising. “One thing that stood out was that a sun visor or an open visor on a full-face helmet gives the air bag an additional point of leverage against your head. So best practice in a car with air bags is a full-face helmet with the visor down and locked, or removed.”
But removal has its risks. Marko recounts an incident at VIR where “a car went passenger side into a wall, and the side mirror broke off, came through the window and left a big gouge on the driver’s visor–which was, thankfully, down–on its trip through the car.”
We’re also proponents of always donning a balaclava before pulling on that helmet. It serves as an additional layer of safety, as hair–including facial hair–is extremely flammable. Plus, this small investment will make your expensive helmet last a lot longer by keeping the skull funk at bay. Nothing destroys helmet liners like head sweat, and that’s pretty much all we expose them to.
Neckst Up: Time for Head-and-Neck Protection?
The next piece of equipment we consider non-negotiable on track is proper head-and-neck support. The downside here is that there’s really just one choice for folks without a proper roll bar and harnesses: the Simpson Hybrid system. The upside is that it’s a really good choice.
Unlike most head-and-neck systems, which rely on your over-the-shoulder harnesses for support, the Simpson Hybrid transfers your neck’s load to straps wrapped around your torso. This allows the unit to work with OEM-style, three-point harnesses. (It also works just fine with competition-style harnesses.)
We wear a Simpson Hybrid during all our new-car track testing. While we occasionally look like dorks for being the only people wearing one at new car launches, we’ll take that simple safety step over the alternative. We’ll also add that we’ve used our Hybrid in a wide variety of cars with a wide range of seats, and it’s never been intrusive or uncomfortable.
Over the Shoulder: Could a Suit Make a Difference?
You’re also going to need some protection for your body, and here’s where the regulations of various clubs diverge the most. Some clubs have fewer regulations for clothing than you’d face walking into an Arby’s, while others specify a minimal amount of body coverage.
T.J. Huston, product specialist at OG Racing, a long-time supplier of safety equipment for motorsports, provided the following caution: “The first thing I’d recommend is to avoid synthetic materials for sure. Skin grafts suck. Nylon and polyester melt, and in any sort of fire situation that’s going to be a bad scene.”
Sticking with natural fibers is your first course of best practices, but obviously, an SFI-rated suit offers the best protection. “Even the most basic SFI 3.2A/1 suit provides 3 additional seconds of protection against second-degree burns versus no protection,” Huston explains, “and that’s a lot of time when you’re bailing out of a car.”
A multi-layer setup offers even more time to escape, with today’s rather common 3.2A/5-rated suit offering more than three times the protection: 10 seconds until second-degree burns.
A modern, three-layer suit can offer several luxurious seconds of fire protection. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett
But even safety industry pros realize that getting everyone at a casual track day into a suit is a challenge. Cost, heat and additional complication are all common objections, and the safety industry is conscious of them.
Huston notes, for example, that there are lower-cost alternatives that are still better than pure street clothes. “Just wearing a fireproof base layer of underwear is going to provide a substantial amount of protection over regular clothing,” he explains. “And with modern materials, there’s more and more choices of fireproof underwear that looks more like ‘civilian’ athletic gear instead of pajamas.”
He points to the TraqGear brand in particular. This company offers a lineup of tops and bottoms that resemble workout gear more than racing underwear, with fire-retardant tops starting at less than $125.
Marko reiterates the caution against synthetics: “Synthetic materials aren’t just not as good as natural fibers; they’re an active hazard that will cause additional damage in any fire situation. People love wearing athletic gear during track days, but the reality is avoiding those should be your bare minimum best practice for any clothing. Plenty of newer choices exist that are actually comfortable and temperature-controlling, like the Walero gear I wear for non-competitive track days.”
Hand Jive: Full Race Gloves or Something Else?
You should protect your hands, too, right? “Gloves are somewhere I’m probably going to recommend you go with a motorsport-specific item as well,” Huston notes. “Basically, you want your hands properly protected in a fire, so avoiding synthetics is particularly critical.”
But he also admits that racing gloves can sometimes be a burden in a track day car. “Most race gloves make it impossible to use touchscreens,” he continues, “but companies are recognizing that and releasing touchscreen-compatible gloves, like the Sparco Arrow.”
While SFI-rated, mechanic-style gloves exist on the market, Huston notes they’re often not well suited for steering. “Most of the SFI gloves designed for mechanics are designed with handling hot parts in mind, not good tactile feel,” he notes. “So while some people like that they don’t have the long gauntlet, they tend to be really thick and not great for driving.”
Huston brought up another important point about gloves used specifically in non-competitive track environments: “Remember that during a track day, you’re communicating a lot with your hands, giving point-bys and interacting with other drivers on track. So a pair of brightly colored gloves that are easy to see might be better than the solid-black gloves so many drivers seem to like.”
Find Your Footing: What Kind of Shoes for a Track Day?
Our advice when it comes to footwear should sound familiar: Avoid synthetic materials. “Remember,” Huston adds, “SCCA doesn’t actually specify an SFI rating for shoes for wheel-to-wheel competition. Their shoe standard is an all-leather upper with a natural sole. So that brings a lot of athletic shoes into play. Pair that with some SFI-rated socks, and you’re eligible for an SCCA national road race.”
What about the shoes specifically designed for racing? “Most pure racing shoes are lousy at being real shoes,” Huston admits. “Wearing them outside the car is hard on your feet and hard on the shoes.”
A few companies, however, have been dropping kicks that can serve as all-day wear at the track–in and out of the car. “The Sparco Race 2 has decent support, but it’s still more of a race shoe that you can wear outside the car, not one you necessarily want to,” Huston says. “The Sparco Pit Stop crew shoes are SFI-rated, too, and they’re more like an athletic shoe that’s still really good in the car as well.”
Finally, Huston shouted out a new brand he’s just discovered called Chicane: “They’re premium priced, but they come out of the outdoor shoe space, and they’re the first motorsport shoes I’ve worn that feel like they were designed by an actual shoe designer. They have some of the best arch support in a racing shoe I’ve ever experienced.”
Where to Start
Head-and-neck protection for just a track day? We wear ours. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett
“Sure, all these recommendations are great, but how should I prioritize them?” you say. Fair question, so we’ll defer to the experts. Joe Marko stresses three areas that are crucial to staying safe. “I always recommend people get proper gloves, proper shoes and the best helmet they can. Those are your main points of control with the car, so in addition to keeping you safe, they’re also going to help you practice proper technique.”