Racing is an inherently dangerous sport. We strap into 2,000+ lb machines and drive inches from others at breakneck speeds around tight courses with big walls. In it’s infancy, racing was a truly dangerous sport. Pro drivers seemed more likely to die than retire. Thankfully; with decades of safety evolution to cars, gear, procedures, and tracks, motorsports has become generally “safe”.
When you begin with HPDE, all you really need is a car and a helmet. HPDE risk levels are lower than wheel-to-wheel racing. As you modify your car, requirements for your car and your personal gear can quickly snowball. A hobby that began with just a $200 helmet can easily turn into a safety gear bill from $2,000 up to $10,000. With some self control it is possible to go wheel-to-wheel racing while staying at or below $1,500 for all your gear: Without compromising safety.
Perception: “You get what you pay for with safety”
Not totally true:
Reality: As long as you get proper certified gear, it will offer protection you expect. Beyond that, you are paying almost exclusively for added comfort.
I won’t argue that there isn’t continued, important improvements in safety. But, as our hobby is one with many very wealthy participants, there will always be companies happy to sell them very expensive, high end items. With convincing advertising and high margins the producers, salesmen, and even customers tout many as MUST haves! I have heard multiple people state “I will NEVER go by the minimum rules, it’s my LIFE at stake”... but is it? For many of us, we simply cannot afford high end safety equipment. Thankfully, “budget” equipment can keep us plenty safe and let us race. We may not look like Formula 1 drivers, but we definitely have more fun than them, even if we sweat more.
The following is a general outline of safety gear and requirements, it follows the rule book I am most familiar with. No equipment can make any sport 100% risk free, but when following motorsports safety rules there is much less risk of serious injury… like less than pretty much any other action sport.
Whatever you do, whatever club you run with make sure you check their own rule book because there may be differences and updates.
Bell Helmets used to run an advertisement “If you’ve got a $10 head – wear a $10 helmet”. While relevant at the time and in proper context, it is often used today as a way to upsell helmets and anything else safety related. Today, SNELL rated helmets are required for track days and racing. Helmets go through a very rigorous process to earn the rating, so any SNELL rated helmet will give your head the highest level of protection.
It is common for new people to show up at the track with helmets sporting only a ”DOT” label. They are turned away or forced to borrow/rent a new helmet. DOT Cert by itself doesn’t mean much. You know those bikers who wear the skimpy German style helmets? Most of those things earn the DOT cert.. You need a higher level of protection.
SNELL Certified helmet prices can range from affordable to astronomical. $200 gets an entry level helmet but prices go up and beyond $5,000. Most club racers spend $400-1200 on their helmets. I obviously wouldn’t want to test any helmet in a real world scenario, but I would feel as confident doing it in my $400 SNELL rated helmet as a $4,000 one.
This same formula continues through $1200 to $4,000+ helmets. What you get for your money is comfort and features. Built in communication links, venting, forced air, water, custom padding, etc
“But they’re so much lighter!” Sure, a top tier helmet with advanced carbon fiber manufacturing will be lighter, but is it worth the cost per ounce? I looked up some examples: Weight of a $5,000 helmet = 2.9 lbs. $400 = 3.5lbs.
Helmet Fitment: Fitment is one way you may be forced to spend a bit more money. Each Helmet brand has their own shell shape and padding design with slightly different head shape. It is a good idea to try on few helmets before you buy one. The cheapest available option may fit perfectly or you may be forced to buy another type. If you have a very odd head shape, your options for a comfortable helmet may be limited.
Helmets Expire! Helmets are typically allowed for two “rating cycles”. As of Spring 2021, the Snell 2020 is current and 2015 is still allowed. There is some overlap where some clubs are still allowing SA2010 for the 2021 season so SA2020 supply can catch up. Some clubs still allow the older 2010 ratings for HPDE for another full cycle, but this is becoming less and less of a thing. Is a 10 year expiration cycle a big problem for Budget Racers? Not really, helmets are consumables. After years of use helmets are typically scratched, dinged, and quite stinky, so a new helmet is due even without the safety concerns. A $400 helmet every 7 or so years won’t make me quit racing, but I wouldn’t want to buy a $2,000 helmet for that same cycle.
Other helmet note: Snell ratings are split into two major categories, M, and SA. M is Motorcycle Rated, and SA is rated for use in cars. They also have K ratings for karting. Most track day clubs allow M rated helmets, but all will allow SA. Unless you also need to use your helmet for a motorcycle, I recommend SA.
HANS: (Head And Neck Support device).
When is a HANS required?
If you are driving in a car with 5 or 6 point race harnesses, you should have a HANS. Some clubs are beginning to require HANS for any vehicle doing HPDE with harnesses. Your car’s factory 3pt belts are designed to make your upper body “roll” forward and to the inside during an accident, using up energy and eventually being caught with the airbag. Racing Harnesses keep your torso firmly planted in the seat, but your unrestrained head and neck will snap forward with all the force of the crash.
If you still have factory 3 point belts, you don’t quite need, nor can you use a standard HANS. Some hybrid units that work with 3pt belts are available, but they are expensive and concerns have been raised about their effectiveness.
Like helmets, HANS devices can also be bought in different materials and levels. You can get a HANS device for around $450 or you can buy a “pro” for double that, $1,000. The advantage? 2.25 in the sport vs 1lb for the ultra. Is 1.25 lbs sitting on your shoulders worth an extra $500 to you?
Safety gear requirements for Wheel to Wheel Racing:
If you decide to make the jump from HPDE to Wheel to Wheel racing, the inherent risk rises significantly and safety requirements also jump. Can you go full firesuit, gloves, shoes, and fireproof underwear in HPDE? Of course! Is the cost and hassle worth it? That’s for you to decide. Personally, I do not wear my suit for most HPDE days.
Suits… Where do we start… Suits are expensive. The cheapest race-legal race suits can be had under $300, but (As is a theme of all things HPDE and racing) prices can go WAY up. Suits can cost over $2,000. While helmets have a reasonable, but not astronomical difference between budget and bourgeoisie… Extra money spent on a suit goes a long way for added comfort.
*You may see “racing” suits for sale around $100. These single layer suits require expensive Nomex underwear to even begin to be legal with clubs. Taking this route will end up costing more than simply buying a layered 3.2a/5 suit.
Budget racing suits are constructed largely with a treated cotton material, whereas more expensive suits are made with Nomex and other high tech fire resistant materials. Treated cotton suits aren’t very flexible, and since a racing suit is a one piece jumpsuit, it needs to be quite baggy to not prohibit movement. Suits with more expensive materials also have large portions of flexible joints that allow them to be well fitted without sacrificing mobility.
More expensive suits are often custom tailored to your individual shape. Instead of sticking to a standard (small, medium, medium-tall, large) they are made to your exact specifications. Fit will be WAY better, no matter what your body shape… but at a significant cost.
I was particularly tight on funds when I bought my own suit. I needed the suit for a Chumpcar (now Champcar) Race the day after I returned from my Honeymoon. I went with the cheapest legal suit I could find (Racequip 3.2a/5). It did the job, but was very baggy because of the lack of flexibility and the “four sizes fit all” sizing.
I bought some Nomex thread and went to my local tailor/drycleaners to have them make some alterations (mostly pulling in the arms and around the hips). It doesn’t fit like a $1,500 custom suit but it is much better than it was, looks pretty cool, and keeps me safe. I did my first 3 seasons of racing Spec Miata and the suit did just fine. If I had to do it all over again, I may consider spending a bit more. On hot days, my suit is very warm, I wouldn’t hate a more expensive Nomex suit with better breathability, but at the moment any excess money in the race budget goes to tires. Last season I got a great deal on a lightly used but much higher quality suit and have been enjoying that.
I’m not referring to your boxer shorts, but basically a set of Nomex long-johns worn under your suit. If your suit meets the minimum (SFI 3.2A/5) standard, underwear is not required, but is still strongly recommended. In the event of a fire, Nomex underwear will get you more time to exit the car before serious burns occur. At around $100 a piece (for pants and shirt) it certainly isn’t cheap. I don’t run Nomex underwear but many drivers do.
Balaclava: (Ski Mask)
Nomex Balaclavas are required for drivers with beards or hair long enough to come out of the bottom of the helmet. I have a beard so I need to run a Balaclava, but they are cheap insurance even if not required. Balaclavas also keep your helmet a bit cleaner and make it easier to get your helmet on and off.
When racing, Nomex or leather shoes are obviously required, but so are fireproof socks. I’ve seen socks from $15-60. I have one warning with socks. If you buy the ultra cheap pairs they can quickly develop tears and holes. Spending $25-30 on a pair may get you much more life than $15-20. Also, clip your toenails and consider washing them in a mesh garment bag to get the most life out of your socks.
No surprise here, prices start low but get much higher for minor improvements in fit and style. SFI/FIA rated racing shoes can start around $70 and skyrocket to over $300. Hopefully you’ll get lucky and fit just fine in a budget shoe option, but if you have an irregular size foot you may be stuck with a more expensive pair. If you have odd size feet, consider checking race shop closeouts for leftovers previous model years.
Gloves too: prices are all over the place. Cheap gloves can start near $20 and go up over $200. I recommend finding a pair that fits your hands decently well and going from there. I’ve had great luck with gloves in both the $30 and $60 range. Like shoes, If you have very small or large hands, consider checking race shop closeouts for leftovers previous model years.
While not a requirement by a long stretch, cool suits are becoming more and more popular. A cool suit is basically a water cooled shirt for the driver, with a system that sends cold water through a radiator-like shirt to lower the driver’s body temp. On a hot day, in a hot racecar, in a hot racing suit, they can be a lifesaver.
They don’t directly improve safety, but in keeping you from overheating, they can significantly improve focus and decision making.
I don’t have a cool suit at the moment, but I do have some fancy window vents that work… a bit.
Look for a future guest post about building a relatively affordable DIY driver cooling setup at a fraction the cost of the name brand units.
As I said earlier, this post is meant to be a general outline; a guideline in a sea of conflicting information. Check with your own local club’s rules before buying equipment and showing up at the track, and don’t hesitate to ask questions of officials. Just know, many “experts” on the internet and many (but certainly not all) equipment salesmen will pressure you to buy significantly more expensive equipment than you need.
If you’re looking for a more simple guide with helpful links to buying your gear, check out: Budget Racing Gear Shopping List – The 7 Essential items you need to go Wheel to Wheel Racing: Post 32
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Also, I need to give a specific shout out to Mike at Windshadow Studios for the cover image of this post. Another great shot, Mike!