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Safety At The Track

Safety At The Track

Track safety is paramount. The main objective of a track day is to be safe and drive home afterwards. Different clubs/schools have different rules, but generally the rules are similar to the following.

Drivers education is about providing a safe place for drivers to improve their driving ability. Most schools break drivers into groups based on ability/experience. A fast car does not mean that you’ll be in the fastest group as you’d be amazed the “horsepower upgrade” that an experienced driver can make to a car.

As for safety equipment, the best advice is to look at a full racing setup approved by a racing body like SCCA, NASA, or the PCA. Many occasional track day users will find these setups unacceptable in a daily driver car. They may not even be safe without a helmet.

This section will cover what the minimum is and reasonable upgrades from there. These are ordered in a progressive order, later sections are safer in combination with earlier sections.

It’s Only a Driving Event, How Dangerous Can it Be?

Any time you sit behind the wheel of a car, you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation. You’re literally in a hunk of metal and rubber hurling through open space with only four points of friction to stop you. You’re probably more likely to get into an accident on the way to the track than at the track because at the track, you’ll be subject to rules, instruction, and supervision designed to make it as safe as possible. Unfortunately, if you do happen to have a problem on a track you’re going to moving a lot faster than your garden variety fender bender, and so the consequences can be much higher.

Some say HPDEs are not as dangerous as racing, but if you hit something at speed then the physics don’t care whether it’s a HPDE or a race. It’s going to hurt. 110mph into walls that line many tracks, even for an offset collision, will do a lot of damage to your car. There are steps you can take to limit that damage to your car.

Some drivers recommend:

  • Racing Seats
  • Full Harnesses
  • Rollbar with Back Braces
  • Helmet with Neck Restraint (HANS device)
  • Fire Extinguisher/System

This is expensive, expect around 5k USD for this no matter what the car. You won’t regret the cost when it saves you. Your odds of being hurt will be significantly lower than in your stock car.

Note: Don’t cheap out with safety. Buy quality components and have them installed/set up by professionals.

How much safety equipment you need for your car depends on:

  • The Car: If you have a high horsepower car that his hard to handle, you can probably afford to invest in safety equipment.
  • The Track: Some tracks have lots of space and run-off areas, some are tight and have close walls.
  • The Event: High-Performance Driving Events, Time Trials, Driver’s Ed, Club Racing
  • The Driver: Your attitude towards driving and how hard you are going to push makes a big difference in how likely you are to go off, and what will happen to you when you do.

Regardless of how much equipment you decide you need, you’ll find some advice about making the final choices here.

Whats “Equivalent Safety?”

This means that what ever you did for safety on the drivers side of the car, you need at least the same on the passenger side. You can’t be sitting in your car with your instructor wearing a 6pt polyester harness in a carbon fiber seat with your instructor in the stock seat with a 3pt belt. Have a heart, that would be a very nervous instructor and most clubs won’t allow this type of setup anyway.

You need the same level of protection for both occupants. I have seen some cars with only one 6pt harness on the drivers side. However, when two people were in the car then both used the (still installed) 3pt belt. Huh?

Upgrade the Driver in the Car

The biggest safety factor in the car is you. The more you educate yourself in driving, the safer you’ll become. Spend money on modding yourself by gaining school/track time before any other performance modifications (but AFTER the safety ones!).

The Basics

First and foremost, plan ahead and read any and all rules and regulations for the event in which you will be participating. There’s nothing worse then showing up for an event, only to be denied by tech because you didn’t read the requirements.

Many HPDE days have a minimum as a stock street car with a 2.5lb fire extinguisher mounted where the driver can access it. Most, if not all organizers will want the car checked and signed off by a dealer/mechanic before allowing you on the track if there is not a sanctioned tech for the event.

Helmet

Again, check with the organization running the event. Even though some event hosts still allow M rated and non-Snell tested helmets, it is recommended that you go with a reputable brand that is tested to Snell standards.

  • SA rated helmets (Special Application) are tested for multiple impacts and fire protection.
  • M rated helmets (Motorcycle) are tested for a single impact and are not required to have fire resistant materials.
  • Helmet ratings are helmet ratings, no matter the price. A $200 SA rated helmet will hold up the same way a $500 or a $1000 SA rated helmet will (a bit over-simplified because a better fitting, lighter helmet will be worth the money).
  • Fit is more important than the name or the price. Too tight and you’ll head will go numb, too loose and it won’t stay on your head properly.
  • Never buy a used helmet… you never know how its been taken care of or how it will fit.
  • Open or closed face mostly comes down to personal preference, but again, check with the organization holding the event. In vehicles with an upright seating position, non-competitive, and airbag equipped, there is no real reason not to get an open face helmet if you want. If you don’t have an airbag, definitely buy a closed face helmet. One added benefit that has nothing to do with impacts is the added fire protection of a closed-face

Motorbike helmets won’t do. If you aren’t using a head and neck restraint then buy the best helmet you can afford. A composite model if you want. A lighter helmet is safer than a heavier one in an impact. If you aren’t planning on buying a neck restraint then we’d recommend the lighter composite helmets.

Clothing

Most require cotton pants and a cotton sweater with long sleeves. A fire proof racing suit is optional and really depends on your level of paranoia. Fire suits aren’t as good as you’d think, but much better than regular clothes. I was quite surprised that a fire suit will only give maybe 13 seconds of protection before second degree burns. Thirteen seconds isn’t a whole lot of time. But think, in a t-shirt and jeans you’re already cooking at 13 seconds. Adding nomex underwear apparently adds 6-9 seconds to this also. Don’t skimp on your clothing.

Most people use sneakers for shoes and you can buy driving shoes from between 100 and 200 dollars.

Head and Neck Restraints

A head and neck restraint is basically an extension of your helmet which protects your neck in a collision. It lowers the strain on your neck to a level that hopefully avoids it breaking or causing brain stem damage.

Seats

While regular car seats and even 3-point standard belts are generally fine, racing seats are a good upgrade and they’ll help you drive better due to increased amount of friction between the seat and the driver’s body. A racing shell is also a prerequisite for installing harnesses. I don’t know of anybody who recommends harnesses with a stock seat setup. This is usually an expensive upgrade. Seats easily cost $700+ each. Mounting kits usually cost around $200-$300 dollars a side. Examples of seats would be seats from Sparco and Recaro.

Some more economical brands include Corbeau, Cobra, Kirkey, Ultra-Shield, and Momo.

All racing seat vendors also offer carbon fiber versions of their fiberglass seats. These are pricey, usually between $1800 and $2700 each. They are stronger and lighter than fiberglass and probably don’t flex as much. This is a case of you get what you pay for, they are better but it’s a lot more money. Some people get a carbon fiber seat for the driver side only. This still meets equivalent safety for some events but always check.

One particular sort of seat is a “bucket” seat, which is bolted down and then carefully tuned. This is important because the actual risk in normal car seat without the seat belts fastened, is for the seat to travel across it’s rails, crushing the lower portion of the body against the lower dash and steering wheel. Remember, though, that the harness is more important than the seat itself! Additionally, one must adjust the seat correctly and position himself/herself correctly, to ensure that the seat and belts do their job efficiently.

Harnesses

A 5pt or 6pt harness and mounting system will further improve safety. These are necessary if you’re using a HANS device. You should really have proper racing seats before you install harnesses. A 6pt is better than a 5pt. Harness are made from either nylon or polyester. Polyester is better as it doesn’t stretch as much as nylon. A nylon belt stretches around 15% on impact. Polyester is typically half that. A 6pt supports the hips better and this improves safety. Most systems allow both the 3pt stock belt and 5/6pt harness to be attached at the same time. The car must have the 3pt belt to be street legal. The 5/6pt harness isn’t legal for use on public roads.

There is a science to installing/mounting harnesses correctly and should be done by a professional shop. Height, weight, chassis, harness angles are all vital for the system to work properly. Done improperly, the harnesses can actually further injure you in the event of a collision. Don’t be cheap with safety!

 

Back Braces

Seats can break in a rear impact. Obviously, this isn’t a good scenario if it happens. A back brace extends the roll bar/cage to support the seat back and this helps to significantly reduce the possibility of the seat breaking in rear impacts.

Full Roll Cages

A full roll cage is the safety option for a track car. But, there are arguments about the safety of a full cage on the street. The argument centers around if your head stike the bar. Basically if your head strikes a normal part of the car, the contact point is larger than if it hits a roll bar. A smaller contact patch means more energy transferred to your head. Covering the bars with SFI foam is only really meant for helmets. So, if you put a full cage in your car then your car isn’t really safe on the street in the event your head struck the bar and you’d probably be hurt a lot more than if you hit the normal interior.

When Should I Add This Safety Equipment

Yesterday is the easy answer! But this is a hard question to answer, mainly because there are so many opinions so here’s mine:

For HPDE and lapping day purposes, driving a street car (if not a daily-driver) you should leave the car as close to stock as possible. Keeping in tact the factory safety system so it can work as it was designed, especially if your car is equipped with airbags. This should be especially true for the driver first starting out with track events, and here’s why:

You need to learn to walk before you can run.

  • Learning the ropes using stock 3-point harnesses on street tires will help you learn to drive smooth and smart, both of which will make you faster, and safer in the long run.
  • Harnesses, similar to race tires, when introduced too early can mask many novice and intermediate technique mistakes. Mainly smoothness and crisis management. If you’re being thrown around in the car, chances are you’re too abrupt in your steering/braking/throttle inputs. Harnesses will only be a band-aid to that problem, not a cure.
  • Harnesses can/will allow a novice driver to drive his/her car closer to its limits more quickly. At first, this sounds great, but the problem there is the driver does not have the experience nor the knowledge to be able to safely manage a situation where he or she reaches and crosses that limit. Speeds will be higher, and crisis management skills haven’t been honed yet.

Ok, I can run now. Should I get some harnesses?

Not necessarily. Now you’ve got a different set of questions to ask yourself:

  1. How much more do I want to push myself and my car?
  2. What level of damage/injury risk am I willing to take?
  3. Am I driving to/from the event, or towing?
  4. Can I afford a proper safety system?

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