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For some drivers, a race suit is just another one of those “have to” items that falls into the category of annoying things you need to drive a race car. Safety equipment is commonly thought of as a component we only include in our driving routine because we have to, not because we want to. As far as comfort and convenience goes, we would all rather drive in our shorts and t-shirts, given the choice. But having that type of mentality often means that racers try to cut corners and get the least expensive suit they can possibly find, or even worse, try to get away with wearing a suit that falls below the safety specification required. For example, there are some drivers that wear an SFI 3.2A/5 suit when they are actually required to wear a 3.2A/15 suit according to the specifications and speed of their car. Clearly, we’re not all made of money, and racing is by no means a cheap sport. But given the inherent danger of drag racing, racers can greatly benefit from treating their safety equipment with as much care and respect as any other part on their car. Instead of thinking, “I’ll never need this jacket anyway, so I don’t care if it gets dirty,” adopt the mindset that you could need it every time you go down the track, so take care of it as such.
Thanks to organizations like SFI, FIA, NHRA, and many other safety foundations, we have an organized system of categories and specifications for racers to follow. In drag racing, we adhere to the SFI and NHRA standards for safety equipment. Each level of racing is assigned a certain level of certification from the SFI foundation. It is very important to adhere to these safety requirements as they come from a very extensive base of research and experimentation, as well as real-life experiences of those who have endured motorsports accidents. If you look at your safety equipment, somewhere on it you will see an SFI spec tag. For instance, if it is a jacket the tag is usually on the arm, or on the inside of the tongue on a pair of racing shoes. Each one of those tags includes an SFI specification number rating. It is crucial to recognize that each of those number ratings is equivalent to the level of protection the equipment provides in an accident situation.
A very important feature of those SFI ratings is fire protection. One of the most powerful illustrations of how the SFI rating on a suit translates to fire protection comes from a chart in the Impact Safety Company’s Garment Recommendations Guide. Impact Safety, also known as Mastercraft Safety, has been in the racing industry for many decades and dedicates themselves to the utmost safety of racers and crew personnel. They have done a vast amount of research on safety equipment and in addition to manufacturing safety equipment for a variety of motorsports, they are also responsible for the safety of the drivers on the NHRA Don Schumacher Racing team during their sub three-second runs. The chart shown below describes the Thermal Protective Performance, or TPP, for each SFI rating. Each one of these SFI ratings, from a single layer suit all the way up to the pro level suits have a TPP rating number. The TPP number is what the SFI rating actually means in relation to how long the driver is protected from 2nd degree burns. For a large number of sportsman drag racers, the required SFI rating for a racing suit or jacket is 3.2A/5. The SFI 3.2A/5 specification has a TPP rating of 19, which is the equivalent of 10 seconds. In other words, from the time the suit comes in contact with fire, it protects the driver for 10 seconds before his or her skin endures 2nd degree burns. Most people would agree that 10 seconds is not a very long time. In most cases during an accident, especially if the driver is not a pro who is trained to get out of the car in a very short amount of time, they will be in the cockpit longer than 10 seconds. This is why it is important for drivers to practice an exit routine in their own car. Having already practiced this procedure, they will be more likely to get out of the car quickly in an accident situation. Racers look at SFI ratings and see these numbers all the time. But as we all learn more about these safety certifications and rules, those SFI numbers continue to become a lot more meaningful. We know we can’t convince every racer to wear five times the protection that’s required. But maybe you’ll think twice about trying to slide your suit by tech inspection one more year, or wearing only a jacket when the speed of your car actually requires pants as well.