How Safe is Club Racing?
It seems that one of the first questions spouses and other family members (especially mothers) ask is, “How safe is club racing?” This is a valid question, and you must be aware that there are inherent risks associated with racing. Skip Barber Racing School’s book Going Faster contains the most meaningful statistic I was able to find on safety as it pertains to racecar driving. They quoted the research of Dr. Harlen C. Hunter and Rick Stoff, as published in Motorsports Medicine: “It should be safe to assume that the annual incidence of driver fatalities falls between 7 and 14. According to participation and fatality data from the National Safety Council, those rates would put driving racecars in the same hazard range as swimming, alpine ski racing and boating. Race driving would be slightly less risky than scuba diving and mountain hiking and far less dangerous than parachuting and hang-gliding.”
When writing this section, I spoke with my wife about her viewpoint on club racing safety. Maybe I should also point out that we have a good relationship, and she does not have malicious plans for me. Her response was that after seeing what I had to do to prepare the racecar and myself prior to actually racing, she had a higher comfort level with my participation in club racing. In fact, she even went as far as stating that she is more concerned about my safety when I drive on the Mass Pike into Boston during rush hour on a business trip. When on the street, how often do you see people tailgate, cut people off, or perform other unsafe driving activities? On a racetrack you will never see someone eating, reading, talking on a cell phone, or applying makeup while driving. When I first started racing, I was approached by one of my friends who thought that it was a dangerous hobby for me to be doing. I looked at him puzzled and asked if he really thought his motorcycle riding on the street was safer than racing on a track. My point was that there are many activities people participate in; each has an associated risk which a person needs to evaluate and then make a decision if they are willing to accept the risk or not. It is important that you and the people who care about you become educated about club racing safety.
Racing sanctioning bodies recognize the importance of safety for everyone involved including drivers, crew, workers and spectators. Safety needs to be the first and foremost priority. You will find that some racing clubs have stricter safety regulations than others. When I first looked into racing, I became attracted to one racing club because of the low costs to become involved. I had some knowledge of what SCCA, NASA and other race clubs enforced for their minimum safety requirements, so I questioned what safety regulations this club had. I was very surprised with what I learned about their safety requirements, or lack there of. While to some it is great that this other club doesn’t require extensive roll cages or technical inspections of the car each year, among other items, is this really a good thing?
Just as it is necessary for drivers to participate in intensive training prior to participating in racing events, many clubs such as SCCA and NASA also require that corner workers obtain training on safety standards and flagging techniques. Check with the club you are considering racing with to see how they train their drivers and flaggers. There is more to flagging than simply watching racecars go by and occasionally holding up a yellow flag. Many important messages are relayed to drivers through the use of various flags. In addition to the corner workers and safety stewards, there are also trained emergency medical technicians ready to be deployed, if need be. When trying to determine if racing with a particular club meets what you are looking for, the club’s safety requirements should be high on your list of considerations.
What Types of Things are Done to Address Safety?
When I sat down and began thinking about what SCCA, NASA and other clubs do to make racing safer, I developed a much better appreciation of how conscientious most clubs are about ensuring the safety of participants on all levels. One of the first items which clubs address is the safety of the racecar itself. As discussed later in the Technical Inspections section, before a racecar is allowed in a racing drivers school or a race, it is necessary for the driver to have a logbook for the car certifying that it passed the thorough safety inspection. Even after this initial process is completed, most clubs require that the racecar pass annual inspections.
What are a Few of the Safety Items on a Racecar?
- Roll cage: It is necessary to meet strict specifications as to how the cage is constructed, including the minimum thickness of the tubes, mounting locations, and overall design. A roll cage is built to protect the driver from side impact and injuries in vehicle rollovers.
- Racing seat: Instead of utilizing a standard passenger car seat, the racecar must have a seat designed specifically for racing. While standard car seats are hinged to adjust seatback positioning, a racing seat uses a single-piece construction and has a fixed back. The fixed back is designed to enable the racing seat to absorb stronger forces, whereas a hinged seat may break and cause injuries to the driver. The other purpose of a racing seat is to better secure the driver, holding the person in place during an incident, and also while driving around the track, especially in the corners. The benefit of this is that the driver is able to be in better control (not sliding around the seat) and provides side support that is crucial during a side impact. Racing seats are also designed to accommodate a racing harness.
- Racing harness: These “seat belts” hold the driver in place, enabling the driver to better maintain control of the car. Unlike a standard passenger seat, a racing harness should always have a snug fit to keep the driver in place. Even the bolts used to secure the racing harness must meet a minimum quality grade.
- Window net: The window net prevents the driver’s arm and hand from reaching outside of the car, which could cause serious injury especially if the car were to roll over.
- Windows are rolled down or removed to reduce glass injuries.
- Fire extinguisher: Assuming a more comprehensive fire system is not used in the racecar, a hand-held fire extinguisher must be securely mounted in the cockpit. This fire extinguisher must contain specific chemicals; not just any type of fire extinguisher will meet the required specifications.
- Kill switch: This allows a corner worker, safety worker, or driver to turn off all electrical components of the racecar. The primary purpose is to enable the engine to be shut off to prevent an engine fire.
- Removal of the steering lock: Have you ever been in a car that is turned off, and the steering wheel has become locked? Imagine if a racecar shut off while driving and this happened.
For most clubs the racing seat, racing harness, window net, and driver’s suit must meet SFI specifications. Also stipulated is how often safety gear needs to be replaced. What is SFI? The SFI Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit organization established to issue and administer safety standards including standards for racing equipment. This allows people to differentiate between quality-assured products and untested products. More information about SFI can be found at www.SFIfoundation.com.
Personal Safety Equipment
- Driver’s suit: There are several different brands and models to choose from. When looking at driving suits, a few factors that will influence the decision as to which one best meets your needs include the SFI rating, price, overall comfort of the suit, and brand name. (The suit’s SFI rating will tell you how fire retardant it is.) I recommend that you purchase a one piece suit versus a two piece suit for safety reasons. Think about wearing a one-piece suit versus a pair of pants and shirt. It is much easier for the jacket of the two piece suit to become out of place and potentially expose your body to fire. A single layer SFI-3.2A/1 rated suit: $240.
- Fire retardant underwear: Depending on the racing suit, it may or may not be necessary to also wear fire retardant underwear. Top and bottom: $90 total.
- Fire retardant socks: $15.
- Fire retardant racing gloves: As with the drivers suit, the SFI rating will tell you how fire retardant the gloves are. $40.
- Racing shoes: $75.
- Helmet: All clubs that I am aware of require that the racing helmet meet Snell’s SA safety standards and have a specified certification date. What are the differences between an inexpensive and expensive helmet? The Snell Memorial Foundation states: “The Snell standards do not measure factors like comfort, ventilation, brand recognition or style, and only indirectly look at fit, weight, materials and workmanship. These are factors that frequently drive helmet cost.” Anticipate spending approximately $250 for a Snell SA helmet.
The above costs represent moderately-priced personal safety equipment, equivalent to the gear I own and feel comfortable utilizing.