As Club Racers, we have a hard time picturing ourselves being caught in a race car that is on fire and relying on our racing suit to protect us from severe burns or even worse. The harsh reality is that, while it is not likely, it is possible. Jeff Altenburg, an extremely accomplished pro racing driver, is someone who has been in this situation and was able to walk away with minor injuries. He agreed to share his story with us, and it provides excellent perspective on why racing suits are yet another vital piece of safety equipment to making racing as safe as possible.
“It was kind of surreal. Time slowed down and I was trying to be deliberate in keeping the car rolling to blow the flames back until I was unbuckled, but then my HANS got caught on the nylon window net and swung me up as you see in the picture until it melted and broke allowing me to fall out onto the ground.
After that, I got up and I remember then the extreme heat from the fire. Not so much when I was in it, but after when I was scampering away before doing the Ricky Bobby Stop, Drop and Roll! I wasn’t on fire, but it sure felt like it! Other than a ruined driver suit, melted ear piece cord, a sun burn and singed eyebrows, I was fine.
Two good things came from that incident. I went to Pat DiNatale, the Chief Steward at the time, and suggested a rule to have window nets mounted at the bottom to prevent them hanging down and catching another driver trying to exit quickly. I also mentioned that I had never had to do an emergency exit and there should be some type of test for it, so now every year drivers need to do an egress test prior to their season starting so at least they get out quickly on their own at least once a year.”
Purchasing a proper racing suit is an investment that could one day protect you in the horrible case of being trapped inside of a burning vehicle until help arrives or you are able to get out of the car. It is important that you understand the different certification levels, styles, and available features that can make wearing a suit more comfortable, especially since most racers use the same race suit for many years. That’s exactly what we’ll cover in this article.
One of the most important aspects in selecting a race suit is knowing which certification level is required by the sanctioning body you will be participating with. The SFI (SFI Foundation, Inc.) and FIA (Federation Internationale De L’Automobile) are the two organizations that issue and administer standards for driver suits. You’ll find that many driver suits are both SFI 3.2a/5 and FIA certified.
SFI 3.2a/1 Certification
This is often considered suitable for track days and time trials and gives three seconds in the presence of both direct flame and radiant heat until a second degree burn. Instead of being made out of Nomex, typically these suits are made from cotton with fire protection sprayed on it. While this might fit your current needs, I would strongly suggest getting a suit that is SFI 3.2a/5 or FIA certified. By doing this, if in the future you participate with another organization, you’ll know that it will meet their safety requirements. It certainly also doesn’t hurt to have a suit that offers a higher level of protection.
SFI 3.2a/5 Certification
This certification meets wheel-to-wheel racing requirements in the US and gives 10 seconds in the presence of both direct flame and radiant heat until a second degree burn. In the past this was referred to as a three layer suit, but as advancements have been made it is now possible for a one layer suit to offer the same protection. Don’t fall into the trap thinking that additional layers automatically equal more protection. A suit’s rating is based on the thermal protection capability of the material regardless of the number of layers.
FIA 8856-2000 Certification
Suits having the FIA certification provide the same or better level of thermal protection than SFI 3.2a/5.
- FIA has a certification CIK-FIA 2001/31 Niveau 2, but this is meant for go karting to provide abrasion protection, not fire protection. Sparaco also refers to this as Level 2.
- There are also additional SFI rated suits such as 3.2a/15 but these are meant for drag racing.
Racing Suit Features & Cost Differences
When I first started racing, the cost of the driver suit was a key factor in my purchase decision. I wanted the least expensive racing suit that met the certification requirement I needed, not understanding what other differences there are among driver suits. Since there is no rule for how often racing suits should be replaced and they do not lose protectiveness due to age, you could use it for many years to come. It is worth understanding the different available features so you can make an educated decision for your wallet and your personal safety.
My first racing suit purchase was an inexpensive G Force two-piece suit. Technically it did the job but wasn’t all that comfortable. The biggest concern I had was relying on the top and pants to overlap in the event of a fire, otherwise I’d have nice burns in the mid-section. I quickly realized this was not the driver suit for me and wish that I had opted for a one-piece suit to begin with. Still being on a tight budget, I opted to purchase a one piece entry-level suit with SFI 3.2a/5 certification. The suit is nice overall and it has served me well for many years, but it certainly is much heavier than current alternatives. While looking around, an entry level driver suit is in the $300 – 600 price range. It made me wonder what made other driver suits more expensive and what benefits they have other than appearance.
Think of it this way – the purpose of a racing suit is to provide you insulation and protection in the event a fire occurs inside of the car. Think of wearing a snow suit on a hot summer day in a 120 degree race car cockpit. While an exaggeration, a driver’s suit provides insulation and the lighter, more breathable material it is made from, the more comfortable you’ll be. As you move up from the entry level suits, they tend to be lighter weight and thinner, therefore feel cooler and more comfortable to wear overall.
In my conversation with OG Racing to gather information for this article I mentioned that I have a 9-year-old suit. They explained that over the course of the past several years, even entry level suits have seen significant improvements in their construction and use lighter weight material.
Some driver suit manufacturers have come up with ways to construct a single layer that provides the same protection as a three layer suit. But before you get too caught up in only wanting a single layer suit, be aware that sometimes a three layer suit can be lighter weight and cooler than a one layer due to the materials used.
Stretch Material (panels)
Some driver suits contain stretch materials (panels), which are usually located at the bottom of the back, underarm and back of the knee, allow a driver easier and freer movement as well as improved cooling. When sitting in the racing seat and being confined, the more the suit can move and flex, the more comfortable you will be. This means that when the driver moves – turning the steering wheel or changing gear – the suit is more flexible and does not restrict the driver. At the same time if the suit fits you very well to begin with, the stretch materials are not as important.
When a driver suit has “floating arms” it means the section where the arm connects to the shoulder is made with an elasticated material.
Pant Leg Styles
There are two leg styles suits can have – the traditional cuff or boot cut. The cuff has the elastic material hugging the leg similar to many pajamas. Boot cut is a straight leg like paints typically have, with a cuff underneath which is done for styling and looks. Note that for open wheel cars, there’s so little room in the cockpit that this extra material can cause issues. Also for a shorter driver, sometimes this additional material can get in the way. Otherwise it’s just a matter of your preference.
Size & Fitment
A driver suit should have a loose, comfortable fit and allow for a full range of motion. You will want to make sure the fit doesn’t change when sitting down. A suit that fits tightly may sacrifice the protective layer of air between the suit and your skin/underwear and can potentially decrease the level of protection provided by your suit. Driving suits do not “break-in” or stretch over time.
When looking at sizing charts, height should be looked at first. Having a suit that is a little bigger is not bad for fire protection, and if you use a cool vest/suit or eat a few too many hamburgers, there is still some room to accommodate that. The waist and pant sizes are for reference only, and in many instances do not seem to align with the other specifications.
Unfortunately most of us are not lucky enough to have a racing safety equipment retailer nearby where we can go in and try on several different suits. Instead, we need to make our purchases online. I strongly recommend that you call a reputable retailer with experts that can walk you through different racing suit options and make suggestions on sizing. Much like clothing, some manufacturers tend to fit differently. If need be, it is also possible to purchase Nomex thread and have the suit tailored locally.
I highly recommend giving OG Racing a call. In addition to genuinely being my favorite racing safety equipment retailer, OG Racing also is a partner of ours making this resource possible. When speaking with them they’ll be able to provide you the additional guidance needed to find the right driver suit to meet your needs and budget. They keep a large number of suits in stock, so if you’re between sizes you could purchase multiple suits and return the one(s) that don’t fit properly for a full refund. While you’d need to pay the small cost to ship it back, they have no restocking fees.
When I was speaking with them about my proportions, they told me that the suit size I was considering would be way too big. Since they have several people on staff of varying sizes, they said getting the customers proportions and having an employee who is similarly built try on suits to get a better idea of fitment is pretty common practice if they don’t know it already.
In summary, it’s critical that you purchase a racing suit that will meet the certification requirements of the sanctioning body (club) you will be participating with. From there purchase a suit that will be comfortable to wear as it’s a piece of equipment that you can use for years to come.
While doing this research, I decided it was time for a new suit for multiple reasons including the aforementioned eating too many hamburgers and opted for the Sparco Victory RS4 OG Racing has on clearance for $650. If within your budget, and they still have them in stock for your size, this is a fantastic deal.
Website: OG Racing
Phone: (800) 934-9112