PHOTO: If your race car’s safety system looks anything like this, you’re better off not racing it at all. (VMM photo)

DISCLAIMER: Racing is not and will never be entirely safe. This article is intended to be a basic guideline for race car safety. The information herein is designed to help racers compete more safely and was written with the best available information, but it is the driver’s responsibility to do the proper research and build his or her own race car. Vermont Motorsports Magazine or its affiliates do not assume any responsibilty for your safety on or off the race track.

–by T.J. Ingerson
VMM Correspondent

I was thinking of a subject for this week’s Under the Hood, when it dawned on me the most important aspect of racing, above everything else: Safety.

If the driver doesn’t feel safe in his race car, then he/she may not be able to get everything out of that car. The sad reality is that many drivers take safety for granted. It shouldn’t make a difference if you’re racing the mile at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the half-mile at Airborne, the quarter-mile at Thunder Road, or the aisle at the local Wal-Mart with shopping carts, safety should be the number one priority.

Structural integrity of the chassis is always the number one concern for race cars. It doesn’t matter if you are racing ACT Late Models or the Hornet class at Bear Ridge. If there are rust holes all through your chassis or your welds are subpar, the chassis will not do what it is suppose to do in the event of an accident. Not to mention, structural integrity is also a major setup challenge if your chassis is flexing.

While most ACT Late Models are built by professionals and people who make a living doing that, the support division cars are built by who possibly can’t afford to pay someone to build their cars. If you’re not a good welder and don’t know someone who is and you can’t afford to pay someone, you shouldn’t be racing.

The roll cage of the race car is one of the most important pieces of equipment for a race car, and it should be treated as such. As mentioned above, the roll cage should be installed by someone who knows what they are doing. Yes, there are vendors that sell “roll cage kits” that come with pre-cut pieces that have to assembled. But, those pieces must still be welded into the car correctly. In my opinion, the safest way is to custom make the cage to the race car. Get some one and a half inch tubing and find someone that can cut and bend your tubing, along with someone who can weld it all together. Again, structural integrity and rigidity is highly important. In the event you are in a crash, you want that cage to stay intact and keep you or your driver safe.

A lot of teams weld steel to the left side door bars to prevent an intrusion into the cockpit. This is an absolute great idea and, in my opinion, should be mandatory.

Roll bar padding is only useful if you install it correctly. You don’t have to use the high intensity foam a NASCAR team uses. A lot of local teams are using the Longacre Roll Bar Padding mat, which protects the entire left side of the door bars from the driver. The rest of the roll bars that are within the drivers reach should be protected by normal roll bar padding. If using “zip ties,” don’t entirely squish the padding to the roll bar. Keep it snug just enough to keep the padding in place. Also, make sure the zip ties are cut off clean and turned away from the driver. It doesn’t make much sense to protect the bars if the driver can get cut by the end of a zip tie.

Full containment seats are great, which allow the driver to be encased. However, this just simply isn’t in the budget for most entry-level racers. A good, aluminum seat from Kirky, Butler Built, or another top seat manufacturer is just fine. However, if it has been re-drilled multiple times to be mounted into a new car and begins to look like swiss cheese, think about replacing your seat. It won’t do you any good to be in a structurally unsound seat in the event of a crash. Make sure your seat is mounted in four locations, two on the bottom of the seat near the legs and two at the top below where the belts come through. These should be secured with lock nuts, solid washers, and a decent size mounting plate.

Seat belts are another important aspect. While I firmly believe the belts should be changed every racing year, you can go two years on belt usage. However, if you are in a hard enough wreck, you should change your belts sooner than later. I’m not saying if you tap the wall you should change them, but any accident that seems violent, the belts should be changed or you risk further injury.

Also, the way seat belts are mounted are absolutely critical. The belts should be mounted in a way where there is ASBOLUTELY NO angle from the mount, to the harness, to the belt; it should be perfectly straight. If you mount the harness at a 90 degree angle to the belt, all that stress is being placed on the harness, and the harness cannot do its job correctly. Also, make sure there are no sharp edges in contact with the belts, as this is a quick way to tear them.

Racing made steering wheels are a must for any racer. But, some people often overlook the shaft. In the event of an incident where the steering box is moved, the steering shaft could come into the cockpit of the car and pin, or worse crush, the driver. I would recommend that all steering shafts have a Ujoint in them to help the shaft from directly going in the cockpit.

Now, when most people think about safety, they think about the driving suit and helmet of the driver. It’s sad, but a lot of drivers skimp out on the suit and go cheap. You don’t have to buy the 1500 dollar suit that has all the pretty colors and your sponsor’s logo plastered all over it, but you should spend more than $100 on it. If you can’t buy something with nomex, maybe you should reconsider your racing. In the event of a fire, a proban suit, jeans and long sleeved shirt isn’t going to do you any good. At least with one layer of nomex, you have a chance to get out before suffering any burns.

If your suit is full of dirt and oil, you may want to get a new suit sooner than later. And the same goes with holes. If it has holes and is worn down to where the nomex is showing, get a new suit. It amazes me how many people actually wear suits that are like this, considering its their lives that are at risk. The same goes for driving gloves and shoes. Get a good pair of gloves and shoes if you want to use those extremities again if you are ever in a fire.

Also, if you’re going to buy a helmet, buy one that is approved for racing and is designed for racing. A snow machine helmet is great, but I firmly believe it should be for the racing application. And again, if it shows any signs of deteriorating, get a new helmet. If it has any cracks in the shell or is damaged in any way, get a new helmet.

Lastly, head and neck restraint devices. They are expensive, but I would recommend their use. Even a neck brace is better than nothing, and it will save your life if you’re victim of a violent crash in which the car stops suddenly. If you do get a HANS or Hutchens device, make sure you follow the instructions and mount it properly. Seeing as it does require drilling into the helmet, only drill where the instructions tell you to.

That is your introduction to safety and something everything team should put number one when building a race car. If you have any questions about safety, or anything else, email me at [email protected].