Buyer’s Guide: Racing Suits

By John Beltz Snyder

October 24, 2013

If you watch a lot of pro racing, you might think that racing suits are basically billboard space, where sponsors can get their logo in front of television audiences. In reality though, a lot of us don’t have any decoration on our driving suits. That’s because their primary purpose is to keep us safe.
Still there are important differences among the various racing suits available. This is where it can get confusing for the buyer. That’s why we’ve put together this buyer’s guide. It can help you ask the important questions to make sure you get into a suit that fits you, both physically and in terms of your needs.
If you have any other questions about racing suits you’d like to see answered, let us know.
Why do I need a racing suit?
A driving suit serves one simple purpose: fire protection. In a sport that combines high speeds with combustible liquids, a fire suit is necessary to protect yourself in a daring pastime. Your skin is a lot more precious than a few layers of flame-retardant fabric, after all.
The other simple answer: because your sanctioning body requires it.
What should I look for in the ideal racing suit?
A high level of protection, the requisite certification, light weight, good fit, and features. We’ll get into each of those in a bit.
What is the difference between FRC and Nomex?
Fire-retardant cotton (FRC) suits are—as the name suggests—made with cotton that is treated with a fire-retardant chemical. Common FRC brands used in racing suits are Proban, Banox, and Pyrovatex. One drawback of FRC is that the level of protection it offers diminishes with laundering.
Nomex is a synthetic Aramid fiber made by DuPont. It offers more protection than FRC, and is less likely to degrade when washed, but it is usually more expensive.
How much should my suit weigh?
As is often the case with racing, lighter is better. Lighter suits are usually more comfortable and easier to move around in. Plus, it often gets ridiculously hot out at the track, especially in the cockpit under the stress of driving. In a lighter suit, it is easier to keep cool. More layers, though, oftens means more pretection and more weight. So lighter is better, as long as you aren’t sacrificing protection.
The weight of a suit is usually measured in grams per square meter (sometimes called “sandwich weight”). Many Nomex suits are around 400 g/m2. For the same level of protection, a suit that weighs less is usually going to cost more.
What certifications should I look for?
Most racing suits are certified by the SFI Foundation (and or FIA). Much like Snell does with helmets, SFI makes sure racing suits meet certain safety standards, and certifies them as such. You’re mainly looking for a certain level of protection in the case of a fire. SFI determines how long the suit provides protection from a second-degree burn in a fire. (If you want to get into the nitty gritty, SFI measures the materials in calories per square centimeter—you can read the SFA 3.2A specifications for driver suits here [PDF].)
SFI 3.2A/1 (SFI-1), SFI 3.2A/5 (SFI-5), or FIA 8856-2000 are what your sanctioning body will likely require from you.
SFI 3.2A/1 suits are usually single-layer FRC suits. They are certified to protect the wearer from second-degree burns in a fire for three seconds.
SFI 3.2A/5 is usually a multi-layered Nomex (or other synthetic fiber), flame-retardant suit. It will protect the wearer from second-degree burns for about 9.5 seconds.
SFI 3.2A/5 and FIA 8856-2000 offer similar amounts of protection, and some suits are certified as both. If you’re going to be racing in different races under different sanctioning bodies, having a suit that can go anywhere isn’t a bad idea.
SFI 32.A/10 SFI 32.A/15, and SFI 3.2A/20 offer protection from second-degree burns for about 19, 30, and 40 seconds respectively. You’ll often see these higher requirements in certain kinds of drag racing.
How do I get a proper fit?
A proper fit is important for safety, comfort, and control behind the wheel. Most suits fit standard measurements, but some can be custom ordered to fit a particular driver.
First, record your height and weight, and measure your neck, chest, waist, and inseam, preferably while wearing what you would normally wear under the suit while racing. For some brands, it may also be helpful to measure around your hip, thigh, and your arm length.
With those measurements, you should be able to find a standard size suit either in the format many of us are used to (Small, Medium, Large, X-Large, XX-Large), or in European sizes (46 to 64) . Manufacturers offer sizing charts that correspond to those measurements (and show you how to measure, in most instances).
And, if you’re ever unsure about what size you should order, contact your dealer. They’ll help you out.
Sizing charts: Alpinestars, OMP, Sabelt.
Should I buy a one-piece or a two-piece suit?
Usually a one-piece suit is best. A gap between the jacket and pants of a two-piece suit can leave you vulnerable to fire at that spot.
However, if you have trouble finding a one-piece suit that fits you properly, a two-piece suit might be the way to go. That way, you can choose the pieces that fit you individually, and you can be comfortable and safer while driving. Crew members (non-drivers) may also prefer a two-piece suit for the comfort and convenience.
Your sanctioning body may or may not require the driver to wear a one-piece suit. Always check with your sanctioning body.
When should I replace my racing suit?
If your suit has any wear or tears in it, even if it isn’t through all the layers, that is going to compromise your safety in a fire. Also, if your suit gets stained with any flammable materials this seriously diminishes its effectiveness in a fire. Consider replacing it if any of these things happen.
If you’ve gained or lost a lot of weight, this can affect the way your suit fits you. It also affects your movement (and, thus, control behind the wheel), the amount of air between you and your suit (which can help insulate you from a fire), and your overall comfort. You’ll be happier and safer in a suit that fits you right.
Finally, if you have an FRC suit that you’ve washed a bunch of times, you may want to replace it, as laundering degrades the fire-retardant compound it was originally treated with.
What accessories should I consider when buying a driving suit?
There are several things to think about beyond protection, fit, and weight. Some are just a matter of convenience. Do you want pockets? If so, what kind? Where do you want your zippers? Do you want an adjustable neck? What are the cuffs like? Do you need sewn-in panels that stretch or provide ventilation?
Other features make sure your suit is compatible with the rest of your gear. Some are made to work well with HANS devices. Others offer cooling features for an added price.
Generally, additional features mean an added cost.
What else can I wear for more fire protection?
The more layers of protection you can wear comfortably, the better off you’ll be in case of a fire. Your sanctioning body may require things like helmets, shoes, and gloves with a standard homologation, but there are other ways to add more protection.
Fire-resistant underwear not only sounds really cool when you tell people you’re wearing it, but it can buy you more time (and possibly your life) in case of a fire. In addition to your skivvies, you can put on flame-retardant shirts, socks, and balaclavas.
Shop for racing suits in the Winding Road Racing store.
Further reading: RaceDaySafetyInfo, Circle Track, OG Racing