Understanding The Basics of Auto Racing Safety Equipment

By Ross Bentley

June 30, 2015

If you can't afford good safety equipment, you can't afford to go racing or performance driving, participate in HPDE or autocross events, or do whatever form of motorsport you do. To me, safety equipment is the price of entry. And there's no point in using cheap, sub-par safety equipment. Well, unless your life is not worth anything. I know, I know... you participate at a level where you don't need the latest and greatest safety equipment. But that's just an excuse - a poor one. If you're going to drive on a track or course, don't scrimp. Having said that, if you're participating in an HPDE event, no, you don't need the same equipment that someone in pro racing does. And that's why it's important to have someone that really knows safety equipment advise you on what you need and don't need. ​One such expert is Bob Zecca, who has operated Driving Impressions since 1983. –Ross 
In the summer of 1987, I had a surprise visit to my office by Piergiorgio Percivale, who was the founder and owner of OMP Racing of Italy. The following September, I made a visit to the factory in Ronco Scrivia, Italy, and that is when I made the decision to be the importer for OMP for the U.S. market. This relationship lasted seventeen years and taught me European thinking on safety, plus introduced me to the FIA rules, which were then light years ahead of the thinking and practices that were in place in America.
At that time, Driving Impressions was a 4-year-old company and we were predominantly selling U.S.-made goods. These products did their job of providing safety (for the most part), against fire, but the fabrics and the construction made the suits very bulky without offering much “feel.” This brings us to the basics of driving and the relationship to proper fitting and feeling of safety equipment.
When I speak to a customer about purchasing safety equipment, I tell them that you drive with your head, your eyes, your hands, your feet, and your back (rear end). We have all experienced driving a street or race car. What is the first thing you do? You look down the road - whether it’s a straight where you give it gas or a turn where you are looking through it, turn in, brake, and get back on the gas. As you start to build up speed and load on the car, it starts to give you feedback as to what’s going on. With this feedback, you make adjustments to your driving style.
This feedback is very important. The faster and more precise you are in “feeling” what the car is saying, the quicker and more precise your driving will become. Let’s start with your brain. Consider it to be your car’s computer (or in today’s world, ECU), and your eyes, hands, feet, and back are sensors that send signals to your brain. It, in turn, makes millions of decisions a second and allows you to make adjustments to your steering, acceleration, and braking.
You want to make sure that you can see, and in today’s market, all helmets allow proper vision, so this should not be an issue. The steering wheel provides “feedback” and this (along with your sight), sends signals to your brain and back down to your hands, which in turn, allows you to make adjustments to your steering input. Your feet play a major part; you are stepping on the accelerator, which in most cases is easy, but the tricky part is in braking and shifting. You must feel the brake pedal so you that you hit the pedal fast and hard enough so that you prevent brake lockup. This feel is called “brake modulation” for the old school cars without ABS. This is key to faster lap times. Lastly, you receive incredible feedback through the “seat of your pants” and back. The car’s rear end steps out and you first feel it in your seat; you make lighting quick decisions with your hands (and possibly feet), to get the car back in line.
So what does all of this have to do with safety equipment and the evolution of said equipment? As I mentioned earlier, back in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, racing equipment was big, heavy, and bulky. It did the job of protecting you against fire, but little else. What the Italians taught me was there are two ways to get hurt in auto racing. One by fire and two by having a crash. Thankfully, fire is very rare; accidents are much more common. They can cost you money, you can get hurt, and in very rare cases, they can lead to death. Piergiorgio told me early on that they believed that safety equipment should be light. After you've driven a car for 20 minutes or so, you become hot, you sweat, and your reaction time gets slower. This reduction in reaction time and concentration could lead to a mistake, which then can lead to a crash, and for sure, slower lap times. OMP believed in making a suit that protected against fire, but was also light, giving you comfort and not “killing” you with heat exhaustion because of its weight. When we first started selling European suits, they were almost 30% lighter than their American counterparts. Many people thought I was crazy for bringing OMP suits into the U.S. Now, look!  What do you see? Sparco, OMP, Alpine Stars, MOMO and other lightweight suits. Driving Impressions was one of the first to bring European suits into America.
Not only does your body suffer from heat, but your head and your brain do, as well. All the heat goes up to your head; it is very important that you keep your head cool, as well as your body. This is your computer, and if it works properly, it will allow the rest of your body to function well.
In the past thirty years, I have dealt with literally over 100,000 customers. I tell drivers that regardless of whether they're driving a street or race car, 60 MPH is 88 feet per second! If you think about it, most race cars today are modified street cars and if they can break down due to a part failure, then what happens at speed? You must have the proper safety equipment at all times to avoid getting hurt. At 88 feet per second, you are going 8.8 feet in a tenth of a second! Can you imagine if you just made a split decision a tenth of a second faster, you could avoid hitting somebody, leading to a massive crash? Think about it.
In the next story, I will write more about helmets, gloves, shoes, suits, seats, and belts: How they started and how they’ve evolved. Do you know who was one of the first drivers to wear external stitch gloves? (I’ll tell you in the next article). The good news is safety equipment did evolve. The equipment you are wearing today is very good. It protects against fire, and in most cases, is very light - proving the ideals of what Piergiorgio first taught me and what we have been pushing for years.
Since 1987, I have made twenty-three trips to Europe to work with many European manufacturers on helmet design, suits, gloves, shoes, seats, and belts for the U.S. market. In upcoming issues, I will share stories of these trips, testing procedures, design improvements, and what you should look for when buying equipment for your personal needs.
- Bob Zecca
Web: www.teamdi.com
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