Track Day 201 - Track Safety: Making Sure we get Home in One Piece  

Time to read: 11 min | 10 January, 2021 | Kevin Homan

For those Formula 1 fans who watched the 2020 running of the Bahrain Grand Prix, I doubt any of you will forget the opening lap crash of Haas driver Romain Grosjean. While I won’t get into the gritty details; on the opening lap, battling for position his car came across the Alpha Tauri of Daniel Kvyat, went off track and into the Armco barriers. Only, he didn’t go into them, his car went THROUGH them, ripping it in half, and sending up a massive fireball. For 20 or so heart stopping moments, viewers and the racing world in general waited for Romain to get out of his car, which thankfully he did. Owing to the state of safety within Formula 1, both in the engineering of his car, the work that has been put into modern racing suits, gloves, and harnesses Romain walked away with nothing but burns to his hands.

This accident has of course been discussed throughout the automotive world; from Reddit, to Twitter to even the local Facebook groups I participate in to include my local SCCA region. For one, it demonstrated just how far the safety systems of a modern F1 car has come. Two, it got me thinking about my own safety on track during our local track weekends. What at minimum should I have in my car and on my person to ensure I’m in the safest position possible on track?

For the local track day enthusiast like myself, it really is a difficult proposition figuring out just what the right balance is. On one hand, I have a family, and they of course want me to come home at the end of a track weekend, at least I think they do (note to self, check for recent life insurance policies taken out on me). On the other, I DO have a budget to consider; obviously in a perfect world, safety comes with no budget, but alas we don’t live in a perfect world. As a driver getting ready to start his second-year driving HPDE events, I’m writing this through the lens of a newer (as in like, not even a full year into this addiction…err, hobby) driver. Keep in mind, this will largely be based on my situation, financial and driving class-wise so what is the sweet-spot for me, may not necessarily be the sweet-spot for others.

Thanks in no part to The Fast and the Furious series, people (at least non-drivers) are under the impression that upgrades are the bits of the car that make it go fast; engines, turbos and NOS, oh my! At some point in your driving career, you may get to the point where you are upgrading and adding these components, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, as with any hobby or activity, we have to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. HPDE driving is no different; we start as novices, move on to intermediate and then advanced. From there, the sky is the limit. At some point many of us buy a car with the intentions of primarily serving us in these track duties, and from there thoughts of modifications and improvements begin. When we modify our car in a way that is increasing top end speed, or speed thorugh the corners, we're increasing the overall danger to ourselves in the event something goes wrong. By having the proper safety gear in place, we set ourselves up to be able to make those performance based upgrades and modifications. We are by and large not professional drivers, we’re enthusiasts and hobbyists, and at the end of the day, we want to go home to our families unharmed. Proper safety gear is what helps us get home every weekend.

Those of you just getting started in HPDE driving might be asking “what is the bare minimum in driving safety equipment”? A helmet. As SCCA states on their website, “Truly, all you are required to have is your driver’s license, your car in good working order (more on this in short order), and a helmet.” A helmet must conform to Snell Foundation standards, specifically the latest, or two immediately preceding standards; currently this means that SA2020, SA2015 and SA2010 conformal helmets can be used. Additionally, various SFI, ECE, FIA and British spec helmets conform, but please consult this SCCA document or if you’re driving non-SCCA events such as NASA or PCA please consult their rulebooks for their accepted standards. Please note, there can be additional helmet requirements if you drive a vehicle without a windscreen, or those without a DOT-approved windshield. Again, please consult the proper rulebooks in those cases for specific requirements.

In many cases, as you’re getting started you don’t even need to own your own helmet. Many race shops have rental programs, which are geared towards new and first-time drivers who may not be sure if they’ll be doing this frequently. A $50 rental is much more acceptable than shelling out several hundred dollars when you’re just getting started and not sure if you’re going to like HPDE driving (you will, don’t worry). But, if this is something that you’re going to be jumping feet first into, a helmet purchase will be a necessity, so make sure you’re buying an approved helmet.

While not required, something every driver should seriously consider is a Head and Neck Support (HANS) device. You will most likely recognize these as the device that fits over a driver’s shoulders, with straps that connect to a driver’s helmet, and worn by all professional race drivers. Their use reduces the likelihood of a head and neck injury in an accident, more specifically the generally fatal basilar skull fracture. In professional racing, they were mandated in the aftermath of the high-profile deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger in Formula 1, and Dale Earnhart in NASCAR. It should be noted, even after these deaths, HANS devices were hotly debated in both series, with F1 not mandating them until 2003; NASCAR was far quicker to mandate them, doing so in October of 2001, but not until AFTER another driver in their ARCA series died in an accident. Again, while not mandated, the addition of a HANS device to any track day driver’s safety system is something to be very seriously considered.

HANS - Head and neck support device, used in F1 - Wikipedia Commons

Since the inception of the HANS device, constant improvement has been made on them. For track drivers, there are two variants available; the standard HANS-type device, and the hybrid. The standard device is meant for cars with five- and six-point harnesses installed; the shoulder straps of your harness pass over the device on your shoulders, helping secure it to your body. In an accident, the HANS is secured to your body, not your seat so your head moves relative with the rest of your body, and not in a whiplash type movement as if it were unsecured (a situation that can be exacerbated by the additional weight of your helmet). For drivers of cars with standard OE seatbelts, the hybrid style is what you’ll want to look at. In addition to the shoulder component, the hybrid device has a set of straps that go around a driver’s chest. Because standard belts do not secure the shoulder component like a harness does, this chest strap is what secures the device to the driver, ensuring a similar result to the traditional HANS in the event of an accident. Where the decision can get tricky is for instructors who may have a five- or six-point harness in their car, but may have to get into a student car with traditional belts. The hybrid style device is considerably more expensive than a standard type HANS, so while it may seem like a straight forward decision to make, for some it may not be.

This I think largely covers it for driver gear. Of course we can talk about Nomex suits, gloves, underwear, etc. but for the beginning driver, and even those who will be driving regular HPDE these may not be needed. If you drive TT, depending on what safety category your vehicle falls under, these may then become a requirement. So as is often my recommendation, always consult the rules and safety books. Let’s move on to your car and it’s systems that keep you safe.

As mentioned above directly from SCCA, “…your car in good working order…”. In general, the requirement for your car is that it pass the SCCA tech form, which SCCA uses as an inspection prior to you going on track. This can be done either by yourself (if you know what you’re doing and are comfortable doing so) or by a competent and reputable mechanic. This includes things like making sure your fluids are topped up and capable of putting up with on track conditions, making sure your brakes and wheels are up to snuff, and in general validating the integrity of the car and its ability to drive on track. Beyond that, as a newer driver this is the bare minimum required, but of course as you progress as a driver additions and upgrades become something to think about.

Of note, depending on your vehicle, there may be additional requirements to get it on track. For example, I (now) drive a 1997 Mazda Miata, this car was built before upgraded rollover protection standards went into law in 2005. As such, to get on track I am required to have a roll bar installed in the car to protect myself and any passengers in the event of a rollover. I am not talking about a “style-bar”, those cheap roll hoop looking things you often see on Miata’s on the street. I am talking about spec-built and engineered systems intended for use on track made by companies such as Harddog and Blackbird Fabworx. Please keep this in mind if you’re looking to get started, and you drive either an NA (1989-1998) or NB (1999-2004) generation Miata, you will need to install some sort of roll protection to get on track. This requirement extends to other cars, so if you have a convertible older than 2005 model year, please make sure you check for its rollover protection, or lack thereof.

HANS - Head and neck support device, used in F1 - Wikipedia Commons

Since they’re loosely related, I’ll talk about a full safety cage. I feel confident in saying, if you’re just getting started you can focus your upgrades elsewhere, as this is an involved and expensive solution. This isn’t something you typically see until a driver is in TT, and at that generally only within the Unlimited category (at least in SCCA sanctioned events). This is because (again, in SCCA) a fully caged car places you within Safety Level 3 requirements, which requires the use of fire-retardant clothing, and arm restraints or window netting (these are Safety Level 2 requirements). I mention this because if you plan on running non-DOT rated tires your vehicle must meet this safety level. Please don’t take this as me attempting to dissuade you from installing a full cage in your vehicle, it is your car after all. I will mention, as I'm going to mention the installation of seats and harnesses below. As we make these modifications, and replace factory installed equipment, we are changing the factory installed safety systems which work in unison. I just throw that out there for consideration, and not as a recomendation. Again, if you’re not driving SCCA events please ensure you consult the rulebook of your sanctioning body to ensure you’re complying with their rules and safety requirements. Also, please keep in mind, a fully caged car is NOT street legal and will not pass a local or State safety inspection. Driving on the street in a caged car, without a helmet could also potentially be fatal in an accident if your head were to hit any part of the cage. Please, don't drive a caged car on the street, ensure you have a trailer for getting to and from events.

One of the most common in car upgrades/modifications you’ll see at a track weekend is seats and harnesses. Compared to your factory seats and belts, a race seat and harness helps secure you in your seat far better than the factory seats and belts can. A one piece, fixed seat also will not collapse in the event of an accident (yes, this can happen). However, just installing a set of seats and harnesses doesn’t immediately mean you’ve increased your safety, remember, safety is a system. Factory seat belts give a bit before they catch your body in addition to working with your air-bag system, racing harnesses when properly tightened hold you in tight. In the event of a crash, and without a HANS device you are now at a greater risk of whiplash or greater injuries by modifying your seating situation. If and when you upgrade to seats and harnesses, remember, think about the system as a whole. Make sure a HANS device (if you don’t already own one) is a part of those plans, otherwise you’re potentially at greater risk of injury. As with a caged car, please note if you've installed seats and harnesses, depending on jurisdiction you may not pass a safety inspection (in Virginia you will NOT). Keep this in mind if you will be driving your car to the track, and have seats and harnesses installed.

Lastly, fire suppression. None of us intend to catch our cars on fire on the track of course, but it happens and if we’re able to reduce the time it takes to get suppressant on a fire, the greater our chances at reducing potential driver and passenger burn injuries, or avoiding the loss of a vehicle.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

In this video, shot by a friend of mine we see a fire within his engine compartment. In this situation, things end about as well as they can, although it could be argued if he had an extinguisher within the car, he could have further limited damages. But I think I’m probably splitting hairs here. Had he still been on track, the damage could have been considerably worse. SCCA requirements (again, PLEASE check regs if you drive under a different org) only require fire suppression as a part of Safety Level 2 requirements; “All vehicles shall have a device (such as a fire bottle/fire extinguisher/fire suppression system) securely mounted with metal mounting brackets of the quick-release type within reach of the driver to suppress fires.

The device should meet at least one of the following minimum requirements:

  1. On-board fire systems per SCCA Road Racing General Competition Rules (GCR).
  2. Halon 1301 or 1211, 2 pound minimum capacity by weight.
  3. Dry chemical, 2 pound minimum with a positive indicator showing charge. Chemical: 10 BC or 1A10BC Underwriters Laboratory rating.

As currently written, only cars in the TT Unlimited category are mandated to meet these requirements, although SCCA does recommend that participants meet Safety Level 3. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one in your car. If you can mount one in your car, do it. When it comes to SCCA events, at least at the events I run, you’re waiting until the rescue vehicles get on track in the event you have a fire. Every second you can cut off of a fire is considerably increasing your safety.

Safety certainly doesn’t get any of the glory on track until situations like Romain’s present themselves. Then, we naturally talk about how far we’ve come in limiting danger as much as possible and what we can do to improve. Danger will never be fully eliminated on track, but the more we can limit it the better our chances are of coming home after each weekend. My friends and I talk cars and the track a lot, and having limited budgets when we talk about these things inevitably the comment “yeah, but that’s so expensive” pops up. I certainly understand it, but the question you have to ask yourself is, is there a price to your safety? Invariably there is, we all have budgets, and those budgets only go so far. What I’m saying is, as you modify and upgrade your car, make sure you’re properly considering what safety upgrades you’ll need in place to keep you as safe as possible. Someone wants you coming home from the track at night.

As usual, thank you for reading. These thoughts are my own, and in no way represent the official thoughts and statements of my employer, my automotive and Masonic membership affiliations.