Flames mean fear. Whether your race car is clocking 100 mph or 330, circumstances can align, things can go awry, and serious injury, or worse, can occur. Race drivers cringe at the thought of impact, but few things remain in the forefront of a racers’ mind than the ever-present fear of fire. As race cars across the vast spectrum of drag racing have become quicker, faster, and likewise, more powerful, they’ve also become more volatile and increasingly prone to catastrophic failures, fire, and high-speed impacts.
Last month, we published the triumphant story of radial tire racer Lyle Barnett, who miraculously survived a fiery crash last fall that nearly took his life, leaving with him significant burns that have and will continue to require surgery and treatment. On that fateful day, Barnett was clad in every piece of safety equipment that his particular vehicle — based on elapsed time, speed, power adder, and other factors — required of him. But Lyle’s accident, and many others like it, as unnecessary and unwanted as they are, have throughout history served to call attention to and improve racing safety standards. And as Lyle was quick to point out, there’s no harm in being over-prepared.
Just because jeans and an SFI-rated jacket are allowed by a series, does not mean that is the most ideal safety gear — it simply is what the racer can minimally “get away with” in order to be able to compete. – Kelli Willmore, Impact Racing
Kelli Willmore champions that statement, sharing that racers would always be wise to go above and beyond for their safety.
“The requirements outlined by series are what is minimally recommended and what will minimally be accepted to pass technical inspection. While an SFI 3.2A/15 suit might be an acceptable level of protection, if common sense were to prevail, then it would be wise to invest in safety gear providing a higher level of protection. Just because jeans and an SFI-rated jacket are allowed by a series, does not mean that is the most ideal safety gear — it simply is what the racer can minimally “get away with” in order to be able to compete.”
Safety Equipment At A Glance
NHRA Funny Car driver Jack Beckman, wearing the mandated fire retardant base layer and SFI 3.2A/20 firesuit required for nitro-fueled race cars.
The SFI Foundation is an organization that every racer should be familiar with. Virtually every piece of racing safety equipment sold the world over features an SFI label, and has been made according to stringent regulations on material and design, as determined through rigorous independent testing procedures and approved by a technical committee from members of all facets of the racing industry.
The SFI’s 3.2A spec (3.2A refers to suits specifically), in particular, is a test of a garment’s fire retardant capabilities, with a rating system put in place based on that item’s TPP (Thermal Protective Performance) when subjected to direct flame and radiant heat. This rating is designed to measure and correlate to the length of time one could be exposed to a heat source while wearing the garment before incurring second degree, skin-blistering burns. TPP is a product of exposure heat and exposure time, and is converted into a length of time before the second degree burns occur. The higher the number, the greater protection that a garment provides.
To arrive at these ratings, SFI puts materials and garments through a number of exercises, including inflammability tests, the after-flame test (the length of time it takes an item to self-extinguish), thread heat resistance, zipper heat resistance, multiple layer shrinkage resistance, and others.
This chart shows the SFI’s TPP rating chart, correlating the TPP value they’ve assigned to specific garments with the time they can be worn before suffering second-degree burns.
A common misconception is that the TPP ratings are the number of layers a garment has, but that is in fact not the case. Higher-rated garments do, however, generally contain more layers than a lower-rated one, as additional layers insulate and keep the heat source away from the skin by way of air gaps between the layers of fabric. An SFI 3.2A/15 and SFI 3.2A/20 suit are typically at least four or five layers, whereas an SFI 3.2A/5 is typically a two-layer suit.
As Willmore tells us, “nitro and alcohol-fueled drag racers require greatly increased TPP values for fire retardant garments. While nitromethane burns more slowly than gasoline, the volume of fuel that can be pushed through the cylinders is much greater, creating more power from each explosion and resulting in the higher horsepower and extreme speeds these race cars are known for. Because of how these fuel mixtures react under these unique circumstances, suits and other fire retardant garments constructed for use in nitro and alcohol fueled drag applications must be constructed from greatly increased layers of Nomex and meet much more stringent TPP requirements.”
What Does The NHRA Require?
In regards to driver apparel, the National Hot Rod Association has specific guidelines based on elapsed time and speed plateaus, and, at some of the more advanced performance levels, also factors in chassis type (ie. front engine dragsters and altereds), power adder type, and fuel type into the equation. This includes jackets, pants, gloves, shoes/boots, helmet skirts/headsocks, and fire retardant base layers. These equipment standards, while designated by the NHRA, are first drawn up, tested, and certified by the SFI Foundation.
As the sport has expanded and evolved beyond the NHRA’s (and likewise, the IHRA) professional and sportsman categories, it’s opened up some “gray areas” or specific points of confusion amongst racers in newer categories who aren’t specifically spelled out in any rulebooks.
Radial tire cars, for example, may be Pro Modified cars in every sense other than the numbers on the scoreboard, but currently, they simply fall under Advanced E.T. in the rulebook, as confirmed by the NHRA Vice President of Technical Operations, Glen Gray. Top Sportsman, in which cars of the boosted and nitrous-assisted variety have, in some venues, become as quick and fast as their counterparts in Pro Modified, also fall into that same classification.
Now that many of these cars are going quicker than the lower limit for Advanced E.T., we’re looking at what we need to do to accommodate these racers to keep them safe. – Glen Gray, NHRA
Outlaw Pro Modified cars, which greatly exceed the 6.00 (1/4-mile) and 3.66 (1/8-mile) limits of Advanced E.T., still fall under that classification, as well, simply because there isn’t another place for them at this time.
This has required the NHRA Technical Department to maintain a steady degree of diligence to remain on top of the latest developments in drag racing at their sanctioned venues.
“We’re reviewing Advanced E.T. right now. Now that many of these cars are going quicker than the lower limit for Advanced E.T., we’re looking at what we need to do to accommodate these racers to keep them safe,” Gray says. “Beyond elapsed time, we’re looking at what the power adders in these cars are and what type of fuel they’re running — these are the important things. We’ve been working with our seven division directors, where events with Pro Modified, drag radial, and other classes have been contested, to help us determine what changes we need to make to the Advanced E.T. section.”
Gray shares that the NHRA is, however, confident its current level of standards for drivers in the E.T. classification and in its Sportsman categories that are comparable to E.T., with no changes on the horizon. The E.T. category, of course, encompasses the vast majority of all grass roots and entry level racers, who may be taking their hopped-up daily drivers to the track.
How Layering Works
Multi-layer driving suits feature an increasing number of layers as you climb up the TPP chart, providing added protection for the driver. This is accomplished by way of air gaps between the layers, which work to fend off the flames and provide additional insulation between the heat source and the driver.
Willmore adds, “It’s important for consumers and racers to understand the requirements for the series they will be competing in and ensure they invest in the most appropriate safety equipment. Most grassroots racing organizations accept SFI 3.2A/1 rated fire suits, while most professional organizations such as NASCAR and IndyCar minimally require SFI 3.2A/5 rated suits. While a 3.2A/1 suit may be perfectly acceptable to a series, typically these suits only feature a single layer of material and minimally only offer three seconds of protection to a second-degree burn. Comparatively, an SFI 3.2A/5 rated fire suit is usually a two- or three-layer suit and offers 10 seconds of protection to a second-degree burn.”
Below are the NHRA’s current E.T./Advanced E.T. regulations:
Super Pro, Pro, Sportsman E.T.
Full length pants, short or long sleeve shirt, closed shoes, and socks are required, at minimum. The following are NHRA class guidelines:
10.00 (6.40) — 13.99 (8.59) without forced induction or nitrous and OEM or .024-inch firewall: SFI 3.2A/1 jacket
10.00 (6.40) — 13.99 (8.59) supercharged, turbocharged, or nitrous cars without full OEM or .024-inch steel firewall: 3.2A/5 jacket and 3.3/1 gloves
9.99 (6.39) — 7.50 (4.50) front-engine open-bodied cars with nitrous or forced induction: 3.2A/15 jacket, 3.3/5 gloves and shoes/boots
9.99 (6.39) – 7.50 (4.50) closed-body cars without OEM or full .024-inch steel firewall with nitrous or forced induction: 3.2A/15 jacket and pants, 3.3/5 gloves, 3.3/5 shoes/boots
Nitro drivers wear both a headsock and a skirted helmet, providing the most extensive degree of facial and neck protection possible.
10.00 (*6.40) to 11.49 (*7.35); all E.T. naturally aspirated, OEM supercharged, or OEM turbocharged with a full OEM or .024- inch steel firewall: Jacket meeting SFI Spec 3.2A/1 mandatory.
9.99 (6.39) – 7.50 (4.50 ) or any car exceeding 135 mph: 3.2A/5 jacket and pants, 3.3/1 gloves
Any open-body cars 11.99 or quicker: 3.3/1 gloves
Dune-buggy or dune-buggy-type vehicles, 12.00 (7.50) and slower: 3.2A/1 jacket, 3.3/1 gloves
Any car with automatic transmission in drivers compartment: 3.2A/15 jacket and pants or suit, 3.3/5 gloves, 3.3/5 shoes/boots mandatory.
Any car 9.99 and faster, forced induction with alcohol: 3.2A/15 suit, 3.3/5 gloves and boots
Advanced E.T. — 6.00 (3.66) — 7.49 (4.49)
Mandatory 3.2A/15 jacket and pants or suit, 3.3/5 gloves, 3.3/5 shoes/boots. Forced induction, front-engine, open-bodied cars: 3.2A/20 jacket and pants or suit, 3.3/15 gloves, 3.3/15 shoes/boots. SFI 3.3 headsock or skirted helmet required for any car 7.49 or quicker when not using a neck collar
How Can You Keep Yourself Safe?
As we’ve alluded to previously, over-preparation is the name of the game. The SFI Foundation and the NHRA have gone to great lengths to develop a minimum level of equipment for given vehicle combinations and performances range, but at the end of the day, they are just that: a minimum. Anything one can do to enhance their level of safety in the event of a fire — especially if the difference in cost is minimal — will pay off in spades if the worst were to occur.
For a racer in Advanced E.T., this might mean adding a 3.2A/20 suit, 3.3/20 Nitro/Top Alcohol boots, and a headsock and headskirt combination. More entry-level racers might consider a higher-rated TPP jacket and pants, and potentially even a pair of SFI-rated driving shoes, rather than sneakers.
Drivers looking for an extra level of protection in the event of fire would be wise to invest in fire-retardant base layers. Such garments are not required in Advanced E.T. and lower categories, but are an excellent addition to the wardrobe of anyone running a combination prone to fire.
Using the TPP chart above and comparing it with the minimum requirements for one’s combination in the rulebook, you can determine what the next rung up the proverbial ladder in fire protection might be (be it moving from a 3.3/5 to 3.3/10 glove, or so on). Another way that racers, particularly those in more volatile, boosted, alcohol-fueled cars, can add to their degree of safety is through the use of undergarments (or long underwear, as some might call them).
“Drivers need to wear the appropriate base layers (undergarments). Fire retardant undergarments are a second line of defense, providing an additional layer of insulation against direct flame and thermal transfer and also providing valuable additional seconds of time,” Willmore says. “Impact highly suggests the use of fire retardant undergarments, including balaclavas, socks, and long sleeve shirts and pants, even if the sanctioning body does not require these items.”
The SFI follows that recommendation, sharing in their documentation: Fire resistant underwear should be worn with every type of driver suit, especially single layer suits because it will double the minimum protection time (+3 seconds). The 3.2A rating does not include underwear. It is certified through SFI Spec 3.3 for Driver Accessories and undergoes the same TPP and flammability tests as the driver suit outerwear. A garment’s insulation capability is also affected by the fit of the suit. A suit worn too tight will compress the air gaps and allow heat to reach the skin faster.
As has been stated here, and it bears repeating, drivers are ultimately responsible for their own safety and ensuring they’re adequately prepared for any situation that may arise with the vehicle they’re piloting. And that could also mean over-preparing, if they feel it’s needed, as well. Part of this also falls, of course, on the event promoters and tech inspectors to keep their racers in-check. As we’ve outlined in this text, the NHRA and SFI have gone to great lengths, using decades of development and real-world circumstances to create standards designed to keep you safe, and while it’s those unfortunate circumstances that lead to improves standards, it’s our hope that not one more driver has to become a source of analysis.