Going Racing: Firesuits

February 27th, 2007 by William

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The second running of the 24 Hours of Lemons is coming up quickly and this year I hope to be driving as part of an all Pinto Team. Most of the details about the team are either fuzzy or top secret, however there have been some upgrades to the race that are crystal clear and they mostly have to do with safety.

After last years event everyone came away unscathed but there were a few incidents that raised some eyebrows and left people thinking “What if..?” One was a VW Golf that got put on its roof at low speed. As a result window nets and door bars have been added to the list of race car requirements along side the already mandatory safety harnesses and roll bars.

The other major incident that had people talking had to do with a Volvo wagon that was leaking gas out of its filler. The car was black flagged and came into the pits, the teammates disheartened that such a minor problem could take them out of the race. One generous minded mechanic who shall remain nameless came rushing over eager to help them get back into the fray even though he was on a different team. He grabbed a spare blue nitrile disposable glove and zip tied it over the filler neck to keep gas from splashing out onto the track. At the time it seemed like a good fix, in fact it worked pretty well for awhile until the glove started to fill up with the excess gas that sloshed out of the tank creating a potentially explosive and flammable hand that waved at everyone who passed on the right hand side. Inevitably the hand broke and the Volvo caught fire, circling the tiny track a few times before the race was temporarily stopped and the car was extinguished. This car fire prompted two new safety requirements. The first is that all filler necks have to be moved inside the car, away from impact points. The second requirement is that drivers have to wear SFI rated driver’s suits.

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Being the cheapo that I am, the second requirement had me a little disheartened. Driving suits are expensive. Last year I simply wore mechanic’s overalls and some fire proof gloves that I borrowed from a firefighting friend of mine who had just been at a large Marijuana bust where they had to burn a large field of weed plants. That’s another story, but in short the gloves smelled potentially of the sticky icky. The out fit worked fine, and best of all it was free.

Knowing that I had to buy one of these suits I hit up Ebay to see if I could find one for a bargain. Ebay was flooded with drivers suits some as cheap as $50, but I quickly noticed that some of the SFI ratings of the various suits were different. They all started with “SFI 3.2A” but then they had different numbers after that. I was getting ready to bid on one particular suit that read “SFI 3.2A/5″ when it occurred to me that it might be important to find out what that “/5″ actually meant.

After a quick search I found the SFI website and read it over to see what exactly SFI was and how a suit with their rating would help me to survive a fire. According to their website the SFI Foundation, Inc. (SFI) is “a non-profit organization established to issue and administer standards for specialty/performance automotive and racing equipment.” They exist to help keep racing safe for people like me. Their rating system for fire suits is based on how long a person wearing the suit can be exposed to the heat of a fire before they get second degree burns or blistering.

Here is their official explanation:
“The driver suit spec 3.2A tests a garment’s fire retardant capabilities. The spec contains a rating system based on the garment’s capability to provide Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) in the presence of both direct flame and radiant heat. The purpose of the TPP is to measure the length of time the person wearing the garment can be exposed to a heat source before incurring a second degree, or skin blistering, burn.
The TPP rating is the product of exposure heat flux and exposure time. The TPP results can be converted to the time before a second degree burn occurs. The higher the garment rating, the more time before a second degree burn.”

The ratings go like this:
3.2A/1 gives 3 seconds until a second degree burn
3.2A/3 gives 7 seconds
3.2A/5 gives 10 seconds
3.2A/10 gives 19 seconds
3.2A/15 gives 30 seconds

The suits are also tested for their resistance to flames, how much heat zippers transfer and thread heat resistance.

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After reading the various ratings I went back to the suit I was bidding on and looked at it with new appreciation. Most suits I had been looking at were only /1’s but this /5 would give me an additional 7 seconds to get out of the car. 10 seconds isn’t very long to get out of a burning race car, especially when you consider that you have a bulky helmet on, you’re strapped in with a harness, the windows have nets on them that need to be removed, the car has steel bars welded across the door entry, and the doors themselves may be welded shut. But ten seconds is a hell of a lot longer than 3 seconds. And with the addition of Nomex underwear you gain another 3 or 4 seconds. With that in mind I bid on the suit and won it at a very reasonable price. Hopefully no one will put their suits SFI ratings to the test come race day, but it is good to know that if something happens you have that added measure of safety on your side.

-Bill Mertz

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One Response to “Going Racing: Firesuits”

  1. Gayle Says:

    Years ago, I had a 1973 Pinto. I probably should have worn a fireproof suit while driving it myself, given the problems that had back then! I know what you mean about suits being expensive. For a couple of years, my daughter competed in NHRA Junior Drag Racing. We had to buy a suit and shoes for her. Whew! It was money well spent, though, since that’s probably the activity that was most fun for she and her dad to do together!

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About William

I am a twenty something car enthusiast. I spend most of my days working in a small restoration shop in Northern California that specializes in vintage Alfa Romeos. I also manage to do some freelance writing for a handful of automotive publications. When I'm not at the shop I can usually be found working on one of my own project cars, out driving on a good windy road or good jeep trail. Despite what my girlfriend says cars aren't what defines me, they are only what I do. When I have a chance I also love to go camping, play sports or generally do any type of outdoor activity. I don't take myself to seriously, so I hope you don't either.

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