How to Choose Racing Shoes

06/12/2024

How to Choose Racing Shoes

06/12/2024

The right footwear is crucial for race drivers looking to maximize performance. But, if you’ll pardon the pun, racing shoes aren’t a one-size-fits-all product. There are many different styles, weights, and categories of race shoes to fit different applications, needs, and budgets. For expert insight into how to choose the perfect racing shoe, we turned to Russ Somers, Product Development Manager for Simpson Performance Products.

The right tool for the job

The first question to ask when choosing a racing shoe is, where do I intend to use it? Drivers generally look for the lightest, most comfortable shoes that offer the best mobility – and protect them without being bulky in the limited confines of a pedal box. But within that brief, different shoe designs fulfil different requirements.


High-end road racers, for example, typically demand a very lightweight shoe. To fill that need, such shoes tend to use more exotic, more expensive materials in their construction. But an off-road driver needs a shoe that offers more all-around protection, such as a high-top design for extra ankle protection in rough terrain or some extra side cushions around the toe area and the widest part of the foot.


“Most of the weight savings come out of the sole, so for road racers or NASCAR drivers who prioritize pedal feel, a super-thin sole is used,” Somers expands. “They can get away with this because the shoes are only used to drive the car and are not worn so much on the outside. But for an off-road racer, a thicker sole is better because they get in and out of the vehicle and must walk or stand on rocks and gravel, even though the extra protection makes the shoe a little heaver. A weekend racer would want a sole that’s in between these two – one that provides comfort from wearing the shoes all day at the track, in the pits, and in the car.”


Different types of racing may also affect the necessary level of fireproofing (more on that later) and the type of closure on the shoe. For example, in Sprint Car racing, where the driver’s feet are exposed to the elements and close to oil and water lines, a full lace guard made of smooth leather is used. This helps keep any potential debris and liquids from seeping in through the laces.

Design and materials

The lace guard is one example of how the design details and materials choices in a racing shoe vary according to use, price point, and driver preference. Simpson Supercoil premium driving shoes, for instance, have extra padding in a heel that rolls upward to help when articulating the foot. There are also channels in the heel to minimize heat transfer from the hot floor pan into the foot, and a cut in the Achilles area, where an insert of a more flexible material reduces fatigue and improves mobility.


The fire-retardant materials used in racing shoes include Nomex, leather, suede, aluminized materials and synthetic leathers and rubbers. A combination of these materials is used depending on what functions and performance are needed from the shoe. Soft leathers like sheep or calf, and other exotic materials, can offer more breathability, flexibility, protection, and grip – but come at a higher price.


“Grassroots drivers require the same level of protection but may not want to pay the extra cost for exotic materials,” Somers observes. “But at every price point, our material choices and design features are based on years of feedback from drivers, and constant evolution in our designs.”


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Sizing

It sounds obvious, but make sure your chosen shoe fits! Not all shoes are available in all sizes. The market for high-end shoes is smaller than for mid-priced shoes, so more expensive designs may be restricted to the most popular sizes. But mid-market shoes popular with amateur or grassroots drivers tend to be offered in many more full- and half-sizes.

Safety ratings

The shoe safety rating you need is determined by what the sanctioning body requires for your type of racing. In North America, SFI-5 shoes are most common. SFI ratings refer to different lengths of time before a second-degree burn occurs: for example, 10 seconds for SFI-5 and 40 seconds for SFI-20.


“Top Fuel and Funny Car drag racers need a lot of protection from fire, so they’re required to wear an SFI-20 rated shoe,” Somers explains. “Depending on the area of the shoe, that could entail seven to nine layers’ worth of material, whereas the upper of a standard SFI-5 shoe is probably two layers with a layer of foam. Of course, achieving this tends to make shoes a little bulkier.


“Some drivers want to look good on camera, but our main focus is keeping the driver safe,” he adds. “I’d rather add a couple of ounces’ more weight to my product and have a little bit more protection, than go with the bare minimum and be right on the edge of whichever certification you’re trying to get.”


FIA safety ratings are already widely used in international markets, but their adoption is growing in North America as well. Simpson has FIA-rated shoes in development.


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Price

Racing shoes range in price from entry-level products to high-end shoes that incorporate the very latest technologies and materials. For Somers, good safety equipment should be part of the car-build budget from the start, not a last-minute addition.


“Car builders have a build sheet for items like mufflers, a roll cage, or transmission parts, but safety equipment is rarely on there,” he says. “If you add safety equipment to your car build sheet, you’re not hit with a heavy cost at the last minute when you have to get shoes, gloves, race suit, and helmet. You can budget for the best protection rather than the cheapest, factor it in throughout your build, and spread the cost along that timeline.”

Thorough testing

And finally… The best racing shoes go through a thorough research, development, and test program before being launched into the market. At Simpson, designers and planners research new technologies from within or outside the sport to determine if they could benefit current products, and they work with professional drivers to improve designs.


“Driver feedback plays a key role in our development,” says Somers. “We work with drivers through the entire development process – first getting their input upfront on how we could improve on our current products and what they would like to see in a new shoe, then having them do months of real-world testing.


“We typically review prototypes internally and go back and forth with the factory a couple of times before the new design is presented to one of our test drivers,” he continues. “It’s important to have relationships with drivers who can give good feedback. We’re currently working on a new SFI-20 drag shoe that will be used in Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. Key drivers like Tony Stewart are helping us with it. They’ll run it for a while and give us feedback that leads to another round of prototypes. Only once we’re satisfied with how the shoe performs, looks, and feels, do we bring it to market.”


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