Racing Suit Buyers Guide: What You Need to Know

03/12/2024

Racing Suit Buyers Guide: What You Need to Know

03/12/2024

Although safety equipment such as a racing suit won’t add horsepower to your car or shave tenths off your lap times, it’s a vital part of any race program. And as Russ Somers of Holley Performance points out, it definitely isn’t somewhere you should be cutting corners.


“Safety equipment is like car insurance. Everybody wants basic coverage because they don’t want to pay the high price of full coverage. But when things go wrong, you wish you had it. Whenever we ask racers to show us the build sheet for their car, we never see personal safety gear on that list. What often happens is that folks will finish a build, but they didn’t budget for personal safety gear. So when it comes time to go racing, they want to go cheap. But if you budget for it and buy gear as you go along, you won’t find yourself in that situation. At the end of the day, the more protection you have, the better off you are.”

Fire suits are an integral part of any racer’s personal safety gear, and like choosing a helmet, it’s definitely a situation where you get what you pay for. “This also applies to where you’re buying your suit from,” Somers says. “You should always purchase your suit from credible, well-known suppliers. Suits with counterfeit safety certifications have become an increasingly common occurrence in recent years, especially when buying through online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay.”


Beyond cost and authenticity concerns, there are a lot of choices to make when buying a race suit when it comes to design, materials, and features. Here are the key factors you should take into consideration before making the investment.

Safety Certifications

If a sanctioning body, series, or track requires the use of a fire suit to race, this mandate will likely be associated with a specific safety certification that the suit must meet. SFI is the most common certification standard here in the United States. While some series and sanctions require a specific certification standard to participate, regardless of class or the performance potential of the car, others ramp up the requirements based on the level of competition you’re in.


“Single-layer suits are going to have an SFI 1 rating,” says Somers. “That’s going to be for your weekend racer at your local drag strip in lower speed vehicles; it’s the lowest level of protection. But for the vast majority of racers, the safety standard they should be looking for is SFI 5. This is either a two-layer or three-layer suit, and it will provide significantly more protection. Some sanctioning bodies follow the FIA standard, and the FIA’s 8856-2018 standard is similar to SFI 5.”


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SCCA wheel-to-wheel road racing, for example, requires an SFI 5-certified fire suit. There are certain situations where the standard is higher, though. “SFI 20 is for Top Fuel or Funny Car racing,” says Somers. “Those competitors are using fuels that have the potential to create a more intense flame in a shorter amount of time, so more protection is required.”


It’s important to check with your sanctioning body, series, or track organizers to ensure that the suit you’re considering meets the standards required for the type of competition you’re interested in. These standards will likely also note whether two-piece suits can be used.


Popular in circle-track and drag racing, two-piece suits can benefit folks who have trouble finding one-piece suits that fit well. Since the top and pants are two separate pieces of clothing, it allows you to combine different sizes, if needed. That also allows you to mix and match to enhance style, and this type of suit can be more comfortable to wear outside of the car as well. But Somers offers a word of caution. “The primary benefit of a two-piece suit is convenience – you can remove the top without having to take off the pants as well, which can be more comfortable if you’re working in the pits or something like that. But with this design, you always run the risk of the bottom of the jacket separating from the pants in the event of an accident, exposing your midsection. The reality of it is that a one-piece suit is going to provide better protection.”

Materials, Comfort, and Sizing

When it comes to construction, the materials used to make fire suits primarily fall into two categories: FR cotton and Nomex. “Fire-retardant cotton, or FR cotton, is cotton that’s been treated with a fire-retardant coating,” Somers tells us. “The price point is going to be the biggest advantage here – FR cotton suits tend to be less expensive. But they’re also typically a bit heavier than suits made with Nomex or similar fire-retardant fibers. There’s also long been a debate about how many wash cycles an FR cotton fire suit can tolerate before it starts to lose its effectiveness.”


Nomex-based fire suits – and other suits produced from fire-retardant fibers – tend to be a bit pricier, but Somers says that this construction material will likely be worth the added cost for many racers. “You never have to worry about the fire-retardant coating washing off. To me, that’s a big advantage. These suits also tend to be a little bit lighter, which can help reduce driver fatigue, and you’ll generally have more choices in high-quality suits with this type of material.”


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Breathability is another characteristic that’s often touted with race suits. It’s a tough feature to quantify, though, so your mileage may vary from one suit design to another. “The main advantage is comfort – breathability helps keep you cooler. That also benefits safety because you won’t sweat as much, and in fire, heat is transferred through sweat. If you’re looking for breathability, pay attention to the weaves – a twill weave is going to be really tight, so there’s no chance for moisture or air to escape. Looser weaves, like a knit weave, will allow more of that heat to get out. Knit fabrics can be heavy, but they breathe the best.”


When it comes to sizing, the best way to ensure that the racing suit you choose is going to fit properly is to try it on before you buy it. That may not be a viable option for some, though, so Somers offers a good rule of thumb to better the odds of getting a suit that will keep you comfortable. “Pay close attention to the manufacturer’s sizing charts and make sure you’re getting accurate measurements for comparison. If a measurement is borderline between sizes, your best bet is to go a size up. It’s better to have a suit with a slightly loose fit than one that’s too tight.”

Features

Stretch paneling is typically put in strategic areas of higher-quality suits to improve mobility, and it can also improve breathability. “In places like the elbow and knee areas, stretch panels can help to reduce restrictions,” Somers says. “They also can allow for some additional ventilation so more heat can escape, and you stay a bit cooler.”


Although some custom one-piece race suits do not include them, belts are typically integrated in the design whether it’s an entry-level model or a high-end design. “Most all standard suits come with some kind of belt-type closure,” says Somers. “These will offer a couple of inches of adjustment, which can be useful to have if your weight changes. It also keeps the suit close to your body.”


Pockets are also another common feature, though Somers notes that there are reasons why you might not want them. “In terms of fire protection, I think that the fewer seams and openings you have in a suit, the better. Drivers also must beware of what they carry in their pockets – good-luck charms, lighters, and other objects can compromise safety in the event of fire. And pockets can also get snagged on things in the tight confines of a race car.”


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Proper Protection

Although they aren’t required by sanctioning bodies as commonly as fire suits are, Somers strongly recommends wearing fire-retardant undergarments as well. “It’s an extra layer of protection – I personally suggest this to every racer I talk to. These are certified by SFI and the FIA in much the same way that fire suits are, and they’re also available in similar fire-retardant fiber or Nomex materials.”


He adds that you should avoid racing suits with zippers that aren’t made from brass, as they’re likely counterfeit. It’s also a good idea to give the suit a close inspection before and after putting it on to make sure it’s prepared to do its job. “Examine the craftsmanship – ensure that the seams are tight, and that the cuffs seal around your wrists and ankles properly. They shouldn’t allow any gaps. Also make sure any snap closures make firm connections and stay shut.”


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