How to Choose a Racing Suit
We know your racing program is important to you, but we know your family, just like ours, will always be your number one priority. Therefore, we take safety seriously when we strap into our race cars. Whether you drag race on a Wednesday night, race dirt oval on Friday night, or hit the road course on a Saturday (and we know racers that do all three!) maintaining your safety should always be the top consideration in your racing. From harnesses and accessories like arm restraints, HANS devices, and helmets, to the actual racing suit you wear, your racing gear must be sized correctly in order to fit your particular body shape and be able to do their job of protecting you in the advent of a crash, roll over, or fire (and often a combination of these). While we have buyer’s guides on harnesses and helmets you can use for those products, today we’re going to go through racing suits, AKA the fire suit, and what you need to know to purchase the right gear for you to keep you safe in the event of an in-vehicle fire.
Choosing the correct racing suit sizes is not as easy as picking a shirt off the rack. Just like a properly tailored business suit, your racing suit fit will rely on accurate and honest measurements of key points on your body. We highly encourage anyone looking to order a racing suit to take these measurements seriously, that includes knowing how to properly be measured and what measurements you will need. A length of string, which can then be measured after marking, is suitable, though we highly recommend buying a “soft” measuring tape like the one’s seamstresses use. You can find them via fabric and hobby stores or online. If a measurement is on the high side of a size it is recommended to move up to the next size to ensure you have enough room. Short of being fitted for custom racing suits, you will have to accept that a few areas of the suit will possibly be slightly oversized. You can learn all about measuring for your racing suit in this in-depth guide as well.
The decision to wear a one-piece or two-piece race fire suit is normally one of personal taste and comfort, though we suggest you confirm with your race sanctioning body and track officials as to what is required or preferred by them. Both styles of car racing suits have benefits, so short of the possible racing suit requirements we just mentioned, it will be purely your decision as to which you prefer.
The two-piece suit is popular amongst oval track racers or those that go drag racing because you can simply unzip and remove the jacket while working on your car or waiting to be called back to the track surface for your next race. Additionally, two-piece drag racing fire suits and dirt track racing fire suits are very popular for those that do not fit a one-piece suit very well. For example, a racer with a short inseam, but wears a larger shirt, can order a “Large” for their pants and a “2XL” for their jacket and fit their racing suit very comfortably. You can also mix colors with a 2-piece race suit for a unique style, such as using gray pants with a black jacket for example.
The one-piece suit is often perceived as a more professional racer look, as that is what is seen on motorsports on TV. Additionally, as you move up into higher-end suits and their features, many are only available in one-piece designs. Lastly, depending upon the two-piece design’s jacket cuff, a one-piece racing suit is a bit safer in that there is no gap between the pants and jacket for a potential flame/heat path to reach your skin.
The SFI Foundation Inc. specification for racing suits is 3.2A. This rating is a standard that a manufacturer must meet for their product to be certified. These SFI ratings help a racer determine the proper safety equipment based upon racing class, speed, and other factors, helping the racer to make a best-case decision for their racing program. The 3.2A certification tests a racing suit’s ability to protect the wearer by measuring it’s Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) value, which is the time (in seconds) it takes for the wearer to sustain 2nd degree burns through the material. This is based on both direct flame contact and radiant heat. As the TPP value increases so does your time before a 2nd degree burn. You can increase your TPP value by using fire resistant underwear too. Adding fire resistant underwear to a single layer suit will double your time to 2nd degree burns to six seconds! So how many seconds is the best? A suggestion we always make is to practice getting out of your race car as fast as you can while someone times you. You might be surprised just how long it take to unstrap your harness, window net, etc. and climb out. Now imagine trying to do that after a crash while you are upside down and on fire! It is safe to say that this is not a place to go cheap and buy the longest protection window you can afford.
As a rule, racing suits made from Nomex or Aramid fibers are lighter and more breathable. That said, the breathability comes at a cost, as the material is more loosely knit and can be snagged/torn much easier than other materials that are simply treated to reach their TPP values. This, again, comes down to personal decision. Are you racing a door car with easy ingress/egress or a dirt late-model where you must climb through a window opening? Will you be working on your race car in your suit (this is where the two-piece option shines), and so forth.
The SFI 3.2A/1 racing suit (sometimes abbreviated to “SFI1”) is usually a single layer of material, making them the thinnest and lightest racing suit. These racing suits can be constructed from materials such as Nomex, or other Aramid-like fibers, or a treated fabric like cotton or cotton blends, providing the suit meets the SFI spec. We have found that most single layer suits are of the treated fabric variety due to the price point and being considered an entry-level racing suit where cost is a major consideration. Just remember the chart above and that you are giving yourself just three seconds of safety cushion.
Moving up to the SFI5 suit not only more than doubles your TPP value (and time) but provides additional material layers. Usually these racing suits are two-layer, while some manufacturers use a three-layer process. It is not so much about the number of layers as it is meeting the SFI 3.2A/5 certification. Much like the single layer racing suit, the SFI 5 multi-layer suit can be comprised of Nomex/Aramid fibers or other fabrics that are treated with a coating. Much like the one-piece versus two-piece racing suit debate, the SFI1 versus SFI5 debate also may have some of the decision process in sanctioning body or track rules, however most racers simply like the added TPP value and extraction time over the single layer SFI1 racing suit. The SFI5 multi-layer suit can vary in thickness, material weight, and even breathability from one manufacturer to another and even within a manufacturer’s own offerings. Above the SFI 3.2A/5 you gain valuable TPP values and more time to get to safety, however these racing suits are usually reserved for nitro-based drag racing due to the fuel used in these classes. That does not mean you cannot use one in your racing program, but there is a greater cost, and you will find more limited offerings (short of having a custom racing suit sewn up).
You may have seen FIA certified racing suits in your search as well. This is a European certification with similar testing methods/standards as SFI. As a matter of fact, some manufacturer’s racing suits carry dual SFI/FIA certification. The FIA’s 8856-2000 is very similar to the SFI’s 3.2A/5 certification. Having a racing suit with both certifications is a real plus if you plan to race in different sanctioning bodies where one requires SFI and the other requires FIA. You will mainly see FIA certification on a karting suit here in the U.S.
There are many features you will find in today’s racing fire suits that are utilized to enhance comfort or that bring increased safety features to the racing suit. These features are built into the racing suit during manufacturing and are generally not something you can add on later, so knowing what each feature does is important to the buying process. Working from the bottom up on a racing suit you have different leg/ankle cuts to choose from. There is the boot cut leg and the ankle cuff leg. The ankle cuff (shown here) provides increased protection with its elastic cuff that hugs the ankle area. Boot cut is a little easier for installation/removal of the pants/suit, however. You can even find a boot cut leg for the looks with an internal ankle cuff for the safety aspect—the best of both worlds!
As we move up the racing suit, we next come to the waist area. Many racers will find an elastic waistband in both two-piece racing suit pants. Some one-piece racing suits will have an elastic waistband in them as well for looks and a sleek fit. The elastic waistband is usually superseded by a sewn-in belt though on one-piece suits. The belt is sewn directly into the suit and uses hook-and-loop material on the ends for closure. This makes adjusting the waist area fit simple and easy to adjust, even with your racing gloves on. Next, you will find the optional back stretch panel as we move up the racing suit. The back stretch panel is exactly what you think it is, a panel of stretchy fabric sewn into the back of the fire suit. This is quite popular in one-piece racing suit sizes, as it provides extra comfort/movement when in the driver’s seat of your race car and can help with getting the one-piece racing suit on and off your body.
When it comes to the arms/shoulder area there are two more features to consider. The first is the floating arm stretch panel. This feature allows additional movement of the arms. Some car racing suits feature a 180-degree panel, while others offer a full 360-degree panel. Obviously, the 360-degree panel offers the least restriction of movement. Generally, this feature is found in one-piece suits. In the same area of the racing suit you will find the shoulder epaulets on most racing suits, both one-piece and the jacket of a two-piece. Epaulets are sewn into the racing suit to aid in driver extraction by giving something for the track safety crew something to grab onto and pull the driver to safety. You will find a standard epaulet with most racing suits, however you can find racing suits with double-reinforced sewn epaulets such as the Sparco one-piece seen here, that provide enhanced strength and a larger area for which to pull from. The double-reinforced epaulet is also more popular from a styling aspect, as many drivers now use that area of the racing suit for sponsor logos.
What else should a driver look for in a racing suit? While not a critical feature, some racers do like to have pockets in their racing suit. You will find this more in the pants bottom of a two-piece suit, but some one-piece suits may be found with pockets as well. It is purely a preference thing and does not enhance or detract from the racing suit’s safety aspects.
Lastly, we have color and styling options to consider. Your typical SFI1 single-layer suit can be found in solid colors, though some do offer arm stripes or contrasting chest panel colors. More elaborate racing suit color designs are usually found in higher-end one-piece racing suits. When you move up to a multi-later racing suit like the SFI5 quilting becomes more commonplace. Quilting is used to secure the layers and keep the layers from shifting (just like a quilted blanket). The quilting can be found in straight and box designs. Often quilted racing suits will include piping on the racing suit edges as well, though you can find some SFI1 suits with piping.
There will come a time when your racing suit will need to be cleaned. This time will be determined by several factors, including amount of time worn, type of racing, open or closed race car, and so forth. Someone racing dirt ovals is going to see more frequent cleanings than say someone that is drag racing. The safest answer is to follow the manufacturer’s cleaning recommendations found sewn into the suit or included with the original packing materials. Most racing suit manufacturers recommend dry cleaning. Obviously, this can become an issue in both time management and cost if you are going to make the next race weekend, which is why we know many racers machine wash their racing suits. If you decide to go that route just remember to use cold water with a mild detergent (something sold specifically for delicate items) on a gentle cycle. Wash the racing suit by itself, ensuring all hook-and-loop fasteners are connected, and then allow the racing suit to air dry. For a single-layer fire suit with treated fabrics you should not be concerned with washing out the treatment from the fibers, as it would take an incredible amount of washing cycles to degrade the effectiveness of the treatment. The Toolbox also has expanded details on cleaning your racing suit.
Products Featured in this Article
Speedway Single Layer Two Piece Racing Suit CombosView$330.99Compare
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Sparco Sprint SFI 5 Racing Suit, Standard CuffView$566.19Compare