Bernie's Articles

Bernie has been writing some articles on Driver Safety for the National Speedway Scene magazine. In case you don't have copies of the magazine, we have put his articles up here too

5. Race Suits

Race Suits are the first and last line of defense you have against getting burned. 

Flames are not the main cause of burns to Race Car drivers, heat or thermal transfer cause the majority of serious burns. 

Most race drivers think as long as they buy overalls that are marketed and sold as a “Race Suit”, that they are protected against injury in the unfortunate event of a fire.


It takes you about 8 seconds to exit your car when you are belted in and the car is stationary. Some drivers can get out a second or two quicker, but most take a second or to longer – so let’s just settle for 8 seconds.

If your car is damaged, upside down, tangled up with another car or has to be brought to a stand still before you can get out, it will take you at least 12 seconds to get out, if you are lucky. You could be trapped in the car for much longer.

The two Motorsport Governing Bodies that set the rules for Race Suits are the FIA, based in France, which oversees Tar Seal and Rally events for most of the world except the USA, and SFI, based in the USA, which oversees all types of Motorsport Events in the USA.

FIA has a minimum requirement of approx 11 seconds that a suit must protect the wearer from 2nd degree burns before it passes the Homologation requirements. To achieve this, a good quality double layer suit is required.

SFI, on the other hand, have several different levels of Race Suit Compliance. This is because of the vast range of race events they sanction in the USA: from very low budget boat racing where fire is never really an issue, up to NHRA Top Fuel Dragsters where they need to be protected from a 1800F degree inferno for 45 seconds plus to allow time to slow down from 300mph and get out of the car.

When you are choosing a race suit you need to consider two critical issues: how thick is the suit, and how fire resistant is the material it is made of?

The four most common materials used to make Race Suits are:

  • Nomex
  • CarbonX
  • Wool
  • Treated Cotton (Proban or similar). 

The first three are naturally fire resistant and self extinguish. They do not require any treatment what so ever and are very good thermal insulators.

Treated Cotton however relies entirely on a chemical treatment to become self extinguishing or fire resistant. Unfortunately washing the overalls with normal washing powders removes the fire inhibitors very quickly leaving you with an expensive pair of workshop overalls that offer no worthwhile protection against fire. Depending on the strength of the washing powders you use, this can happen within 3-4 washes.

Most of the less expensive suits sold in New Zealand, and the majority of suits used in Speedway, are single layer and made of treated cotton. They will have an SFI label showing either A/1 or A/3. These suits do not provide sufficient protection for a driver to get out of their car in the case of a fire without receiving some degree of burns.

SFI Rating

Time to 2nd Degree Burn


3 Seconds


7 Seconds


10 Seconds


19 Seconds


30 Seconds


40 Seconds


Here are the various SFI standards showing the amount of time in seconds that it would take for the wearer to get 2nd degree burns.
Don’t forget a 2nd degree burn is not a red mark, it is when your skin blisters and falls off, leaving a scar when it heals. 

The minimum SFI standard you require to give yourself any chance of not getting burnt when exiting your car is SFI 3.2A/5. This is a double layer suit.

You can increase your protection by wearing approved Fire Retardant Underwear. As a rule of thumb a set of underwear will give you another 5 seconds of protection over and above what your suit is designed to do.

If you look at this photo of Malcolm Ngatai in Great Britain and imagined that he was wearing a single layer suit, my guess is that he would still be getting his burns treated.
(Unfortunately we can't reproduce the photo here)

However Malcolm takes his own safety very seriously, and has a 3 layer suit that gave him the confidence to sit the fire out until he was sure that all of the cars around him had stopped moving and the fire crews were on hand to extinguish the flames. I have seen his race suit since the fire and it has no evidence of burning at all.

My question to you all is:
How much time do you want to escape getting burnt?


4. Safety Footwear in Motorsport

In the first three issues of this great new magazine I have discussed the importance of Seat Belts, Race Seats and Fire Resistant Under Wear. In upcoming issues, key components of driver safety such as Helmets, Race Suits and Head and Neck Restraints will be talked about as well as many other, less thought of but equally important components of your personal safety.
This month, I will cover Foot Wear.
The rules covering footwear are very loose to say the least. “Shoes or Boots must be Worn” is the statement in Speedway NZ’s Rule book.
The use of any footwear that has Nylon or similar in its construction is very dangerous to say the least. To demonstrate the danger of this sort of footwear I will relay an incident that happened to me this year at Baypark.
I had decided not to race and was the Pit Bitch for Kerri-Anne with her sprint car. After one race she was pushed into the Pits with flame billowing out of one of the tail pipes due to un-burnt Methanol in the exhaust. Without thinking I jammed my sports shoe over the tailpipe to suffocate the flame. With in a couple of seconds my Nylon New Balance shoe was ablaze and I was wondering what the hell I was going to do now. Just before I started jumping around as though I was auditioning for a part in River Dance one of our other crew members smothered my shoe with his size 14 boot.
The whole incident only lasted about 5 seconds; it stuffed my shoe and started to get bloody hot on my foot.
Imagine if you are in your race car with Nylon Sneakers on. Most fires in Motorsport are either on the ground or on the floor of the vehicle. Your feet are the closest part of your body to both of these areas.
The minimum protection you should be providing your feet are a leather or suede shoe or boot.
With such a diverse range of classes that race speedway I don’t think that one rule does suit all competitors.
Take Stock Cars for instance. With the hits these drivers take and the potential of foot and ankle injuries caused by the clutch, brake , accelerator pedals, drive train or chassis a sturdy leather working boot would provide the best total protection. However in some cars this is not feasible as the closeness of the pedals requires the driver to wear a slim fitting boot so his feet can operate all of the pedals without the risk of getting caught up on say the accelerator when pressing the brake pedal.
However, in most situations a slim fitting, soft soled Leather or Suede high cut Boot is the most appropriate and safest foot wear for racing.
Low cut type foot wear exposes the ankle area to little or no protection against fire or impact, especially if you use socks that are not made of Wool or Nomex. Nylon socks are as dangerous as nylon shoes even if you have proper approved racing boots on. In a fire even though your Nomex lined racing boots may not burn, the heat transfer through them could melt your Nylon Socks onto your feet.
Only wear Wool or Nomex socks when racing.
Another point to consider when choosing footwear is the thickness/stiffness of the sole. A thick or rigid sole prevents the driver from getting a good feel of the pressure being applied to the brake or accelerator. This can result in either continual brake lock ups or in the case of a slick track, excessive wheel spin because you can not feel the amount of pressure you are applying on the accelerator pedal.
Finally, I would like to congratulate all of the title winners, to date, for their success’. Winning any title whether it is a NZ, Island or Regional title is only achieved with a lot of hard work and considerable ability. Well done to you all.
Until next time, please enjoy happy, safe and successful racing. 
Kind Regards,
Bernie Gillon


3. Let's Talk about your Underwear

Now that we are into the 3rd issue of this great new magazine, I thought it was about time that I discussed your underwear.

Not your Y Fronts or your G String, your sports bra or your corset, but your Fire Retardant Underwear that you wear when you race.

Most of you at this stage will be thinking something like, Oh Sh@#........ what’s he trying to sell us now. However before you check to make sure your credit card is still jammed firmly in your wallet please read on.

It astounds me that the governing bodies of Speedway and Motorsport in New Zealand have a minimum standard of safety clothing that falls woefully short of what is required to help protect a driver in the event of a fire.

Equally unbelievable is that most retailers of race suits don’t fully inform their customer of the performance and protection capabilities of the race suit they are looking at purchasing. Unfortunately, most people are left with the perception that they are adequately protected, when in reality they are not.

It takes you about 8 – 10 seconds to get out of your race car if it is stationary and on its wheels. If the car is damaged or up side down it will take you considerably longer.

The burn protection you get from an         SFI 3.2A/1 single layer race suit is 3 seconds. If you have an SFI 3.2A/5 or an FIA approved race suit you will get about 10 seconds of protection. Racers assume that because they have a race suit that has an SFI badge on it that they are protected in all eventualities.

This is definitely not the case, many drivers are at risk. 

 Protection against burn injuries is all about the thickness of the protection. Two thinner layers generally offer more protection than one thicker layer. This is due to the insulation properties of air. The reason that Pink Batts insulation in your house is fat and fluffy, is because it insulates better, than if it was compressed into a thin layer. The same goes for your race suit. In the graph you will note a column headed TPP Value. This stands for Thermal Protection Properties.


SFI Rating

TPP Value

Time to 2nd Degree Burn



3 Seconds



7 Seconds



10 Seconds



19 Seconds



30 Seconds



40 Seconds


As you know, in the USA they will pretty much race anything. Not all of these types of racing carry a risk of fire; hence the SFI standards start at a very low level. In the SFI graph it shows the protection available from the different standards of race suits available.

A set of good quality Fire Retardant underwear will add an extra 5-7 seconds to the time it will take for you to suffer 2nd Degree Burns in a fire. 

To put it another way, if you currently have a single layer race suit and you are unfortunate enough to be in a fire you will suffer burns to the areas where the flames are present before you have time to get out of your car. However if you have a full set of underwear under your single layer suit you stand a very good chance of getting out unscathed.

Every driver should also wear a Balaclava.

There are several reasons for this. If your helmet has been purchased from a motorcycle shop it will be lined with Nylon and have a nylon chin strap. As we all know nylon is very flammable and melts with heat. Therefore, again if you are unfortunate enough to be in a fire in your car with a Motorcycle helmet a balaclava will prevent the nylon lining and strap from melting onto your skin.

If you have a specific designed Motor racing helmet, that is lined with Nomex, and has a Kevlar chin strap, wearing a balaclava will help stop your helmet becoming soiled and smelly from perspiration. This will ensure that the inside of the helmet will stay in good condition for longer and therefore prolonging the life of your helmet.

The above information regarding race suits has probably asked more questions than it has answered. In the next issue I will a greater level of detail about how good your race suit may or may not be.

As always I wish you all a safe, successful and enjoyable time at the track.

Merry Xmas,
Bernie Gillon


2. How Important is your Race Seat?

This issue I thought that talking about the importance of a strong, snug-fitting race seat would be appropriate. The reason is that after Safety Harnesses, which we covered last issue, your seat is the second most important part of your race cars safety equipment.

Other than the support and comfort that the seat provides you, which I will cover shortly, a snug fitting race seat is essential to allow the driver to maximize his natural driving talents when controlling the race car.

I am sure that you have all heard the saying “driving by the seat of your pants”. This is a very accurate statement for Race Car Drivers. The initial information your brain receives from your car travels from the chassis through the seat to your bum, then through your spine up to your brain. If you are able to move around in your seat the feedback from the car to your brain, which causes you to react to what the car is doing, will be slower and less accurate than if you fit into your seat securely. This results in your reaction times being slower to respond to the car sliding or you could be to slow rolling off the accelerator if the car starts to loose traction and therefore compromising important forward drive.

These days professional and serious amateur race drivers get their seats molded to their body to ensure as snug a fit as possible.

On the safety side of things it is essential to have a strong well supported and well mounted race seat.

Before I explain the safest seating design I will outline what happens to the body during a crash. During an impact the body is violently flung in the direction of the impact point on the car. It is then almost as violently stopped by either the belts, seat, a bit of both or in some instances the roll cage or steering wheel. When the car decelerates during an impact the body accelerates away from the seat before it is restrained or contained by one of the above methods.

To compound the acceleration/deceleration forces to your spine, shoulders and head, if those areas are not adequately restrained they act like a whip which further accelerates your head. This is what causes whiplash or in extreme situations brain trauma (shaken baby syndrome). These types of injuries would be far less common if full containment seats were compulsory.

Unfortunately, far to many kiwi race car drivers have sustained spinal and head injuries due to one or more of the following
a) They flopped around in their oversized seat
b) They were using a light weight Aluminum seat that deformed or tore away from the seat mounts in a crash
c) Their seat did not provide adequate support to the shoulder and head area
d) The Seat and supports had no or inadequate padding

It is recommended that your seat is fastened by 4 x 8mm bolts through the base and 4 x 8mm bolts through the upper back of your seat. Always use large washers on the face of the seat.

In order to minimize the risk of Spinal Injury you must “Keep Your Spine in Line”. To achieve this, a strong, reinforced, snug fitting seat with Head and Shoulder containment is essential. Within the confines of the seat a high density foam or Gel padding must be fitted.   The foam or Gel provides a controlled deceleration of your head and body which reduces the risk of injury.

A correctly fitted full containment seat will ensure that your entire spine as well as you head is supported during an impact.

I have had it said to me a few times that containment seats cause head injuries, specifically unconsciousness or concussions.

This has been proved completely wrong, without any doubt, during extensive testing in the USA.

However, if the head containment area of your seat has been poorly designed and allows more than 20-30mm maximum of sideways head movement when your helmet is on then head trauma could result from you head rattling between the containment wings.

There are seats being used extensively in New Zealand like this. To compound this problem the density of the padding in these seats is not adequate to provide a controlled deceleration of your vital organs.

It has also been determined in testing that Aluminum Seats withstand the regular shocks and impacts experienced in speedway racing better than other materials. This is because Aluminum has the ability to give a little during the impacts with less chance of weakening and fracturing over time. However, do not powder coat your aluminum seat as the heat process used in powder coating significantly changes the tensile strength of Aluminum.

To finish off, I recommend that you fit a tri-angular drivers net to at least the right hand side of your driver compartment. Mount it from your seat head support, forward and down to the bottom of the windscreen area. This assists greatly in containing your head and keeping it within the containment seat when the impacts are more frontal than from the side.

If you would like any more info please call me at Flamecrusher on 0800 925 000.

Until next time I wish you all safe, enjoyable and successful racing.

Bernie Gillon

In July this year (2009), ISP was the first seat manufacturer to pass the toughest seat spec in the world: SFI-39.1


 1. Belting Up

I have been asked to write an article about an aspect of Race Driver Safety. To me one of the most important and least understood Safety Devices are your seatbelts.

Generally a racer will go to a speed shop, ask for a set of belts, either Latch and Lever or Cam Lock, pay the money and assume that they have the best seat belt protection available. This is definitely not the case.

There are two types of webbing used to manufacture seat belts. Nylon and Polyester. Historically Nylon has been the product of choice for Latch and Lever Belts and Polyester the preferred product for Camlock Belts. This is not a hard and fast rule but certainly represents the majority of belt sales in New Zealand over the last 15-20 years. Over this period in time I would guess that 99% of all belts sold into Speedway Competition vehicles have been Nylon. Initially this was due to the unavailability of Polyester L & L Belts in New Zealand but in later years the cheaper price of Nylon Belts has been one of the main reasons. The other reason is that the Seat Belt Resellers have either not been aware of the huge performance difference between the two products or have not thought that it was important.

Nylon Belts are not permitted to be installed in road cars.

Nylon is the reason that Speedway New Zealand only allows a 2 year life for seat belts. Nylon is very susceptible to Ultra Violet damage.

In the first 6 months of its life a Nylon Seat Belt will lose 25% of its strength due to UV damage. In one year it will have lost 50% of its strength, this huge decline in strength continues to 18 months when it has lost 75% if its strength. From this point the decline in the belt strength is not as sharp but continues none the less.


(Click image to view full size)

Nylon Belts also stretch significantly in an impact. Depending on the Brand of belt and the manufacturing process a Nylon Belt will stretch between 12% and 15% of its length during an impact. If a Nylon Belt is damp or wet, it will stretch up to 25% of its dry length during an impact. This is significant – to put this into perspective – your shoulder belts are normally around 600mm long, therefore a wet Nylon belt will stretch 150mm during a moderate impact. This stretch combined with your bodies flexibility means that you helmet will strike the steering wheel or possibly the roll cage in an angled impact.

Nylon belts also tend to creep far more easily through the adjuster requiring the driver to continually tighten the belts during a race.

Polyester Belts are not susceptible to UV damage. During an impact they will only stretch a maximum of 6% irrespective of being dry or wet.

Only Polyester Belts are approved for FIA sanctioned racing (road racing). They have an approved life span of 5 years. However due to the durability of polyester Motorsport New Zealand has extended the life of Polyester belts to 10 years for all but National Championship Competition.

It is also very important to make sure that the belts you buy are the best for your application.

You can choose how you want them to be mounted. Wrap around, Bolt in or Clip in are all options available. However you should never wrap your lap belts around your chassis. There are many reasons for this that would take another page of this magazine to explain, however keeping your pelvic area secure is the first step to reducing the risk of injury.

Clip in or bolt in belts are the preferred methods of mounting. However if you are bolting in your belts always use a double shear bracket and make sure that the direction of pull on the belt is at 90 degrees to the bolt.

(Click image to view full size)

One of the biggest issues for drivers is the problem they have getting their lap belts tight. The main reason for this is that the belts they have are pull down to tighten. During the process of tightening a pull down belt you are fighting it all the way. As you pull down you are actually pushing your body up against the belt. You will never get the belt as firm as they should be. However if you have a pull up adjuster on your lap belt the mechanics of pulling on the belt forces you butt into the seat which gives a much tighter result.

Always ensure that when you have tightened your belts before racing that the free or loose ends are lying parallel to the tight belts.

If the loose end comes off the adjuster on an angle – this is normally the case if your crew has tightened the belts for you- all of the forces are taken on the short side of the belt. In other words only the outside strand of your seat belts is carrying all of your weight in an impact. This can cause the belt to tear. This is referred to as belt dumping and was one of the many reasons for Dale Earnhardt’s death in a Nascar in 2001.

Last but by no means of least importance, always clean and lubricate the spring loaded balls in your lever latch after each race meeting. If these become clogged with grit they will not move freely and will stick. This reduces the amount of tension that they need to keep the lever securely closed.

I wish you all a safe, successful and fun filled race season.

Bernie Gillon,
Flamecrusher Ltd

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