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Safety Issues That Actually Matter

by Stephen Cox
Sunday, October 14, 2012

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The author in his race car
Racecar drivers are eternally besieged by well-intentioned busybodies enforcing a tidal wave of petty rules, policies and regulations, many of which are designed to enrich sponsors and gear manufacturers rather than protect the drivers.

Everyone from series directors to the guy at the McDonald's drive-through window is now a “safety expert.” Trouble is, none of them drive racecars. If we want to know what must be done to ensure the safety of race drivers, we should ask a race driver.

One of the biggest safety risks to sportscar and stock car drivers today is the simple fact that we can't get out of our cars in a timely manner during an emergency.

There are two primary reasons why we can't get out of our cars quickly:

The small cockpit opening to exit from
1. Because the window openings in the cars are too small, and
2. Because we're loaded down with so much mandatory safety gear that it takes a considerable amount of time to unhook and dismantle it all.

To an extent, solving one problem takes care of the other. If the window openings of sportscars and stock cars were bigger, it would be possible to exit quicker even when burdened with mandatory safety gear. And if we weren't burdened with tons of safety gear, we could get out of a smaller exit window more quickly.

Window openings are often made as small as possible, especially in stock cars, to increase aerodynamic efficiency. But every time I get in and out of my racecar in the pits, some piece of gear catches on something. My helmet barely fits through the window because I can't turn my head due to the mandatory restraint system. My head and neck restraint system continually catches on the upper lip of the window or the zip ties holding the foam to the roll cage.

And no, we can't just take the foam out. That's mandatory, too. And all of this stuff is wonderful until the moment the driver has to exit the car.

Mounting or dismounting a racecar is not an act; it is a process. Here's what I must do in order to exit my racecar, along with reasonable time estimates necessary to perform each step under stress: 

 Release my safety harness (3 seconds)
 Unplug my helmet radio system (7 seconds – it's behind me and I can't see it)
 Grab two release tabs and pull to release my helmet restraint system (5-10 seconds)
 Untangle the release tabs from the radio wire and safety harness shoulder straps (0 seconds – let's say you get lucky)
 Remove the steering wheel ( 5 seconds)
 Release the window net (3 seconds)
 And pray that I've not forgotten anything

Stephen Cox's race car
That's an absolute minimum of 23 seconds under the most optimistic conditions, not counting the time it actually takes to get out of the racecar once all these actions are performed.

Even with a high grade SFI 3.2/A5 Nomex rating, you'll get second degree burns in little over 9 seconds. If it takes 20-30 seconds to get out of a flaming car, you're in real trouble. Life-threatening trouble.

If you drive a racecar with a window egress, ask yourself a question. Under extreme conditions (like... you know... being on fire), just how quickly could you exit your car? And are you sure enough to bet your life on it? Go through the entire scenario in your mind step by step.

Now... what if the car is upside down? Exiting through the passenger's window is usually impossible because it's blocked by supporting roll bars. The front and back windows are sealed with Plexiglas. The driver's window is your only option.

How many of us will have the presence of mind to complete all of these exit actions in a burning car that's upside down, while remembering not to break our necks when we release the safety harness and gravity slams us into the ground head first? I don't know if I could manage all that, and I have 20 years of racing experience.

I can honestly say that if a serious fire occurs in my racecar, it is entirely possible that my safety gear will kill me. I wear too much junk and have to crawl out too small a hole.

However, much of this could be eliminated simply by enlarging the window through which drivers enter and exit the car, even by a couple of inches. That would permit the driver to exit easier and more quickly while still wearing the mandated safety gear.

I'm an athletic, average-sized driver who works out several times per week. But when I'm wearing a triple-layer firesuit plus Nomex underwear and a Cool Shirt system, the bulk is considerable. Getting in and out of the racecar is a tight fit even though I don't put on my helmet or gloves until I'm inside the car.

I can only imagine what its like for drivers who are really tall, carry a few extra pounds or don't stay in good shape. I've seen any number of heavy-set drivers who could barely get in or out of their cars at all even under the best conditions.

It's time to stop telling drivers what date or stamp must be on their perfectly good seat harness and inspecting every last glove and shoe that a driver wears. If you can't get out of the racecar in an emergency, you can put any sticker you like on your gear and it won't make a bit of difference. 

We need to be able to exit our racecars quickly and we can't.  Enlarge the window openings in sportscars and stock cars. Just a few inches would help.

I'm not big on mandating things. Actually, I despise mandates. I believe that racecar drivers are responsible for their own safety decisions.

But today's racing universe is chock full of spec cars with standardized body panels. So if we absolutely must mandate something... mandate that.

Stephen Cox

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