Modern Safety Gear for Vintage Racing

Photography by David S. Wallens

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January 2008 issue.]

Vintage racing might seem relaxed and low-key on paper, but in reality we’re still talking about high speeds and a real potential for impact. Not only is proper safety gear required, but running it is just plain smart.

Today’s gear is also better designed to save your neck (and various other body parts) than in years past, meaning it’s lighter, cooler and less intrusive. Before you go off to battle, here’s some of the kit that you’ll need.

Bars & Cages

Most sanctioning bodies require only a roll bar, stating that the main hoop must be taller than the top of the driver’s helmet. The bar must be braced in a forward or rearward direction. Most bars sold today are off-the-shelf units.

A full cage offers much more protection than just a bar, however, as it will add a front hoop, side protection and an additional bar that runs across the front of the cockpit. Don’t want to spoil the lines of your convertible? A good fabricator can custom build a cage that’s safe yet not too intrusive. While some very early race cars are allowed to run without any sort of roll bar, some kind of roll-over protection is recommended. 

Seats & Harnesses

While proper racing seats aren’t always specified in the rules, they are an integral part of the safety system. They protect drivers by holding them in place and deforming predictably. Don’t scrimp on their mounting, either. Replace or reinforce the floors as needed.

Keeping the driver in place during a collision or hard cornering is also the job of the racing harness. At a minimum, an SFI- or FIA-spec five-point harness should be installed. Don’t forget to properly reinforce the floorpan here as well. Shoulder harnesses can be mounted to the roll bar. 

Fire Suppression

Cars must have at the very least a two-pound fire extinguisher mounted within easy reach of the driver. We’re not much for minimums, so we recommend a complete onboard fire system with nozzles for the cockpit, engine compartment and fuel cell.

Kill Switch

An electrical cutoff switch that isolates the battery from the engine and charging system needs to be installed. The car’s engine must stall when the switch is flipped. This switch must be easily accessible from the outside of the car, and its location should be marked so the corner workers can quickly find it. 

Fuel Cell

In a collision, most any stock gas tank, no matter what the vintage, can be a source of fire and explosion. A fuel cell is highly recommended for its puncture resistance and the reduced danger of catastrophic explosions. Most sanctioning bodies require competing cars to run a fuel cell, and many also specify that a firewall be present between the cell and the passenger compartment. 

Brakes & Suspension

Here’s a no-brainer: Brakes must be in good working order with a firm pedal. The pedal travel and firmness will be checked in tech, as well as the reservoir condition. Brake lights must be highly visible and functioning. Braided stainless steel lines are rarely required, but at around a hundred dollars a set they’re a great idea.

There’s usually no hard spec for suspension safety, but most tech inspectors will shake each wheel to make sure all of the bearings and bushings are tight. Loose wheel bearings are a quick way to fail a tech inspection. 

Tires & Wheels

While each vintage racing group and class seems to have its own tire requirements, all tires must be in good condition. If the class doesn’t allow slicks, generally at least 2/32-inch of tread must be present.

Wheels are a wear item, especially on a race car. Credit the constant mounting and dismounting, encounters with curbs and high g-loads. Wheels should be inspected between race weekends for cracks, egged-out lug sockets and other issues.

Under the Hood

To prevent the track from becoming a giant oil slick, catch cans are required for both the engine crankcase vent and the coolant system. Speaking of slippery spills, many tracks specifically prohibit antifreeze; water is their coolant of choice.

The battery must be firmly mounted in the chassis, and a lot of racers tend to forget this. (No, a bungee cord does not make an acceptable battery tie-down.) The positive battery terminal must also be covered. 

Two throttle return springs are usually required. Should one fail, there’s a backup.


Contrary to what Raul Julia’s character said in “The Gumball Rally,” what’s behind you is important. As a result, all cars must have at least two mirrors. A multi-panel Wink mirror is a great way to eliminate many blind spots.

Helmets & Neck Supports

All drivers are required to wear a Snell SA-approved helmet. We prefer closed-face helmets as they offer just that much more protection. A new helmet should initially feel a little tight, as it will loosen up once it’s worn.

SFI-approved head-and-neck supports are becoming more popular among racers. Several non-vintage sanctioning bodies now require them. A HANS Device is good insurance—after all, you’ve only got one neck. 

Driver’s Gear

Every driver needs to wear at least two layers of fire-resistant material. This can be accomplished either with a two- or three-layer suit or a single-layer suit paired with fire-resistant underwear. We like to wear our fire-resistant underwear beneath our two-layer suit. Again, minimums are just that, minimums. Just make sure your suit is comfortable when you’re seated.

When things go horribly wrong, it’s often your hands that get burnt first. To protect your paws from injuries, fire-resistant gloves are required. Glove sizing information can be found online, and don’t be too surprised when you see that your recommended fit is medium, not large.

Like the hands, feet are particularly vulnerable during a fire. Good shoes will protect your feet and make driving easier thanks to their grippy but narrow and rounded soles. 

Arm restraints keep your wiggly bits from flying around and getting injured during a rollover or serious collision. Window nets are a little harder to install on some cars but ultimately offer more protection. Right-side window nets that further secure the driver are quickly becoming popular.

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