How To Pick the Right Fire-Resistant Racing Suit for Your Budget
Let’s talk about how much to pay and what to expect, head to toe.
Some form of fire-resistant suit is often a required piece of clothing for motorsports activities. Whether you're helping fuel up your friend's car in a LeMons race or piloting a GT3 race car in a major professional racing series, this piece of safety wear is necessary. However, finding the right suit is not a simple task, as cheap racing suits are often miserable to wear. That's not just my opinion, it's nearly a universal certainty when it comes to selecting protective fire-resistant equipment.
That's why I'd like to shed a little light on how much of a racing suit you get for different price points. I'll also give you some background about suit ratings and construction and offer some tips that could help you find what you need. Time to suit up.
Why Buy a Racing Suit?
The primary reason to buy a racing suit is because a racing series rulebook requires it for the drivers and the crew. This applies to jobs like being a fueler on a shoestring-budget LeMons team or taking part in any level of wheel-to-wheel racing. Usually, if someone's involved in a series like this, the sanctioning body's rulebook will detail not only if a suit is required, but also what kind of a suit.
However, if someone builds up a non-competing track car into something housing a full cage that takes some effort to get in and out of, that driver might consider a fire suit as well. If an emergency situation happens on track, most notably one where fire is suddenly a factor, a racing suit is a great line of defense. Not only will the driver have more time to exit the vehicle, emergency crews will also have an easier time extracting an unconscious person from the vehicle.
Quick Racing Suit Basics
There are three crucial aspects to racing suits that you must keep in mind: They are not karting suits, they almost always must be one piece, and they must have an SFI Foundation, Inc. (SFI) tag, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) tag, or both. These indicate that the suit has been certified by a qualified safety rating institution.
A karting suit is for karting and is made up of materials to protect you from impact, road rash, and some heat, but it offers no protection from fire. A racing suit only protects you from fire.
Both the SFI and FIA have different certifications for different articles of clothing, including suits, gloves, arm restraints, fire resistant socks, etc. Currently for suits, the SFI has its Spec 3.2A/5, whereas the FIA has its most recent 8856-2018 homologation. If a suit has one or the other, or both, it's generally accepted in any form of club (meaning non-professional) racing in the United States. Higher level competition inside and outside of the U.S.A. that follows FIA sanctioning requires that a suit has at least an FIA tag on it. Though, some Mexican and Canadian series are good with SFI — again, check all applicable rulebooks. Typically a suit that is just SFI certified will cost less than one that is certified by both SFI and the FIA, or just the FIA.
Quality of Materials
It's also important to know that suits have expiration dates. When a suit's materials are a certain age and have been subjected to enough dirt, sun, perspiration, and extreme changes in temperature, it might no longer be effective at doing its job. This is also something that must be confirmed with a sanctioning body's rulebook. LeMons, Champ Car, Lucky Dog, American Endurance Racing, National Auto Sport Association (NASA), Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), Stéphane Ratel Organisation Motorsports Group (SRO), International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), etc. will all outline this. The general rule of thumb in club-level racing is as long as it doesn't have any holes and appears to be in good condition, it'll pass muster. However, that mindset is changing, especially with this latest FIA 8856-2018 homologation now putting an expiration date on the tag that's 10 years after the date of manufacture. Though, another rule of thumb among manufacturers is that a suit is good for 20 races before its fire resistant materials break down and should be replaced.
Speaking of materials effectiveness, this is rooted in the flame-resistant or flame-retardant materials that the suit is made out of. The most commonly known material is Nomex, a fully synthetic woven material that has high resistance to heat and flame and won't melt. When it burns, it expands and gives the racer more time to escape flames.
But there are less expensive options. These are chemically treated fabrics, and one of the most common kinds is known as Proban. Typically, a 100-percent Nomex suit will automatically be pretty expensive, as Nomex is an expensive material to produce. Low-end chemically treated fabrics break down faster and care must be taken to maintain them. Brands like Molecule sell special wash detergent that doesn't harm these materials, or Nomex, while being washed in a conventional washing machine.
In regards to sizing, all manufacturers list sizing charts on their websites that pinpoint which suit size fits which body, usually depending on height, weight, waist size, and other measurements. If you're within reasonable distance to a brick and mortar race shop, it's a good idea to pay a visit and see what various sizes are like in person, as it could save a lot of time and effort over doing online retail returns.
With that, how much will a racing suit set you back, and what do you get at different price points? For this, let's differentiate three levels: Low Suits, Medium Suits, and High Suits, with low being the most inexpensive, medium being a solid step up in comfort and quality, and High being the high-end area with the best comfortable features.
Low Suits: $200 to $600
In this rung, there's a solid variety of suits available from different manufacturers. Basic entry-level offerings by names like G-Force, Racequip, Alpinestars, Sparco, Pyrotect, occupy this space.
Most suits on the lower-end of this price range will be SFI rated but not FIA rated, will feel heavy and not breathable, and will be sewn together to accommodate a wide variety of body types. Like all consumer goods, price point is very much at play with racing suits.
Generally speaking, there also won't be much flexibility in the way the suit moves either. It'll feel more like mechanics overalls than something that's designed to flex and twist with your movement. It'll be pretty baggy, too, especially if you're short, skinny, or both. Then, to compound all of the above, the material will be thick and heavy to achieve its proper fire rating, as that's cheaper than more quality materials that will provide the same level of protection at a lower weight and density.
If people have a bit more of a gut than what the manufacturer factors into the suit's measurements, they might have to buy a size or two up and either deal with it being a bit long or have it hemmed with special fire-resistant thread.
If you're in a particular form of racing where suits don't last too long anyway, such as off-road racing, you might consider going the inexpensive route anyway. Generally, the more flexible and breathable the suit is, the better, but if you're racing in colder climates, having that lack of breathability can help keep you warm. Even California gets frigid during some 24-hour endurance races, and Willow Springs International Raceway can be a very inhospitable sub-40 degrees and windy for most of the morning during a Winter race weekend.
Medium Suits: $600 to $1,000
This space is occupied by the same players as before, though with a few more names thrown in: OMP and Sabelt. This is still generally regarded as entry-level suit territory, though a better-appointed entry-level. Suits start to lighten up, use more breathable materials, and most importantly feature stretchier materials that allow for more comfortable movement.
Stretch paneling is a major factor in climbing in and out of a race car, having a full range of motion, and sitting for long periods of time in racing seats. Manufacturers often line the top of a suit's sleeves with it, add a panel to the lower back, and even integrate it into the crotch.
The ratio of stretchiness to breathability varies by manufacturer, but if a suit is very breathable and light in this price range, it won't have as much stretch paneling, and vice versa. Again, price point is very much at play here.
High Suits: $1,000+
In this category, you can have your cake and eat it, but you have to pay for it. Suits will feel more tailor-fit, feature lightweight materials, and have plenty of stretch paneling to allow a solid range of motion.
The key takeaway here is that a suit will be light, breathable, and comfortable, yet also provide proper fire protection. Some of them, especially once you surpass $2,000, feel as though there's no way they provide the amount of protection they're rated at. This all lies in being constructed of more substantial, tested materials. Pretty much all suits have some kind of coated outer layer, then an inner layer or two of additional fire-resistant material. But in this price region, it can be hard to tell from the touch just how many layers it possesses.
Custom-made suits are another level and typically have a $1,500 cost of entry. Any additional custom colors, graphics, badges, and more cost an extra fee. The beauty of these is the customer can be measured up like they would for a normal, non-motorsports suit or dress and take comfort in knowing that the suit won't be too tight or too loose in certain areas.
No matter how you slice it, racing is expensive. Heck, even crewing in racing is expensive. However, there are certain ways to save a little scratch and put your funds towards other important areas in life, like basic nutrition and a Roth IRA.
Safety equipment manufacturers change up their colorways and models quite frequently. They want to stay up on trends, offer something that stands out, and try to one-up each other. This means that sometimes a generation of a product line only has a 1-2 year run at most. When they sell the latest and greatest at MSRP, they'll discount the old, soon-to-be replaced products with their retailers and distributors, who then usually pass those cost savings onto the consumer.
Racing equipment retailers want to move stock just like any business, preferably quicker than slower. So if a certain suit has been sitting on the rack for a long time, they might be inclined to discount it in favor of getting rid of it and keeping their stock fresh. If that discounted suit happens to fit not only your budget, but also your person, you could happen upon something for a great price.
There are also two common sales seasons in motorsports equipment retail: the middle of the summer and the holiday season. Sanctioning bodies host fewer races in the middle of the summer due to the weather (depending on the climate), as well it being summer vacation season. Then, no matter where it is, the holiday season is the holiday season, so retailers will be wanting to unload all of their old stock before new stuff debuts, produce some good numbers to end the year on a high note, etc.
Although it seems like everyone and their mother is on at least a dozen mailing lists, all of whom send just one too many emails, signing up for retailers' mailing lists helps keep you in the know about when sales are coming.
There's certainly more to discuss on the subject of racing suits, like two-piece fire suits or other ratings to look out for and avoid. Feel free to offer up some knowledge in the comments section if you're a seasoned, suited-and-booted racer, and if you have any questions, be sure to drop a comment down below, too.