One year during a Championships event, NASA NorCal chief scrutineer Hans Dinse was inspecting a roll cage in a car that had come to race. Dinse was inspecting the tubing, feeling around and checking the welds, and he found some that weren’t welded to the full 360 degrees specified in the NASA CCR. They could not in good conscience let the car race, so the owner left with the car.
The driver returned the following day, claiming to have had everything taken care of. When Dinse inspected it again, he found that the guy had used JB Weld to replicate the beads of a weld and then painted over it. Needless to say, the car failed tech again.
The moral of the story is that tech inspectors are going to find any infractions, not to deny anyone the opportunity to race, but to ensure their safety if they do race and things get a bit cattywampus.
We spoke with three tech inspectors, Dinse of NorCal, TC McNett who ran tech in NASA Socal for more than 10 years and Hank Padilla, who has run tech for the Texas and Rocky Mountain regions for the last 15 years, a combined total of more than 40 years of experience. Padilla even has experience running tech inspections for the National Hot Rod Association and other racing organizations and clubs. He also fabricates custom cages and roll cage kits in his shop, Hanksville Hot Rods.
We asked them all about their experiences in tech, and how NASA HPDE drivers and racers alike can prepare for a tech inspection so that their cars pass without issue.
Modern cars are remarkably safe in stock form. The downloadable NASA HPDE tech inspection form has a checklist you can run through and inspect the car yourself before you bring it to the track. The form is easy to use and it walks the user through the process, and as long as the car is in reasonably sound mechanical shape, it should be OK for use in HPDE.
Tires and brakes are chief concerns, as are ensuring fluids stay contained and that wheel bearings are free of play. Factory safety systems also get looked at.
“We look at the seat belts, we make sure the seat belts are usable, so it’s not somebody left their convertible sitting outside in Indio and the seat belt is all cracked and stuff like that. That won’t work,” said McNett. “So we’re looking to make sure our seat belts are safe. We’re looking to make sure that seats are mounted and safe. We’re looking to make sure that the brake pedal feels like it actually has a brake pedal. Go outside of the car, we’re making sure all four tires are tight on the car, the lug nuts are tight and we make sure we have brake lights.
“That’s the main part of HPDE tech, is we’re just making sure the car is safe, he continued. “And it’s something that somebody should do in their car, an older car, anytime when they’re driving on the street, much less on a race track.”
NASA allows for any ASE-certified mechanic to sign off an HPDE tech form. If you really want to show up for HPDE fully prepared, have the form filled out and signed with their ASE number.
Where problems arise in HPDE tech is when people begin to remove the factory safety equipment in favor of aftermarket racing safety gear. Obviously, racing safety equipment has allowed a lot of drivers to walk away from horrific crashes, but like factory equipment, you should consider racing safety gear in terms of “systems.”
For example, one of the first things people like to add is a fixed-back racing seat, so they don’t have to hold themselves in the seat as they drive. But those seats don’t work well with factory seat belts, and they also can be dangerous in cars without rollover protection.
“Look at the seat belt in your street car, and it’s angled from the outside of the car inward. That is designed, if you ever roll the car over, the passenger and driver both lean inward. So if the roof ever crushes down, you’re actually leaned inward and it’ll save your life,” McNett said. “Now, you decide to put a fixed race seat in it without a roll bar, a roll cage and if you ever have a rollover, your body has nowhere to move. … So, that’s the first thing we look at, is to see if somebody has decided to put a race seat in a car that doesn’t have any safety around it.”
Some other examples include thinking four-point harnesses are sufficient. They are not because the driver can slide under them in an impact. Removing the factory steering wheel in favor of a removable wheel from, say, Sparco or Momo, helps drivers get in and out more quickly if they have a fixed racing seat, but that’s a big no-no if you aren’t also using five- or six-point harnesses. Long story longer, if you’re going to turn your HPDE car into a track-only car, you should build the safety systems according to section 15 of the NASA CCR. That means rollover protection, full race harnesses and proper seat and mounting.
It can be a little daunting tearing apart a modern production car — anything with supplemental restraint systems, as have been required in the United States since 1990 — and be responsible for your own safety with aftermarket racing safety equipment. You must choose, install and use it properly for it to do its job. NASA tech inspectors are SFI-certified to ensure that your racecar is as safe as can be.
“What I really like about NHRA and NASA, the similarities, is that NASA started having tech inspectors achieve their SFI certification, take SFI certification exams about maybe four or five years ago and NHRA has done that for years and years,” Padilla said. “So that was actually nice to be able to see NASA go to that SFI certification and just, I think number one, helps us to achieve a little more consistency and professionalism in the tech inspection world.”
Acceptable construction techniques are outlined in section 15 in the CCR. Follow them closely in the construction of your car. Padilla, McNett and Dinse said some of the more common infractions are usually easily addressed.
For example, some drivers show up without the proper roll bar padding. Pool noodles might look up to the job, but they don’t hold up in an impact, compared with SFI padding. Another common infraction is forgetting to install the cotter pins in the harness clasps that hook over the eyelets that bolt to the chassis. Another one is seat belts that aren’t wrapped properly around the buckles as outlined in 15.5 in the CCR.
All racing safety equipment has an expiration date of some kind, and there is a whole regimen of SFI testing procedures to set those standards. Whether it’s a window net or safety harnesses or even a composite seat, the moment you install it in your car, the clock begins counting down to the day it expires. That’s why it’s important to ensure that when your new equipment arrives, that it is, in fact, new. You can lose out on time of use because something had been sitting on the shelf waiting to be sold.
SFI has a has a machine that simulates ultraviolet radiation to test for the sun’s effects on materials used for harnesses and window nets. In the old days, they would just nail samples of webbing to a piece of plywood they had up on the roof. The machine accelerates weathering and offers greater control.
SFI-standard nets and seat belts expire in three years. FIA-standard belts are good for five years. As you might imagine, FIA belts typically cost a bit more. FIA seats also expire after five years, after which point they’ll need to have a back brace. Some seat manufacturers, such as RaceTech, offer threaded bosses in the backs of their FIA seats so that you can easily attach a back brace when the time comes. Of course, passing inspection means installing everything properly.
“Is the race seat an FIA-certified seat that does not need a back brace or do you have to put a back brace on it?” Padilla said. “We look at the seat belts. The seat belts can only be three years old or whether it’s an FIA belt and a new SFI will have a good intel date on it, so we make sure those are correct.”
Gloves, suits and shoes don’t have expiration dates, and so it’s up to the driver to determine whether a piece of driver gear is up to the task.
Torn gloves and suits must either be fixed or replaced. Most likely replacement is warranted because it’s tough to find a tailor who keeps fire-resistant Nomex thread on hand. The same goes for shoes. If the soles are coming off the uppers or there are holes in them, that’s a sure sign to replace them. Any holes in any piece of driver equipment is a potential place for burns in the event of a fire. Just ask Romain Grosjean — or Rob Krider.
SFI and FIA also provide hard and fast expiration dates for the tethers on your head and neck restraint device. Whether it’s from HANS, Simpson, NecksGen or the sued-out-of-business DefNder, the tethers expire and you can’t race if they’re out of date.
In a way, preparing for a tech inspection, whether it’s for HPDE or racing, is a bit like preparing for an exam. Every question you might have has an answer. You just need to study the CCR and then pay close attention when installing the equipment, if you’re building the car yourself.
Removing the factory safety equipment and installing aftermarket stuff will make you safer in your car on track, if done properly. If done improperly, it’s of little use to anyone, and it’s ultimately up to NASA tech inspectors to keep you and everyone on track as safe as possible. It’s best to understand what to expect and to prepare accordingly.
“You showed up, and I’m not going to let you on track. And depending on what event it is, you may or may not get your refund, or you may miss a few sessions. And that applies to both HDPE and the racecars,” Dinse said.
“I’m not here to make people mad. I’m here to keep them safe, make sure everything’s happening the way it should.”