VP. Race Gear, Then and Now

Posted Oct. 18, 2016

I watch the MotoGP and Superbike races on TV, and the broadcasts often show the racer in the back of his pit garage getting ready to go. The last thing the racer puts on are his gloves, and I noticed how thick they looked. They are very different from racing gloves used in my day. I decided to take a closer look, via the TV, at the gear the pros use compared to what was common in the mid-to-late 1970s.

NOW

When the camera shows the racer sitting near the back of his pit garage he will already have his boots and leathers on. Let’s look at these first.

Boots

The boots looks pretty thick and well armored, giving lots of protection to the ankle and lower shin area. They also look very stiff; there must be some sort of built-in hinge to allow working the foot controls.

Racing Suit

The race suit is a combination of perforated and solid leather panels, with some sections that look like stretchy material. There’s armor built into the arms from wrist to elbow, and external hard plastic covers on the point of the shoulder. There’s a big hump in the back that protects the upper spine; the hump also doubles as a canteen so the racer can take sips of water or energy drink during the race, via tubing built into the helmet. The hump may also have an aerodynamic effect, blending in with the helmet when the racer is in full tuck. There’s armor built into the hip area as well.

Within the last few years some race suit manufacturers have added an air bag. It can detect any sudden change in momentum and will inflate very quickly. You can see it when a racer crashes – he suddenly has massive arms and upper torso. It’s there to help prevent broken collar bones and the sort of shoulder injury that ended Ben Spies’ career.

Another big change in the race suit is the addition of knee sliders. The hanging-off style, pioneered by England’s Paul Smart, really took off in the 1980s. With improvements in tires it became so extreme the racers were wearing holes in the knees of their expensive race suits. Patching the hole with duct tape was an ugly temporary fix. At some point someone got the good idea of fixing sliders on with Velcro.

Ear plugs

These little items look the same as the ones we used back in the day. No news here.

Mouthpiece

Most of the racers will put in a mouthpiece that covers their upper teeth. When I was racing only boxers and football players used them.

Helmet

When it’s time to ride the racer puts on his helmet. Today’s helmets don’t look much different than the old full-face helmets. The TV doesn’t show it but I bet they are more sophisticated in construction, both the shell and the padding. Lately a little aerodynamic flip at lower rear has been showing up on some of them. Color schemes can be quite complicated. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wears a plain solid color helmet these days.

andrea-dovizioso

Ducati racer Andrea Dovizioso with gear. Note the thick gloves, heavy boots, knee sliders, and stretch material inside the bicep and crotch areas. Image from columnm.com

Chest/Abdomen Protector

The racer will insert a protective pad inside the front of his suit, just before zipping up. I can’t tell for sure what it’s made of; it looks pretty stiff but not solid. Dense foam like ensolite perhaps? It must be designed to protect the stomach and chest area. I can’t think of any other use for it.

Gloves

The last piece of gear donned before getting on the bike are the gloves. They look very thick on the outside of the fingers, often with hard plastic sections covering the knuckles. They look very stiff but they must be thinner on the palm side as it is clear these racers have precise and delicate throttle control.

THEN

That’s pretty much the same gear we used: helmet, boots, gloves, leathers, and ear plugs. The only new additions are the stomach insert and mouthpiece. Let’s look at the stuff commonly in use forty some years ago.

Boots

My first actual made-for-road-racing boots were made by Sidi. They were built with a slight forward slant to accommodate the road racer’s crouch, came to mid-calf and were fairly thin leather. The thinness was felt necessary to allow proper shifting and rear brake control. They had no armor so gave no impact resistance but they prevented abrasions well. I don’t remember anyone using thick boots.

Racing Suit

leathers-rear-and-elbow

My 1979 leathers showing a hump-less back. The elbow and shoulder “armor” is just extra layers of leather. The hips and knees have similar pads.

We didn’t have perforated leather or non-leather inserts. It was all solid leather with a couple of venting zippers in the rear. The suit had armor in the form of extra layers of leather in the knees and hip area and in the elbows and shoulders. They were really hot unless you were moving pretty quickly. There was a sateen-type lining to make it easy to put on and off.

None of the leathers accommodated a canteen-like device. Things like Camelbak hydration systems existed but they were for street riders. We always drank plenty of water or Gatorade before the race and more after but not during. The club races and early AMA Superbike races were relatively short, but none of the guys who raced the longer AMA F750 races had fluids available during the race either.

Ear Plugs

Same as now. Move on.

Mouthpiece

Nope. Didn’t use them.

Abdomen Protector

Like the mouthpieces, this is something new since my day.

Helmet

Helmets of the 1970s look similar but were not so, well, colorful. They were sometimes painted but the designs were fairly simple. I painted my helmet in 1976 to match my motorcycle’s color but it was just all one color. My later racing helmets were unpainted. A good example is this photo from the 1978 Loudon AMA National.

8.3-bw

Reg Pridmore leads Mike Baldwin, me, Erik Buell, and Ron Pierce. Baldwin has the most colorful helmet and it’s a simple design: two white stripes sweeping back with different colors in the spaces they create. My helmet is box-stock grey.


 

Gloves

Most of us felt we needed thin gloves to get a good feel for the controls. They were leather with little or no armor. The provided decent abrasion protection as long as your hand didn’t get caught under the bike as you slid along the pavement. That would be bad news.

 

 

Conclusion: personal gear for road racers has advanced a lot in the nearly 40 years since I was racing. Some of it is from improved equipment like perforated leathers and airbags, some of it is from changes in attitudes. Thin is not good like we felt back then. Teeth protectors and torso pads are new ideas adopted somewhere along the way. These things work – I’ve seen terrible looking crashes and the rider, once he stops tumbling, gets up and walks away.

I’d have to say everything has improved except earplugs.

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