Racing can certainly be defined as a risk-versus-reward sport. On one hand, there is the glamour and glory of standing in the winner’s circle. On the other hand, a race-ending crash can never be ruled out as a possibility.
When dealing with the latter, it’s comforting to know that product manufacturers are doing all they can to improve the industry’s safety gear.
In this edition of Speed Across the Nation, we gathered information from a few shops nationwide and asked them about performance safety gear. Among the topics discussed were product pricing, improvements in technology and customer purchasing trends. Are you finding reward in this market? Maybe the following information from these five shops will help.
In the ultra-competitive racing market, Dan Mermelstein of Vivid Racing cites Charles Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory while explaining the industry’s dynamic. In more modern terms, Vivid has established itself as a true top dog.
“We are having a record year and just bought a new 15,000-square-foot building,” he says.
Performance gear is just one of many product categories in which the company vies for customers. Specifically in the racing shoes sector, it places itself in an excellent position.
“We do really well with the DC Shoes racing product,” says Mermelstein. “Because of the strong notoriety from Ken Block and Travis Pastrana in theirSubaru Rally cars, the DC driving program is very good. We are one of the limited few who get to sell the product.”
Vivid also drop-ships Bell helmets and Alpinestarsshoes and gear, as well as some Sparco products. However, Mermelstein admits that his company is better known for selling hard parts rather than soft goods. A smaller part of the market, soft goods are sold by more specialty-type stores where the product can be fitted correctly.
Says Mermelstein, “If you want to try on a suit or shoes, you really need to go to the actual place. Different manufacturers’ sizes fit differently.”
Additional issues such as the ability to keep products well-stocked, marketing techniques and customer service are what make racing soft goods more difficult to sell – especially online. And with some specialty shops focusing strictly on racing gear, the competition has become much stiffer.
“You usually don’t see your big mail-order or niche tuning shops doing both (hard and soft products),” says Mermelstein. “In the motocross world you can buy your jersey and pants from the same place you can get your handlebars and pegs. I think the automotive (industry) will go this way soon, too.”
Consider that gear is not the first product racers think of when they get a new car. According to Mermelstein, racers need an exhaust and intake more immediately. He adds, “Many weekend DE drivers or racers are doing intermediate driving, so their drivinggear consists of some jeans, their daily shoes, and a cheap helmet usually.”
Don’t misconstrue his words, though. Mermelstein believes safety is a major concern in the motorsports world and he aims to keep the most advanced products available.
“It is obvious that as the speeds increase, the technology needs to increase as well,” he says. “DC Shoes really is setting the benchmark with the Pro Spec 1.0 racing shoes. (They are) SFI and FIA certified, using skateboard shoe technology to offer a driving shoe that is safe and comfortable for all-day wear.”
And the habit of the driver is the real influence over the product that is purchased.
“Anytime we go on a road course, we should all be in fire suits with HANS devices, but that is just not possible,” says Mermelstein. “It’s like driving on the street; anything could happen no matter what color your car is, how fast it is, or how good of a driver you are. I would recommend gloves, helmet and shoes for any beginning driver. A safety suit might be over-the-top for a daily driver doing DE events.”
UPR Racing Supply
Just a short trip across Interstate 10 eastbound, another shop can be found peddling its wares to racing customers in the Valley of the Sun. UPR Racing Supply has been in operation for more than 40 years, selling a variety of different performance products, including quality brands of safety equipment.
“We carry (all kinds) of equipment including helmets, shoes, gloves and race suits,” says James Williams of UPR. “Sparco, Alpinestars and G-Force are a few name brands we carry.”
The UPR business model clearly suggests that it’s strictly the racer that takes priority. In fact, the company does not cater to any other customers beyond the racer. That’s why safety equipment is always a hot item at UPR, and prices remain reasonable to all visiting patrons.
“Price is usually an issue,” Williams says of the safety gear industry in general, “but it’s probably divided half-and-half, with the kind of racing that the customer is doing.”
Just as Mermelstein stated previously, racers follow different trends, and that can also influence the type of product that is purchased.
The advances that are being made in the industry have also had an effect on manufacturers’ product lines.
“It depends on what type of racing you’re doing,” says Williams. “A lot of things are going on such as the use of CarbonX technology-suits are lighter and more breathable. The technology is going up pretty well.”
Also on the rise is the competition in gear sales. Williams says that even a sagging economy hasn’t had a noticeable negative impact on the market.
“The competition is pretty fierce,” he says. “We battle back and forth a lot. The industry is definitely growing.”
But when it’s all said and done, offering the safest and highest-quality gear is what it’s all about.
“It’s very important to have the right safety gear,” says Williams. “If you don’t have the stuff, you can’t race properly or safely. The more you know about it, the better off you’ll be. There are definitely safety standards that need to be met and customers should know about them.”
There are ups and downs in the industry,” says Sean Zappendorf of Discovery Parts.
An example of a “down” is when a manufacturer does not have a particular product available when a customer orders it. Fortunately, there is also an upside to the situation. Companies such as Discovery Parts carry a wide range of products, making for improved selection for the customer.
“We carry different brands of top-of-the-line products like Bell, Arai and Simpson,” says Zappendorf.
Such a broad offering is sure to keep the customer happy, and the company’s client base is all-inclusive when it comes to racing.
“We don’t just help people in racing teams; we help anybody who is racing as a hobby,” says Zappendorf, who points out that circle track racers-like those involved with the ARCA Racing Series-are examples of major customers. Zappendorf adds that at the NASCAR level, race teams are more inclined to go directly to the manufacturer for products instead of placing an order through retail outlets.
But “guys that work 9-to-5 and hobby race” give Discovery Parts a lot business, says Zappendorf, “Thursday Thunder and Friday racing guys are our customers.”
Discovery is a big player in the racing suit market, with accessories much higher in demand. Since the launch of the HANS Device technology for safety innovation, Discovery has been one of HANS’ best resellers. The company also carries G-Force, Alpinestars, Sparco and other top-brand suits to keep customers coming back. Customization is becoming popular, and Simpson seems to have capitalized on that trend.
“Simpson is mostly made-to-order,” says Zappendorf. “Their suits are not in stock. More custom is what most of our Simpson customers want.”
Zappendorf concludes that more and more racers are purchasing on a budget. Price can be a big consideration when buying suits or other equipment. Economical lines are certainly cheaper, but those who pay a premium price will often get a much lighter product.
However, if price is not an issue, most people will “pick a preferred brand that they grew up with,” says Zappendorf. And those who truly embrace racing are getting a very early start, as Zappendorf confirms Discovery has products for “children that start as young as 8 to 10 years old in racing.”
When someone is really focused on something, you might say they are “dialed in.” Or maybe you would use the phrase “locked on.” What about the term “buckled up?”
The last option might seem somewhat obscure, but in the case of HMS Motorsport, the company is all about the buckle.
“We’re really into the belts,” says Luke Dobie of HMS Motorsport about the company’s safety belt line. “We are heavily into Schroth Racing; we’re producing a lot of the belts for them.”
HMS also sells helmets, gloves and suits from companies such as Bell, Arai, Oakley and G-Force, and is one of the only companies in its area to do so. However, the belt line is the bread and butter of the business.
“Further down the line we’re hoping to do NASCAR belts,” says Dobie. “We’re dealing with 26 NASCAR teams (for that endeavor).”
Racing is where a lot of safety gear items get the most play; however, there is some crossover between race and street, especially with safety belts.
“We definitely have some belts, like for a Subaru, which translate over to street,” says Dobie, though he points out that most gear at HMS is track-specific.
With all of the possible danger involved in racing, technology is constantly changing as testing on safety equipment improves.
“We pride ourselves on technology and the testing that goes into our equipment,” says Dobie. “There’s a lot that goes into it.”
With research and development expenses coupled with a less-than-desirable economy, pricing can be an issue with these products; however, Dobie says, “It’s not that big of a deal at this point.”
Yes, pricing can come into play, but Dobie suggests that the determining factor of purchasing a product is whatever fits with the customer’s needs. And price tags aside, the safety aspect should be the biggest concern for customers.
“It’s really about making people aware of the safety,” says Dobie. “We just try and make everything safe.”
U.S. Race Gear
Generally speaking, if there’s one person who knows more about racing than anyone else, it’s the racer. He’s the one in the driver’s seat, he’s the one pushing the pedals, and he’s the one wearing the gear. So, when Craig Friesinger opened up U.S. Race Gear, it seemed only natural.
“I am a longtime racer who started the business last year to support my habit,” says Friesinger.
At the core of the business is racing safety, and, as Friesinger knows, products need to be dependable to provide maximum protection. In addition, the company has taken strides to allow customers to buy products at a fair price. This is especially important for less-experienced racers.
“Grassroots racers are looking to keep their costs down,” says Friesinger. And as a retailer, “you succeed by providing superior customer support at the lowest possible price.”
However, price is just one ingredient in the customer satisfaction mix. Several others are needed to complete the proverbial batter.
“In order to stay in business you have to have what the customer wants when he wants it,” says Friesinger.
Quality is a word that comes to mind, and U.S. Race Gear serves it up in heaping portions. The company sells Bell, Simpson, Impact and G-Force lines of safety equipment. Among the items are helmets, gloves, harnesses and head restraints.
“Head and neck restraints are in high demand as several sanctioning bodies are now requiring them, and racers have come to realize how critical they are in a total safety system,” says Friesinger.
In general, it seems like the safety gear market is progressing smoothly, although Friesinger notes one changing element in the industry is the production of products overseas. Manufacturers are able to more easily control prices by doing so.
However, in U.S. Race Gear’s case, business is having continued success. Says Friesinger: “We are maintaining slow but steady growth.”