Driver Cooling and How to Stay Cool in the Racecar

Racing doesn’t just happen on the track; much preparation goes into each event. But if you can’t stay cool in the racecar, no amount of physical or mental prep will salvage your results. Overheating in the racecar can lead to poor performance and results, unnecessary incidents, DNFs, and more. As we approach the summer heat, where driver cooling will very much come into play, I want to discuss this topic, potential solutions, and what works best for me.

Summer Racing Conditions

To put it mildly, summer racing conditions in the Southeast are brutal. For instance, when racing at Barber Motorsports Park in July, when the temperature is guaranteed to be above 90, the asphalt surface can reach temps close to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, ambient temps in the racecar can exceed 120 degrees, and that is before you consider that every racecar driver is wearing a firesuit, helmet, and gloves. This is a recipe for disaster without proper planning.

In fact, last year, I had to retire early from race 1 at Barber. I ran the race without a driver-cooling strategy, making it halfway before I noticed myself losing focus. You do not want this to happen at a high-speed corner entry. Although it didn’t look dramatic in the videos, I could tell my driving was off and getting worse, and I retired the car.

(I came up with an interesting solution that weekend that I still use today. But first, the standard solutions.)

Three 944 Spec racers celebrating on the podium at Circuit of the Americas.
The podiums of summer are the best in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops.

Types of Driver Cooling

There are two types of driver cooling: active and passive. Active systems use the car’s electrical system to power a cooling device, such as a heat exchanger or self-contained refrigeration system. These typically circulate cool water or a coolant around the driver. On the other hand, passive systems use forced air from vents to provide the driver with fresh air around critical areas such as the head.

Cooling Shirts (Active)

First up are the cooling shirts. These systems circulate cooled water around the driver’s core. A special shirt with water tubes is worn underneath the race suit. These tubes are connected to a car-mounted cooler filled with ice and water. An electrical pump circulates the water through the closed loop system, pulling heat away from the driver into the water loop.

Cooling shirts are the solution for most drivers. They are easy to install and activate and relatively inexpensive compared to other options. The two main sources are FAST Cooling and COOLSHIRT Systems.

FAST Cooling entry level cooling shirt system for motorsports.
The FAST Cooling intro level cooling system is an ‘inexpensive’ solution, relatively speaking.
COOLSHIRT Systems coolwater shirt to show the cooling tubes.
Here is an example of the cooling shirt from COOLSHIRT. If you go this route, make sure to get black tubing, as the tubes mildew without regular cleaning.

Cooling Shirt Pro’s
Cooling Shirt Con’s
easy to install and operateup to 40lbs additional weight
rapid driver coolingextra layer to wear under fire suit
price (700-1500)the shirt is extra at this price
uses readily available iceice will be a consumable
active system for enhanced coolingactive systems can fail

Driver Cooling Unit by Chillout Systems (Active)

Driver cooling units are the next evolution in the cooling shirt model. Instead of a cooler filled with ice, these systems use self-contained refrigerant systems that directly cool the driver cooling loop. Coolant, instead of water, is used as the transfer media. They’re basically an air conditioner in a box that you plug a cooling shirt into. Unlike the ice-driven cooling shirt, these ice-less models allow long-term driver cooling of hours but at an increased cost.

Diagram of the chillout systems ice-less driver cooling unit.
Chillout Systems created the driver cooling unit, which is becoming widely adopted in amateur and hobby racing.
Chill out Systems Pro Touring Sport Cooling Shirt
Chillout Systems uses a proprietary cooling shirt for the driver cooling unit.
Driver Cooling Unit Pro’sDriver Cooling Unit Con’s
unlimited driver coolingprice (2699.00 minimum without shirt)
ice-less (minimal consumables)not compatible with ice systems (shirt or unit)
simple operationlarge electrical draw (18amps in eco mode)
can require outside, forced air across heat exchanger

Helmet Coolers/Blowers (Active or Passive)

Helmet coolers work in conjunction with cooling shirt systems to run air through the cooling box, which then goes to the driver’s helmet. This can add additional cooling and comfort to the driver’s head and keep the ever-important decision-making center cool. These systems can be active or passive, using powered blower motors or forced air through ducting. They can also be configured to bypass the cooling unit and bring fresh air to the driver’s head. (Ambient air is significantly cooler than cabin air) You will need a helmet compatible with forced air.

Simpson Devil Ray carbon fiber helmet with forced air attachment.
I run with a Simpson Devil Ray carbon fiber helmet. Here it is with the forced air attachment.
Helmet Cooling Pro’sHelmet Cooling Con’s
increase overall coolingadds complexity
can reduce fog buildupnot supported on all helmets
inexpensivemore hoses

The Cool-A-Clava

This is an honorable mention and another offering from COOLSHIRT Systems. It is a cooling loop that plugs into the cooling shirt loop and sits on the driver’s head. Sending ice-cold water to the helmet in extreme conditions. I haven’t seen this used much on the track, but it is a valid approach.

The Cool-A-Clava from COOLSHIRT Systems.
The Cool-A-Clava sounds great on paper, but I haven’t seen it used much in practice.

Unique Solutions (The Ice-Down Method)

I ran a cooling shirt system for years until I switched to the ST6 Miata. I had to drastically reduce my weight to achieve the power-to-weight ratio I needed for competition. And a 40-pound cool shirt system is hard to ignore. After the DNF from race 1 at Barber, I knew I was in trouble for the rest of the weekend. That brief overheating stint wiped me out on Saturday. Sunday, I did something a little unusual. During our 45-minute race, I had someone place icecubes from their cooler into my race suit once I sat down. This was perhaps in desperation, as there was no way I could complete the race without some form of thermal management. And it worked surprisingly well. Having a few pounds of ice around my core kept me cooler longer than the coolshirt ever did.

The melting ice did cause me to look a little ‘wetter’ when I got out of the racecar, but we shed so much fluid during summer races that it was hard to tell. I did get a few odd looks when I unzipped my race suit, bent forward, and dumped the remaining ice onto the impound. And if you have been here for any amount of time, you know I am all about simple solutions. So, I have continued to use variations of the ice-down method for over a season. It just works. I don’t have additional systems that can fail or need to be reloaded, and I always have an abundance of ice.

My only changes are using 2 strategically placed freezer packs or Ziplocs filled with ice around my core.

Ice-Down Pro’sIce-Down Con’s
almost freecan make a mess (especially with loose ice)
not a long-term solution for mostyou may get some odd glances
great in a pinchnot a long term solution for most


There are other solutions to driver cooling, but the ones above have proven to work well. Furthermore, driver conditioning and hydration are just as important. Something I may dive into in a separate post. In the meantime, I will continue using the ice-down method even if I get a few sideways looks in the paddock.

By Chris Simmons


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