Most seats (such as our Butler...
Most seats (such as our Butler seat) are made from flat sheet aluminum, and the driver's form is built into the seat with various densities of seat foam. As seen here, the LaJoie seat uses curve-formed back and sides. LaJoie (right) discusses the seat with performance industry consultant Randy Edwards.
Randy LaJoie, who figures he has been a crash test dummy for the last 20 years, told me his Monday mornings get better as the seat he uses gets stronger. LaJoie understandably does not like getting banged about in a race car and is critical of the average racer, who he claims is all too often complacent about safety.
"They think those big crashes will only happen to someone else," said LaJoie. "Guess what? Sooner or later, they are the someone else. I would love for these drivers to see the crash tests I see. They might then understand that it is possible to get killed at 35 mph. I had a brother killed in a street car accident, and I know just how horrific the grief can be."
I mentioned the 68g crash Jeff Gordon had at Pocono this year and how he walked away virtually unscathed. LaJoie's response was to refer to Jeff Fuller's Busch Series crash at Kentucky a short time before. He pulled 100 g's and survived the crash, though badly bruised.
"The bottom line," LaJoie points out, "is that a good seat helps the driver accumulate more points by the end of the season because he will drive better and is less likely to get injured."
I saw a number of kids' race seats around LaJoie's shop and asked if the cost of replacing the seats every year or so was not a little daunting to a prospective buyer. LaJoie, however, has a lease program for kids' seats that helps racing families afford a very important safety component. -D.V.
Former crew chief Gary Dehart...
Former crew chief Gary Dehart (right) details some of the latest mods that are to be incorporated into carbon-fiber seats. With him is seat builder Kevin Bookheimer. Since patents are at stake here, we could not show too much in the way of seat details.
Just a couple of days after his hard crash at Pocono Raceway, Jeff Gordon was co-hosting a popular morning TV program. He mentioned that the 68g crash had caused no apparent injuries, and he thanked his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports for building a great seat. I heard that former crew chief Gary Dehart was leading the Hendrick Motorsports safety program, so I arranged to see him and get his input on race seats.
Hendrick's approach to seat design is substantially different from that of other manufacturers. Instead of aluminum frames, which are designed to give at about the limit of human endurance, Hendrick Motorsports is using carbon fiber that is intended not to give any more than possible.
As might well be expected of the organization that fields Gordon's Cup car, as well as those of Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, and Kyle Busch, the work being done was top notch. I took a look at Gordon's Pocono seat, and the loads from 68 g's had left it unscathed. I particularly wanted to know what it takes to determine that the seat had not delaminated. Using a quarter, Dehart showed me how a seat can be inspected for internal distress. If a semi-metallic sound is produced when the seat is tapped with the quarter, then the carbon-fiber unit has not delaminated. If the note produced sounds like tapping wood, the seat has internally delaminated.
As for the ultra-stiff carbon-fiber frame, Dehart explained that the seat works in much the same way as a more conventional seat but was probably better in the event of a second (or more) severe impact within a single crash scenario.
"We cushion the driver in a cocoon lined with multiple layers of foam of progressive firmness." said Dehart. "During the first impact, the driver will transfer energy to the seat, but because everything has memory, the composite seat springs back ready to take another impact."
If you want a seat from Hendrick Motorsports, the company will sell you one, as management sees safety as a universal need. Be aware, though, at $9,500 each, these seats are about six times the cost of a regular aluminum seat.