Whether we’d like to admit it or not, accidents are an all-too-common occurrence in motorsport. Along with a race car’s roll cage, the seat is one of the first lines of defense to prevent against injury in the event of a crash, and its effectiveness in those situations is a vital component in the driver safety equation.
Of course, the best kinds of accidents are the ones that never happen. A properly selected seat for the driver (or drivers), and the racing discipline it’s to be used, can improve comfort and control, helping to prevent incidents from happening and have the potential to improve lap times in the process.
But when it comes time to select a seat, the array of variables in the equation can be daunting – certifications, build materials, design, mounting considerations, and cost are just a few of the factors, and making an informed decision about how best to protect yourself and your team can become a complicated endeavor very quickly.
To help us sort it all out, we spoke to the folks at Mastercraft Safety and Racetech to get some expert perspective on how to select the right seat for your vehicle in order to maximize safety while ensuring that it complies with the applicable sanctioning body guidelines and fits within your budget.
Understanding Seat Designs
In the realm of safety seats, there are essentially three main types of seat designs: composite, suspension, and metal fabricated. While there are a multitude of different variations of each, these three larger categories can help you hone in on the kind of seat that makes the most sense for the type of use and abuse it will subject to.
Composite seats are commonly used on road courses, all the way from street-driven track day cars to professional racing series like the Pirelli World Challenge and the World Rally Championship. These seats are designed to support and protect four key areas of the body – head, shoulder, pelvis, and thigh.
“If you support the human body well enough in the right places and keep all parts of the body in the same relationship to each other — it can withstand enormous decelerations with minimal or no injuries … 100 g’s is quite survivable,” explains Brian Oleshak of Racetech USA. “Crew injuries can be significantly reduced or eliminated by sensible seat selection, well-engineered seat mounting, thought-out harness mounting, use of head and neck restraints, and well-placed roll cage padding. Using a crash recorder, we have seen an 81 g lateral impact in which the driver sustained no injuries.”
Composite seats come in a variety of different polymers, but for those willing to spend a little more coin, a seat with a carbon fiber shell is recommended. “Not only is carbon fiber typically stronger than its composite counterpart – with superior penetration resistance versus aluminum – it’s also lighter than both of them. For those who’re looking to shave every last ounce they can out of the vehicle, this is the way to go,” Oleshak adds.
Suspension-style safety seats are often found in off-road, military vehicles, and stunt cars. Although the use and design is significantly different than a composite road racing seat, their primary function is the same – preventing injury to vehicle occupants. But while composite racing seats focus on lateral impacts, suspension seats are more geared toward vertical movement, like the kinds of abuse you’d see from landing hard on the ground after a jump, or from the impact of an explosion underneath the vehicle.
“There are thousands of MasterCraft military suspension seats in the field that are based on the same design as our race seats, and are responsible for returning many war-fighters home to their families,” says Kelli Willmore of Mastercraft Safety. “MasterCraft suspension seats have been independently blast and sled-tested by the U.S. military and have a proven track record of reducing impact energies from both IED blasts and also vehicle slam down.
“A test result I’m able to share with you is the NATO Stanag Level 2a test,” Willmore continued. “This test involves 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) of C4 explosive that’s pressure activated under the wheel of a vehicle. The test used a MasterCraft Military Crew Seat, which is nearly identical in construction to our MasterCraft Proseat, Pro4, and our 3G seat, which are popular in off-road race trucks. The explosion made a crater that was approximately 53 inches in diameter and 15 inches deep, and while the g loads that reached the seat base were 55 g’s, only 8 g’s reached the test dummy’s pelvis, reducing the energy transferred to the dummy’s spine by 84 percent.”
For the same reason you’d see this design in off-road and military use, suspension seats also find their way into many stunt vehicles. “All the Fast and Furious stunt vehicles that performed jumps in the last seven movies have used the MasterCraft 3G seat,” Willmore explains. “The on-camera cars use a traditional road racing seat, but the vehicles actually performing the stunts all use the 3G because the energy of impact is attenuated by the suspension seat design.”
The third common safety seat design you’ll come across are fabricated metal seats. These are a more bare bones design than the other two, and are primarily used for dirt track and drag racing.
While they typically don’t offer the same type of protection that the other two do, they are the seat design of choice for many oval track racing disciplines, and are often significantly less expensive than the other two designs.
Companies like Kirkey Racing, who specialize in fabricated metal safety seats, focus their design on containment – i.e. preventing the driver from being ejected from the vehicle – and of course are designed around racing harness implementation.
Mounting And Sizing For Different Drivers
It could be argued that properly mounting the seat in the vehicle is just as important – if not more so – than the seat itself.
“In order for it to function as intended, the seat needs to be mounted to all four reinforced mounting points, along with two mounting points on the back of the seat as well,” explains Oleshak. “Ideally the racing harnesses should be at as short of a distance from the seat as possible — mounting a long distance puts pressure on the spine, and the G force associated with the driver’s weight increases because of the additional stretch of the belt.”
“Also, the approach angle of the harnesses to the seat should be as close to shoulder level as possible from the harness bar. That way the seat becomes an integral part of the chassis, and the energy from an impact is spread out amongst all of these components instead of being focused almost exclusively on the seat,” he continued.
But in motorsports, where multiple drivers will use the same car in one event (like endurance racing), this can get tricky – particularly for teams that have drivers of widely varying sizes. “The seat should still be mounted to a reinforced part of the chassis regardless,” Oleshak reiterates. “Seat sliders which allow the seat to be adjusted for driver height have their advantages, but those sliders can definitely be compromised in the event of an accident. The best solution is still a fixed-mount seat, dialed in for the tallest driver, with an additional insert or padding to fill the void for smaller drivers.”
The Right Seat For The Right Job
Seat certifications also need to be taken into account when selecting a seat for your vehicle. While an HPDE or track day car might not be required to have an SFi or FIA certification by a sanctioning body like the SCCA or NASA, some folks might opt to make the investment up front so that they can “grow into” their seat as their skill level (and level competition) increases over time.
“FIA 8855-1999 is the standard in which racing seats have a five-year life cycle,” Oleshak explains. “Once that seat has exceed five years from the date printed on it, it is technically no longer FIA approved and must be replaced.” Here in the U.S., FIA 8855-1999 is the certification you’re looking for if you plan to complete in club level racing, be it with SCCA, NASA, ChumpCar or other amateur racing series.
“FIA certification 8862-2009 is a 10-year standard that is more focused toward semi-professional and professional racing series, mainly in Europe. For instance, you’ll find 8862-2009 seats in the Australian V8 Supercars series and the British Touring Car Championship,” says Oleshak. “But that’s a certification you probably won’t have to worry about too much – unless your racing career is seriously taking off as 8862-2009 is beyond the standards of IMSA and SCCA Pro.”
While it’s a vital decision to get right, with a lot of considerations to make in the process, these fundamentals should help point would-be track rats in the right direction to get what they need to ensure they’re compliant, comfortable, and most importantly, safe in the event of a crash. Race cars can be replaced, human lives cannot.