Commentary

Carbon fiber seats the way to go when it comes to safety, comfort

Custom-fitted carbon fiber seats are the latest safety rage in NASCAR Cup racing, thanks to supplier Rick Hendrick. The seats are comfy, drivers agree, but more importantly, they save lives.

Updated: December 19, 2007, 7:54 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Greg Biffle wiggled his bottom against the large, bean bag-like object that engulfed his body.

"It doesn't feel like the back of my left leg is touching anything," he said.

Mark Hord and Andrew Cox immediately began pushing sections of the bag, which was filled with thousands of tiny Styrofoam balls surrounded by a soft resin, around Biffle's leg, kneading it like a pizza chef would a mound of dough.

[+] EnlargeGreg Biffle
David Newton/ESPN.comGreg Biffle, right, oversees the seat-making process at Hendrick Motorsports.

"Better?" asked Hord, the safety director at Hendrick Motorsports.

Biffle shifted his body back and forth.

"Better," he said.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver was being fitted for a carbon fiber seat at a small shop in the back of HMS that first housed Jeff Gordon's team.

Gordon suggested that owner Rick Hendrick start experimenting with the seats, initially developed for NASCAR by former PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells, after Hendrick's son, Ricky, dislocated his right shoulder in a 2002 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Former HMS employee Gary Dehart spearheaded the project and David Green first used the seat in one of Hendrick's cars in 2003.

Hendrick, more interested in safety than profit with this venture, sells the seats to all teams at cost -- $10,400 for the main section and $1,200 for the headrest. Hord said 26 Cup drivers now use the seat and another six, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., are planning to move into it.

"If Dale Earnhardt had one of these and the belts we now have he'd be alive today," Biffle said of the seven-time Cup champion, who was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Nobody knows that for sure, but the seat has proved to be safer than the aluminum ones drivers grew up with. In 2003, Kyle Petty said the high-tech seat he purchased from Wells kept him from sustaining more serious injuries in an 80-G crash at Bristol.

Hord said the HMS seat is designed to survive a 90-G crash, which is 10 G higher than NASCAR requires for certification.

"I'm wanting to go to 110," he said.

Hendrick is the main supplier of the seats now. Other companies went under because of the high cost; the carbon seat is three times more expensive than the aluminum version.

"Due to us being able to afford to lose money, Rick takes it as a personal thing for this department not to be considered a part of Hendrick Motorsports even though it is," Hord said. "He finances us instead of the race team financing us. If we go in the hole, he reaches in his pocket and gives money to us.

"We don't want to put anybody out of business. Our ultimate goal is not to have to worry about who is going to get hurt."

Christmas rush
This is a busy time of the year for Hord and his crew of eight as they fit new and old clients for seats in time for January testing.

But he doesn't rush the construction process, knowing the driver's comfort is almost as essential as safety.

"I've worked really hard to make sure it's right before I get in the car from a comfort standpoint," said Jeff Burton, who has been working for months to get fitted for a seat he hopes will be ready for testing at Daytona. "I'm a believer in it. I believe it's the right thing to do.

"At the same time, these long races, I've got to be comfortable. But ultimately, that's going to be the best product."

The outer shell is the same for all drivers. The molded inserts are where most of the work occurs.

They can be made in two ways, one significantly faster than the other. The process Biffle underwent consists of a driver sitting on the bag of Styrofoam balls, which is attached to a vacuum. Once the driver gets initially set, the air is sucked out and the balls harden into a solid form.

If Dale Earnhardt had one of these and the belts we now have he'd be alive today.

-- Greg Biffle

The driver then will climb out to allow Hord and his crew to make adjustments on awkward or uncomfortable spots. The driver then will climb back into the form, air will be pumped in to soften it and more adjustments will be made.

This can go on for two to four hours for the seat portion alone. Once the form is set, the excess is trimmed and shaped with an electric knife -- sometimes a simple carving knife purchased at Wal-Mart -- so that the form fits snuggly into the outer shell.

Hord likes to use this process on first-timers because he has more time to work with the form before it permanently hardens. The other process, which consists of pouring a liquid version of the mold into a bag around the driver, hardens in 20 seconds.

"Once that's done, it's over," Hord said. "This kind I can play with it."

By the time the seat is complete all the belts are attached, which differs from the old seat in that belts are attached to the floor of the car. This way drivers don't have to loosen and readjust the belts every time they climb in.

"Once they get it done it is perfect," Biffle said. "I can get in one of these seats on the ground and everything is perfect."

Jamie McMurray, one of the first to use the carbon seat while at Ganassi Racing in 2004, says the process has come a long way.

"It took three months to get my first seat built," he said. "The best part about that seat other than the safety of it is they're all identical. You'll hear a driver say that seat fits just right. With the carbon everything is computerized with the inserts cut out and they're always the same."

And if one breaks, because the inserts are scanned, a duplicate can be produced without another fitting.

"They've got a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy and money in it," Burton said. "They're entitled to make a profit. If they charged me more so they could make a profit I wouldn't mind that."

Friendly enemy
Biffle pulled a borrowed black Volvo onto the main road leading into HMS.

"It's a little bit strange," he said as he looked around.

Hord said most drivers feel the same way the first time they come into what is considered enemy territory.

"We don't even think about it," he said. "If they wanted to tour the whole facility we would take them. Hendrick as a whole has an open-door policy."

The biggest adjustment for drivers once they get used to being on another owner's property is having the key support around their shoulders instead of the rib cage.

"I was always like, 'I have to have that around my ribs to hold me in,'" McMurray said.

He didn't get totally comfortable -- and convinced it was the safest method -- until a late crash in the 2004 All-Star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"After that day I was, 'All right, it will catch me if I get loose,'" he said.

McMurray is so sold on the seats that he wouldn't sign with Roush Fenway Racing two years ago without a clause in his contract guaranteeing one in his car.

"In 10 years people will say, 'He's racing in an aluminum seat?'" he said. "It's never going to be that way for short-track guys because you can't afford it. But man, if you're in a Cup car every week running 200 mph, it's crazy not to have them."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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