When it comes to NASCAR, safety and seats, no one knows more than Randy LaJoie. The two-time NASCAR Busch series champion spent the past year traveling and preaching racing safety, with an emphasis on the seat. That's because LaJoie's company produces Joie of Seating custom-fitted aluminum seats, among the strongest and safest in racing.
LaJoie's motives for getting into the seat business were purely selfish: he was just trying to find a better seat for himself.
"The style of seat that I had been racing was a fiberglass seat that I'd used my entire career," he said. "In 1992, NASCAR said that the fiberglass seats weren't allowed anymore. They had to be made of aluminum."
LaJoie took his seat to two different racing seat builders, and neither one was able to make a seat to his satisfaction.
"I went on a quest to figure out how to get a good seat," LaJoie said. "The fiberglass seat was form-fitted to the body with 80 percent of your side forces put to your shoulders, whereas every other seat on the market, they held you in by your ribs only. So by putting all of the forces on a seat that fit me and also held me by my shoulders, I was just a lot more comfortable in a race."
LaJoie did meet someone who thought he could help, but when LaJoie was told the price would be $350,000, he knew there was no way he could meet that steep of a budget. The friend had a road racer friend, however, and the rest is history.
"He had just gotten done with the Richard Petty Driving School and he couldn't believe how uncomfortable the seats were compared to his road racing seat," LaJoie recalled. "So a year later, he sent me some parts. Then we made a fixture to hold the parts and then we took it to the next level. I still didn't have $350,000 out of pocket for all the tooling, but this gentleman said that he would make it back in the cost of the aluminum. Now not only do I have a fixture to hold the parts, but I have a fixture that has six different measurements on it where I can make it bigger or smaller. I can measure a racer the size of Mark Martin up to Michael Waltrip."
But what makes the LaJoie seat unique?
"There are a couple things that I do different," LaJoie said. "Everybody else starts with a flat sheet of aluminum, they put a template on it, they trace out the template, they bring it to a sheet metal brake, they put six sheet metal bends in it, they put a bottom on it, they weld it together, and that's what they call a seat.
"Everything that I have is stamped, which means it's form-fitted to your body. All the metal is shaped. The bottom is shaped like your [butt]. I tell the guys, 'you don't wear a square helmet, but you're sitting in a square seat.' "
LaJoie estimates that he has about 30 percent of the seat business in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series.
"I'm losing some of the Cup market to Hendrick Motorsports because they've built a carbon fiber seat.," he said. "Hendrick came in over the last three years and they built their own carbon fiber seat, which is an amazing seat. They invested $12 million developing the seat, but it's a $15,000 seat. So the only ones who can afford that are the Cup guys."
But LaJoie said it's not the top series where safety issues are problematic.
"The top three NASCAR divisions are awesome," he said. "They would park you if you didn't have a good seat. The inspectors know what they're looking for. But it hasn't trickled down to all the NASCAR short tracks. So that's what the Safer Racer Tour is for. We're traveling the country, doing trade shows, and working with NASCAR, with DIRT Motorsports, with IMCA -- any sanctioning body that wants to listen. I tell them the industry has gotten a lot safer since 2001. Nobody paid attention before Dale Earnhardt passed away, but thank God, the industry paid attention since then."
Two high profile crashes by driver David Reutimann proved the strength of LaJoie's seats.
"Last year in the truck series, Reutimann was involved with Bill Lester at Texas Motor Speedway," LaJoie said. "Both Bill and David went into the Turn Four wall at Texas and made huge impacts. Between the SAFER barrier and better seats -- it knocked David out -- but whether it was the California wreck this year, or last year at Texas, NASCAR came back and did excellent follow-up, comparing the blueprints of the seats from before and after the incident."
Steve Peterson, NASCAR's technical director since 1995, explained the blueprinting process.
"When a team presents the car for inspection, the driver's cockpit area, particularly the seat, is measured and documented," Peterson said. "We look at what type of belts he has, what style of belts, what the dimensions in the seat are, the headrest, and what type of personal safety equipment the driver wears. That's all done before the event starts that weekend.
"Then if it's the first practice session and the car goes out and has an impact, or if it's during the race on Sunday, then we have pre-event information and post-impact information. We can compare measurements and look at the components that they were wearing or using and see if there was any stresses or damages. That's all recorded in the database so that over time, we're able to build situational histories of what happens during impacts."
"I work very closely with NASCAR Research and Development," LaJoie said. "All my seats are serial numbered and blueprinted, and if they're involved in a crash, we'll get them back and we'll etch on it when it was crashed and inspected. After two big hits, we make the guys buy new seats. It's a very visual process of checking. You measure it and check it, and if the welds are cracked, you know something happened.
"I was noticing that all the bracketry that we held the seats into the cars with was bending. So I called NASCAR and pointed it out, and we figured out that the mounts aren't strong enough. So NASCAR made a new rule that we had to stiffen all the mounts. The stronger the seat got, the next weakest thing was failing, which was the bracketry. So now it has to be #&188;-inch bracketry on all seat fixtures. A lot of times out at the short tracks, you'll see these seats held in the cars with two or three bolts. I've even seen them held with one bolt. And we know that's not the right way to do it, and it's not worth it. It only takes a blink of an eye to be put in a pine box.."