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Former champion uses experience toward safety

July 31, 2012, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Randy LaJoie's racing seat company began because he didn't want to get hurt

Michael McDowell, in a vicious accident during qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008. That was one of Randy LaJoie's seats.

Elliott Sadler, when he flipped most of the way through Talladega's Turn 3 in 2003. David Reutimann on the white-flag lap at Watkins Glen last year, a mishap in which he careened across the track like a sling shot. Those were LaJoie seats, too.

"At the end of the day, I'm a pretty damn good race fan, and I don't want to see anybody get hurt."


A two-time champion of what's now known as the Nationwide Series, LaJoie knows his stuff. The only thing missing from a piece put together by The Joie of Seating is a place for the driver's guardian angel to ride shotgun. One of LaJoie's custom-fitted cocoons is a far cry from what once was standard in the NASCAR garage.

LaJoie keeps a reminder of that on a shelf in his Concord, N.C., shop. The simple bucket seat was used by the late Benny Parsons. There's really nothing to it, just some padding covered in fake leather -- or maybe it is plastic -- and the tiniest right-side rib protector. These days, it's hard to imagine that a rookie running the entry division at the lowliest of short tracks would sit in such a thing, much less a one-time Cup Series champion.

Racing has come a long, long way.

No racing seat, no matter how marvelously constructed it might be, ever will be completely crash-proof. That's what keeps LaJoie going year after year, doing the development and research that he does. When a driver is able to walk away from an accident like McDowell, Sadler or Reutimann did, those are LaJoie's checkered flags these days. It doesn't matter whether it's a Cup, Nationwide or Truck event or some weekly quarter-mile bullring somewhere.

"Safety is a moving target, because there's never the same accident twice," LaJoie said. "Everything is always different. The ones that don't look like they're the worst, more than likely, are the worst. Maybe there [are] two impacts at the same time, a change of direction.

"When I first started the company, I didn't want to get hurt. Then, I didn't want my kids to get hurt. Then, you know what? At the end of the day, I'm a pretty damn good race fan, and I don't want to see anybody get hurt."

When it comes to seats, The Joie of Seating isn't the only game in town at the highest levels of NASCAR. Hendrick Motorsports has a carbon-fiber seat that its drivers, as well as others, use. There are ButlerBuilt Professional Seat Systems and Richardson Racing Products as well. For more than 30 years, though, LaJoie was his own crash-test subject.

Belted in, literally

During the first race LaJoie ran in 1980, he was sitting in a custom-fitted fiberglass seat that had originally been designed by racing legend Mark Donohue. Once he started driving other people's car, being left black-and-blue from simply sitting in their rock-bottom basic seats, LaJoie became an even bigger believer in his seats.

Their evolution took time. When the fiberglass cracked in a crash, he built a cage around the next seat to reinforce it.

A few of the wrecks LaJoie endured were doozies, but there was one in particular that people remember. After spinning off Turn 4 in a qualifying race for the 1984 Daytona 500, LaJoie plowed headlong into a guard rail on the inside of the track. That shot him into a series of violent tumbles that left him with a concussion, but not much more.

UPS... Game Changing Moments

Incredibly, the seat he used that day had no padding. The piece of fiberglass had been formed to his body, so according to LaJoie, it didn't need any. Inspectors had seen the seat before the wreck and told him it looked like a bathtub. In order to compete that week, LaJoie had to sign a waiver basically stating that he was on his own if anything happened to him while using it.

There was still more confirmation that he was doing the right thing four years later. Driving for veteran independent Bobby Wawak, LaJoie made the starting grid for a 1988 Cup event at Dover. He'd won there on the Busch North tour and was comfortable on the track's 1-mile high banks.

He was comfortable at Dover, that is, in his seats. In Wawak's car, the seat had nothing on the left side and only a flat piece of steel on the right. He made one lap in practice, then headed back to the garage. His crew wondered why.

"What's the matter?" they asked. "That's the fastest that thing's ever went."

"I almost fell out of the window. I can't hold myself in this car," LaJoie said.

LaJoie ended up grabbing the belt from his pants, plus another from a crew member. He wrapped them around the roll cage and his chest to secure himself snugly, if not safely, into the car for the rest of practice.

"The effort you put out to hold yourself in a race car with a rib-protected seat is immense," LaJoie said. "Your upper body is so heavy. That's the biggest advantage of a containment seat, is that you work less to hold yourself in a race car."

The theory

Marketed to virtually every level of stock cars and open-wheel cars, LaJoie's seats are based on the theory of containment, beginning with the shoulders and pelvis. Ribs are the approximate size of a finger and easily breakable. The shoulder and pelvis are much stronger, and they're supported in a crash by a seat like the ones built by The Joie of Seating.

Two more important parts are a restraint device, such as the HANS, and a headrest that is part of the seat itself, not one that's attached to the roll cage. The roll cage can move in an accident, and if the headrest is dislodged while the rest of the seat remains in place, bad things can happen.

"If you keep your head, your chest and your pelvis in line when you hit something, you're going to have a whole lot better chance of walking away," he said.

Beginning in 2011, seats for NASCAR's three national touring divisions had to be certified by the SFI Foundation. That was a game changer.

"The safety cells for the drivers limited their movability," LaJoie said. "Drivers do not move anymore. There's no documentation anywhere in the world that says a driver who did not move got hurt. Every time a driver gets hurt, it's because he moved. There are people in this industry today who still tell you that the driver has to move, and they're building seats for people. That's just not right."