News & Media

LaJoie sees short-track safety as next priority

December 08, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Driver-turned-seat maker sold on NASCAR's specs for its three national series

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of most violent accidents in recent memory occurred at Watkins Glen International this past summer, when David Ragan and David Reutimann slammed hard into the guardrail on the race's final lap, with Reutimann's car flipping wildly down the track.

Two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie watched with more than a passing interest, since Reutimann uses one of the racing seats LaJoie designed and built.

Wear and tear

The aging nylon tethers used to hold SAFER barriers in place may need to be replaced soon, according to the man who developed it.

"When they climb out, that's a good thing," LaJoie said. "It made me feel good. And it tells you that NASCAR's doing their job. That car absorbed energy, the seat, the belt system, the people that put that car together, everything worked. They need to be commended because the kid walked out of there."

* Video: Watch the crash | Safety features lauded

LaJoie was part of a panel discussion on racing seat safety Wednesday during the International Motorsports Industry Show safety and technical conference at the Indianapolis Conference Center.

NASCAR approved new seat specifications for its three national series this season, a move that LaJoie said sets a much higher bar for driver protection.

"The system around the driver allows for less movement, whether that's belt placement, stronger seats, shoulder support or head support," LaJoie said. "The system for containing a driver is just totally different."

The key, according to LaJoie, is limiting the amount of movement a driver experiences during a crash.

"You want your head, your chest and your pelvis -- if it does move -- to move together, the same amount," LaJoie said. "I've been always taught not to move at all. There is no data that has seen somebody who did not move get really hurt bad. So positioning matters. The less you move, the better you're going to be."

After retiring from driving full time, LaJoie has spent the past 15 years trying to improve a key component in the race car: the racing seat. He admitted it took some time before his company, The Joie of Seating, finally hit on a product he felt was worthy.

"I worked from 1995 to 2000 on getting the seat company going," LaJoie said. "And I would bend a lot of them in the process. Since 2001, when I went with the roll cage, guardrail-type shoulder that's a very, very strong structure, I've been there. And that's what I've been trying to get across.

"I've helped the industry, I do believe. The old square-style seats weren't strong. It's hard to get a square edge strong. That's why my seats are all round."

LaJoie said having a good seat is just a single part of the entire safety equation.

"If your body is strapped into a vehicle, you've got to strap your head to it," LaJoie said. "Head and neck restraints, you've got to have them. These devices work. My neck would be a whole lot better off today if I had wore one earlier in my career."

And now the focus has turned to the idea of "cocooning," or providing full-body protection, including trying to find a way to protect a driver's lower extremities in the event of a crash.

"If you flip over, there's nothing holding your feet to the floorboards," LaJoie said. "They flop around and you could break something or get a puncture. So the more you get your extremities not to move, the better. It's perfect when you don't hit anything, but racers have a tendency to hit stuff."

NASCAR's focus on safety since 2001 is exemplary, LaJoie said. Now it's critical to make sure the weekend racers get the message.

"The guys on Sunday and the upper tiers -- between the seat systems and the SAFER barriers -- we haven't hurt anybody in 10 years," LaJoie said. "So they need to be commended. The top three series have got it figured out.

"I think the biggest thing now is the short tracks, getting a good seat system at all levels. This needs to bleed down to the short-track market. This needs to bleed down to the NASCAR Home Tracks, the mom-and-pop dirt tracks, the asphalt tracks."

Even though he'd have liked to have seen the new specifications made mandatory several years ago, LaJoie knows that future drivers will benefit from the advances in safety that he and other seat designers have made.

"It's a spec that [insures] my sons -- and hopefully their sons -- are going to be safer because of this."