How To Make Your Cockpit Safer Today

We’ve got to admit, NASCAR stars of today are a little pampered. Don’t misunderstand us, racing is extremely dangerous. But if you ask the stars of years past they will tell you the true stories of how dangerous racing was. They raced with open-faced helmets, no headrests, and barely any seat-belts. But this is also the reason why so many stars passed away from racing.

Racing is a truly dangerous sport, but don’t think just because your not reaching the speeds of the Cup guys that you don’t have to be concerned with safety. Racing at your local short track is as dangerous as racing a Cup race at Bristol. Jerry Nadeau’s career ending accident is a perfect example. It didn’t happen at a Daytona or Talladega, but rather at the short track in Richmond. He suffered a skull fracture, concussion, and several broken ribs. He’s living proof that you don’t have to reach extreme speeds to be injured in a accident.

But dirt track racers are not immune to these types of injuries either, Shane Hmiel’s accident should act as a reminder to all of us on just how quickly things can happen at a local track.

The point is your local dirt track is as dangerous. The Cup series has instituted a lot of safety regulations to make things safer for the drivers. One area has been the cockpit of the cars, most noticeably the seat. Over the past 15 years the look of the seats have changed drastically. As with any rule change at the top form of racing, the ripple effects can be seen in the lower divisions of racing. But safety stretches further than that; a seat has to be mounted properly in the cockpit of a racecar to protect the driver like it should. If the seat is not mounted properly in your dirt car then the belts may not be mounted properly either. The goal of this article is to help you identify how to mount the seat and belts properly to help make the cockpit of your racecar as safe as possible.

If you don’t believe that you need to be concerned with your safety check out how violent dirt track racing can be:

Choosing The Right Seat

Choosing the right seat is crucial to your safety

So what seat is right for you? The majority of seat manufactures will build custom seats, everyone from ISP, Butler, and Kirkey to name a few. You will pay a little more for this, but having a seat that is customized for your body and for your car, is without a doubt your safest and best option.  “I could have 2 drivers that are both 6’1, weigh the same, and they could need two different sized seats, ” says Gary Plattenberger of Butler Built seats. “One could have a larger torso then the next, while the other could have longer legs.”

Everyone of the manufactures listed here have information on their websites that show how to measure someone correctly to get a custom seat designed for a driver. Each of them stressed letting a representative from the company measure you or your driver based on the fact that they have done it so many times and know exactly how to do it correctly.

The headrest is extremely important also, the cup teams use elaborate (and huge) headrests, but the dirt teams will usually use a smaller headrest that allows them to see a greater view out of the right and left side of the cars. Whether the headrest is big or small, it must be a somewhat tight fit within the headrest while you are wearing your helmet. You need a headrest that has just enough room for you to move your head but if it has to much room, your head will have more room to travel during an accident before it impacts the headrest.

Should I purchase a used seat?

Now the question comes up all the time, should you purchase a used seat? Purchasing a used seat can seem like a great way to save money. But, there are so many variables that everyone of the manufactures suggested not doing it, although they did admit that it happens a lot. The reason it’s frowned upon is, that there are so many unknown variables when it comes to used seats.

We understand that times are tight, and people will still purchase used seats. But no matter how well you know the person selling it, you should always look at three areas: rib cage, hips, and lower back. You want to make for certain that the seat is a tight fit around these three areas. Especially the lower back, your lower back should be flush against the seat. If it is not, then every time you hit a rut or a bump your back will flex and not to mention how much it will move during an accident. So if you are looking at a used seat, first check out what a custom seat will cost. It will always be a better choice!

What do you do if  you don’t have the money to purchase a brand new custom seat, but don’t want to purchase a used seat that was designed for someone else? Manufacturers like Kirkey and the Joie of Seating offer manufactured seats that are not considered custom, but are still extremely safe and are utilized by many dirt track racers. However, both Kirkey and Joie of Seating, like Butler and ISP, also build custom seats.

Correct Installation

when attaching the shoulder braces you need to have your driver in the seat and have him turn the wheel all the way to the left and right before you attach the shoulder braces

Regardless of which seat you choose, if the seat isn’t installed correctly it won’t matter how safe the seat is advertised to be. While there is some debate among the manufactures about small issues like where to weld on the seat or where not to, the experts did give us basically a checklist of things to ensure you install the seat correctly.

  • Mount to the frame or chassis –  not the floor pan!
  • Give yourself time to install it correctly.
  • Widen out the load on the seat, by spacing each bolt mounted as wide as possible.
  • Mount the seat in three spots: Legs, lower back, and near the shoulders.
  • Never be afraid to call the manufacture for advice.

There is some debate between seat manufactures on whether or not welding the shoulder braces to the seat is harmful to the seat or not. Some manufactures believe that by TIG welding the shoulder braces to the back of the seat that you are actually weakening the seat in those areas that you are welding on. So instead they use grade 8 bolts to attach the shoulder braces to the back of the seat. “We don’t weld to the shoulder braces to the back of the seat because we’ve found it weakens the aluminum on the back of the seat,” Said Kris Vangilder of ISP Seats. “Instead we use four grade eight bolts, or button-heads to attach the shoulder braces. This will also give you the option to move it if you ever need to. That would be extremely hard to do if you’ve welded them on.”

Which ever way you decide to attach the shoulder braces, have the seat in the car at the time and have the driver turn the wheel all the way to the left and all the way to the right to get a range of how far your arms are going to move. Have somebody hold the shoulder braces against the back of the seat and mark the seat like the picture above where the shoulder braces need to be based on the driver. That will help ensure that the placement is correct and that the driver is safe.

This is the wrong way of mounting the back of the seat, notice how there is only two bolts and a small bracket holding the back of the seat to the frame

Next you need to attach the seat to solid mounting points. But first you need to have the driver in the seat and have them get comfortable with the angle of the seat. Some drivers prefer to have more angle in the seat so that the bottom of their thighs are being held up by the seat. This is more difficult for sprint car drivers because their seat is built to be straight. When you mount the seat in the car it is extremely crucial to the driver’s safety that the base of the seat is mounted to the chassis in three different points. One at the top of the seat near the driver’s shoulders, another at the base of the seat near the driver’s lower back, and then finally one upfront under the driver’s legs. This will give the base of the seat three solid mounting points.

Spread the load

No matter what dirt car you are racing, you need to have three mounting points for the seat. “We like to see three bolts across each mounting point, but you need at least two,” said Plattenberger. “If you only have one bolt, the seat will just pivot on that bolt during an accident.”

The experts all advised that teams and drivers use more than just two mounting points. By only using two it can be extremely dangerous during a hard impact, the seat will try to bow during an accident if there is only two mounting points. “The most common problems we see during mounting are teams not spreading the load across the seat, by mounting the bolts to close together.” explained Plattenburg. ” And the other issue is not using quality hardware for installation.”

Plattenburg suggested instead of using standard hardware store bolts, to use either grade-8 bolts or hex-key button heads. “We also stress to mount the seat with hardened washers, not flat body washers,” expressed Plattenburg. “Standard body washers might be big and round, but you can bend them with two pliers. Drivers really need to use quality hardware products to ensure their safety.”

No matter what type of car you drive, you need to have three mounting points from the seat that attach to the chassis. One near the shoulders, one near the lower back, and one underneath the legs.

Like Plattenburg said, on each mounting point make for certain that you spread the load when you drill through the back of the seat, some manufactures recommended teams use up to four bolts when drilling through the back of the seat near the shoulders. This will make it tougher for the seat to bend or bow during an accident.


More then just one article could be devoted to driver’s safety, but this story’s goal is to help teams realize that safety has to be the first concern when it comes to racing. I’ll never forget a crew chief that use to help my race team who noticed at a test that I wasn’t using my HANS, he stuck his head in my car and said, “Have you never heard of Kenny Irwin, or Adam Petty? (both of which were tragically killed during testing) Go get your HANS or we’re not testing!” Safety has to be the first concern, not finding a tenth on the track, not outrunning the competition, or having fun. Keeping your driver, and the others on the track safe has to be the first concern. We race because we love it, but racing is an extreme sport. It can be extremely dangerous, so make for certain that you head these warnings and make your cockpit as safe as possible.


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About the author

John Gibson

John has been around dirt track racing his entire life. In fact, he was almost born at Monett Speedway in Monett, Missouri. He has raced everything on dirt and asphalt from karts, to Indy cars, to 650 horsepower stock cars in the USAR Pro Cup where he currently races.
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