October 10, 2018
By Larry Mason www.carsandcompetition.com
Copyright © 2018 Larry Mason
If you’re sitting down reading this right now, how comfortable is the seat you’re on? How much did it cost? Was it designed exclusively for you? Would it protect you in the event of a sudden deceleration? Chances are, unless you’re sitting in a race car right now with a seat that has been formed around your body, the answers to all of the questions above are “so-so, less than $1,000, No and No.” Most mere mortals get along fine every day in any seat they sit in, however when it comes time to answer the demands of racing an Indy car, only the best will do. Here’s how seats are made and why it’s so important.
The process is time consuming, expensive and extremely critical for driver comfort, performance and safety. When the word comfort is mentioned, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can fall asleep in it. It’s more to the fact that there aren’t any protrusions that can cause discomfort or injury. Performance has to do with the fact that it places as large a surface area of the driver’s body in contact with the seat. It needs to be as form-fitting and as light as possible so that the driver can just focus on going fast. The old saying of feeling what the car is doing “by the seat of your pants” is quite relevant for a driver as they need to feel the yaw rate of the car to be able to apply proper steering, throttle and brake inputs. The more surface area the driver has with the seat, the more he (or she) can feel what’s going on underneath them. George Klotz is the team director at AJ Foyt Racing and he described the seat making process this way. “We fly a guy in who’s a specialist in making seats. We get the driver in the car and make sure that all his pedals, steering wheel and cockpit are where he wants it.” Most Verizon IndyCar Series teams use a seat kit from a company located near Indianapolis. The kit itself is only about $300.
“It’s a bag that’s about three feet by six feet long filled with little Styrofoam pellets. You take that and put it in the car, make sure that he’s kind of comfortable and they’ve got the beads where they want them. Then they lay it out on the floor, spread it out all evenly again. Then they fill it with epoxy and then they knead it like bread to make sure that all of the beads are covered. Put it back in the car and get the driver in there and then start moving around and moving the beads around to get everything right. It’s critical that we get the helmet within the legal limit. We try to get them as high as we can You can only get them within seven inches between the top of their helmet and the top of the roll hoop.” They like to get the drivers as high as possible so it’s easier for them to see. Aerodynamically, there’s not a lot of difference between a driver sitting lower or higher. Furthermore, they can sometimes use ballast to lower the center of gravity. “Make sure he’s dead centered with the centerline of the car. Once that’s all done and everyone’s happy the driver will sit there for about a half hour to an hour to let everything cure for a little bit.” There’s also a vacuum pump that’s been connected to the bag to remove excessive air and to make sure that the beads hold their shape with the bag. “Then we lift him straight out of the car and make sure he doesn’t disturb anything with the seat. Let it sit overnight – you come in the next morning and everything’s hard. You get him back in the car and make sure everything’s okay and out he comes. Then it’s trimmed inside the car so we can actually get it out of the car.”
“Once it’s trimmed then we put gaffer’s tape over the top of it. The driver will typically run it for a couple of races to make sure he’s comfortable with it. Then we’ll send the seat out to a company that will digitize the seat.” At this point they’ll get one made out of lighter foam and they’ll save about three pounds doing that. “That’s a much more expensive process, probably double the cost, but to save three pounds it’s worth it. The driver ends up with two seats – a spare and a primary. The digitized seat ends up getting covered with Nomex® cloth.”
There are two different companies involved with making the two seats. “The original seat is just over $2000 and the digitized seat is just over $5000. It has better quality foam which is better for impact resistance and so on. It’s not only lighter, it’s safer. When drivers switch teams we all help each other out. Ganassi sent us their seats. We even traded steering wheels with Carlos Munoz and Takuma Sato. We’re just trying to help each other out and reduce costs.”
So there you have it. Don’t feel bad that your seat didn’t cost $5,000 and was custom made for you in a process that ended up taking days on end to produce, is fire resistant, and can help reduce the likelihood of an injury in case you smack the SAFER barrier at over 200mph. Just relax and know that the drivers who need it, have it!
Photos by Larry Mason