Ipart II:/I The Safety Capsule

The future of NASCAR Winston Cup seats is here. Well, almost. It’ll be here soon. Maybe.

PPI Motorsports, with help from Jack Roush, Jeff Burton, Ford and others is working on a composite-material race seat, one similar to those used in CART or Indy cars. The prototype seat is made of ultra-strong, ultra-light carbon fiber.

The seat is completely rigid, meaning if a driver is wearing a head-and-neck restraint system with the proper seat belts, his body won’t move. That’s exactly what Winston Cup cars need, some believe. Others, however, wonder about its price, wonder if an Indy-car seat will work in a Winston Cup car.

Like it or not – and aluminum seatmakers like Brian Butler and Randy LaJoie don’t – the composite seat is coming.

The idea behind the composite seat began sometime last year when Ford held a meeting with its drivers and crew chiefs about safety issues. PPI’s driver at the time, Scott Pruett, and its technical director, Mark McCardell, both attended. Both have open-wheel backgrounds, and both wondered how to improve Winston Cup seats.

Soon, Burton – whom Butler called the “kingpin” of safety issues in Winston Cup – got involved, and the idea picked up steam. The initial prototype, interestingly, was loosely based on one of Butler’s aluminum seats.

But building a seat out of carbon fiber or any other composite material is difficult. You can’t throw some carbon fiber in a mold and make a seat. Reynard Cars – an open-wheel car maker based in England – was commissioned to do the carbon-fiber work.

The first prototype was finished in April, and various tests were performed on it. The team changed it and built a second prototype, and PPI is pouring over data from recent sled tests to figure out whether to build a third prototype.

“It’s really a great seat as far as safety,” PPI crew chief Mike Beam said. “It’s going to be a good seat once certain things are worked out… It looks kind of like part of a tub in an Indy car. Once people see it, they’re going to be really impressed with it.”

“(Team owner) Cal (Wells) is just trying to make it safer for every driver. Some teams don’t have the resources to develop that. He decided to do that, whatever expense it was, for our two athletes we have here.”

But why carbon fiber? Isn’t aluminum good enough?

“Carbon fiber has structural advantages over aluminum along with weight advantages over aluminum,” said Greg Speck, the North America Operations Manager of Ford Racing Technology. “In order to get the structural performance out of aluminum, it gets to be very bulky and very heavy.”

Speck said the carbon fiber seat was more like a “half a cocoon.” The seat is built in three pieces and extends down to the driver’s shins.

“There are points within the body that are able to withstand G-forces much more than other parts of the body,” Speck said. “The shoulder and the pelvis are two areas that can absorb much more energy than, for example, the ribcage. This seat was designed to take advantage of that and to make sure those parts of the body that can withstand the higher G-forces are where the body will absorb those loads.”

The extra length should create a footbox effect, saving ankle injuries that have occurred recently. Mike Skinner broke his left ankle in a crash at Chicago, and among Dale Earnhardt’s numerous injuries was a broken left ankle.

“What you’ll see in crashes is drivers’ knees and legs and feet get bounced around a lot if they’re not contained within a given space,” Speck said. “You get a lot of knee injuries and foot injuries. This seat provides containment for the legs so they’re not flailing around there during a crash.”

Another innovation, one used in Indy cars, is the foam-bead system used as padding and energy absorption. Polystyrene balls are poured into a bag around the bottom and back of the seat. The driver settles in so the bag – much like a bean bag – forms around his body. The seat is then vacuum sealed, baked and cured, and the liner perfectly conforms to the contours of a driver’s body.

“In the event of a crash, there’s no movement of the body within the seat,” Speck said.

The seat was shown privately to Winston Cup drivers at a test in Indianapolis last month, and the drivers raved about it.

“It’s a fantastic piece,” Todd Bodine said. “It’s exactly what’s needed. The design, the engineering – everything about it is what is needed and what should be.”

The prototype is carbon fiber, but Speck said other high-tech materials like aluminum honeycomb could be used.

The next question is, “When?” There’s no easy answer. It might be easier to get approval from NASCAR – which currently outlaws composite materials – than figure out when it will be ready.

“It’s hard to predict. You can’t really put a date on it,” Speck said. “It’s so dependent on how the testing goes. Then, you start talking about a production model. How do you get the costs down to reasonable amounts? That gets into tooling and production methods and so on and so forth.”

And it gets frustrating to drivers like Burton, who wants the best piece out there – right now.

“I’m not even going to put a time frame on it,” Burton said. “I thought when we started the composite thing, we’d be in composite seats by now. That was a ridiculous belief because it takes more effort and more time than I realized.

“I’m frustrated by how long it takes because I want an immediate fix. I’m not frustrated by the effort. It just takes a long time.”

And a lot of money. Some have estimated the cost of a carbon-fiber seat around $6,000. Compare that to Burton’s ButlerBuilt seat, which cost under $900, and to $1,350, which is what you’ll pay for one of LaJoie’s “The Joie of Seating” seat.

“The prototypes are more expensive,” Speck said. “We have to get that cost down to something that most racers can afford. That’s really our objective. We want to come up with something that everybody can afford.”

Now, not everyone can.

“I can’t ask my car owner to go out and spend $50,000 on seats,” Bodine said. “We can get a LaJoie seat that works just as good for not even a quarter of the money.”

Of course, PPI is not in the seat-building business, and getting production going is sure to affect cost, as well.

“Very, very expensive,” Butler said. “Prohibitively expensive. It’s going to be an issue. There’s no question cost is going to be an issue. As far as making it a commercially viable alternative, it’s going to be a problem.”

That’s not the only problem aluminum seatmakers have with it.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how the PPI seat does (in testing),” Butler said. “I have some serious questions about how it’s going to do in all the instances we’ll see.”

Butler has said his current aluminum seat – with proper shoulder and head restraints – tests very well. Like NASCAR, Butler isn’t convinced his 20 years of experience building aluminum seats is suddenly useless because of a composite seat.

“We don’t need Indy car people coming over here and telling us how this works,” Butler said. “We have testing now to prove where we stand. We’ve always claimed that we felt we had a pretty good grip on driver retention. But certainly head injury was the main concern here. I really have a problem with the ‘armchair engineers’ of the world who think we have to re-do the whole interior of the cars, meaning everything is junk all of a sudden and it’s got to look like an Indy car.”

Yes, Butler admits, there has been a problem with head injuries and basal-skull fractures. But with the HANS and Hutchens devices and subtle changes to his seat, Butler is convinced those problems are solved.

“When they injure a driver, they injure him big,” Butler said of open-wheel racing. “I can’t remember any time that we have paralyzed a race car driver. I can’t tell you when I’ve heard of any other internal injuries that could be life-threatening. They sure have them over there.

“I have a real problem with the armchair engineers telling us that everything we’ve done for 20 years is all of a sudden wrong.”

Chipp Jackson, marketing manager for Autliv, one of the world’s leading test centers for automotive interests, agrees.

“You’ve got a lot of the experts out there saying, ‘The F1 cockpit is… ’ or ‘the open-wheel cockpit is…’ ” Jackson said. “The problem is theses guys aren’t in an open-wheel car.”

A composite seat works well in an Indy car, LaJoie said, but it sits in an enclosed compartment. The PPI seat will have to be bolted, via a metal sandwich plate, inside a Winston Cup car.

“They are very skeptical of composites because of the shear points, the breaking points, the shatter points,” LaJoie said. “We’re not in a tub like Indy-car guys. We’re sitting in a seat that’s bolted into a car. What happens around the bolts? Is that carbon going to break? Is it going to shear? They don’t know.”

Butler also questions the advantage of a completely rigid seat. He said the initial design of the PPI seat was to have a minimum of 2 inches of foam and as much as 4 inches in some places.

“That’s cool. Oh, it works,” Butler said. “The problem is it’s very difficult to operate the car.”

Speck disputed Butler’s figures.

“It’s not even that much,” Speck said. “It’s thinner than that. It’s just to take up the little curvature of each individual’s body so they’ve got a perfect fit. There’s no relative motion of the body in the seat.”

Butler did raise an interesting point, however, If the seat doesn’t move and the foam absorbs energy, the driver won’t be able to feel the car.

“The rigid structure certainly has merit,” Butler said. “I would be the biggest fool in the industry if I said that that was bad. But my problem is you still have to have the ability for the driver to operate the car properly. Those type of structures take a little bit of that user-friendliness away.”

Butler’s seat doesn’t use super-thick foam. Instead, his seats absorb energy with designed-in flex.

“No. 1, you can feel the car,” Butler said. “You know the old saying: ‘the seat-of-the-pants’ feel? Well, it is still alive and well. That is not a cliché. … It is for real in these kind of cars.

“He’s going to need all that foam and all these little isolations because he’s going to wreck a lot. It really and truly it has come to that.”

But Speck and Bodine doubt there will be any loss of feel in a composite seat.

“I haven’t heard any of that yet,” Speck said. “Obviously, it’s not as deformable as aluminum. It will have a different feel to it. I don’t think there’s going to be an issue with that.”

Said Bodine: “When you’re sitting in our seats in our cars, they feel rigid. There’s no movement at all. It’s not going to have any effect at all.”

Even if Bodine and Speck are right, we won’t know for some time.

Meanwhile, many Cup drivers are trying to figure out how to make their aluminum seat as safe as possible. Through testing, it has been learned that strong shoulder supports, in conjunction with not-quite-as-strong rib supports, are what works best. Of course, a driver needs a head-and-neck restraint system, experts agree.

Finally, there needs to be lateral head supports, too.

“By adding things that bolt to the seat and to the car itself, we’ve been able to create an environment that’s much more similar to an IndyCar or an F1 car,” Burton said. “The drivers’ heads have less opportunity for movement. We’ve been able to make those advancements.”

Burton’s car has a state-of-the-art head support system, with a strong aluminum piece bolted to the seat and car. It’s bigger than most, and Burton has even cut a small opening in it so he can see out the right side of his car.

“Jeff was one of the key guys in this thing,” Speck said. “What Jeff did is, seeing what the engineers were coming up with for the carbon fiber seat, he went back and incorporated some of that into his current seat by tying off some supports back into the rollcage of the car in order to restrain his head from side-to-side movement.”

In early testing of seats at Autoliv, Jackson said they were “well above” the Head Injury Criteria used to determine severity of head injuries. But Jackson also said the latest test of Burton’s Butler seat with his current head restraint system is “well below” the acceptable criteria.

“With some of the modifications that Brian put in, it came out extremely well,” Jackson said.

But there’s more to be done, Jackson said. For one, headrests need some type of foam or gel on them to absorb the shock of rebound blows.

“Everybody talks about the whipping motion,” Jackson said. “There’s also the rebound. When an occupant starts coming backwards, he’s got to stop somewhere else. You’ve got the problem of coming forward and stopping, and your head doesn’t. Then you’ve got the issue of coming back and hitting your head on one of the bars behind you.

“A lot of the headrest systems in place today aren’t very adequate.”

Many headrests are used only for fatigue, but in a 35 mph crash, Jackson said your head weighs 1,000 pounds. A small piece of aluminum isn’t going to help, especially in a lateral hit.

“If you can move it with your bare hand, you’re not stopping anything in a wreck,” Jackson said. “It just becomes a piece of aluminum foil at that point.”

Oh, and there’s one more thing. Jackson said his company has learned that in 30-degree crashes, the head can sometimes move past the headrest and hit the back of it on rebound. Autoliv worked on a strong net that is attached from near the dashbord back to the back of the seat.

The net, the stronger head supports, the proper shoulder and rib supports, the head-and-neck restraints – they’re all pieces to the seat puzzle. LaJoie, Butler and Steve Richardson of Richardson Racing Products are all working to make their seats better. And PPI’s seat may be the best of all.

Jackson wouldn’t say which seat tested the best, saying each seat gets better when the manufacturers make the adjustments Autoliv wants. But Jackson, intentional or not, mentioned Butler’s latest version several times.

“It’s really hard for me to say that Butlers are better than Richardsons or LaJoies because it was an evolution,” Jackson said. “We went in with Butler and went over some of the things we learned, some ideas we suspected would help. Some of the seats he tested got more favorable numbers than some of the tests we had done for passenger cars.

“Most all of the cases, the Butler prototypes performed remarkable well.”

Jackson was quick to point out that LaJoie and Richardson are doing the same kind of modifications.

“We’re getting into the good numbers right now,” Jackson said. “It’s just basically by changing some locations, putting in rib supports, putting in heavier-duty headrests.”

Simple things can make a big difference.

But as NASCAR insisted at Tuesday’s press conference detailing its investigation into Dale Earnhardt’s death, safety is left up to the drivers. And some drivers, or so it seems, don’t really care.

“What form of sport, any sport, anywhere in the world, is the athlete exposed to this much potential violence and wears so little protection?” Butler said. “I want to know what that sport is. That is a major stumbling block with these drivers. They want all of the safety issues, but they don’t want to do what’s necessary to protect themselves.”

As Butler and others are learning, there are things than can be done to seats, to the cockpits of race cars to make them safer.

Yes, there are different ideas as to what makes a good seat, and what accessories to use. But that doesn’t have to be an excuse not to have the best safety paraphernalia.

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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