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Friday, August 31, 2012

Stock Car Safety Checklist

If auto racing was not dangerous, anyone could do it....and you and I probably would not bother.

The mindset of a race car driver is he/she is indestructible or the bad accident will always happen to another driver. There is nothing wrong with that thought process. Slinging a 3000 pound car, at 90 m.p.h., into a turn, with 20 other wolves gunning for your piece of real estate, is not for the mild mannered and meek! Unfortunately, the reality of our sport is injuries and fatal accidents do occur on race tracks every week. While it is impossible to prevent the inevitable, race car drivers can take many steps to reduce this risk, before getting on the track.
With the 2012 race season in full swing, many drivers will purchase, replace or upgrade their personal safety equipment. Typically, this equipment is sought out once the everything else is just about track ready, so the obvious place to start the safety checklist would be the race car.
Climb into the cockpit and inspect for sharp edges. Very nasty wounds can occur when body parts contact sharp pieces of metal, especially during impact. Usually, a grinder, body hammer and 10 minutes of your time will correct any potential problems.
While in the seat, put your helmet on and have a crew member measure the clearance between your head and the top of the roll cage. If your helmet is above, at or near the top of the halo bars, then, you are essentially the roll cage. Consider lowering the seat, contacting your chassis builder or put your fabrication skills to work by extending the height of the roll cage.
Also while in the seat, with seat belts fastened, extend your arms, legs and head to all points of the cockpit, then add 8 inches to all points. Any roll cage tubes which you could come into contact, should be padded. There is 2 types of padding available, standard and premium. The standard is definitely better than a bare tube, the downside of the standard padding is it will melt and drip when exposed to fire. The premium padding, will actually feel very hard, but it is more effective at cushioning impacts. The premium padding also has some resistance to melting if exposed to flame. Longacre Racing Products makes an excellent door bar pad. Install a few snap rivets and you can cover all the door bars in one shot.
The shifter can be a potential problem spot. At the least, zip tie some padding around the gear shift and consider a fire resistant boot, as that is a common area for flame to enter the cockpit in the event of a blown engine or transmission.
Another easy inspection and fix, is the firewall. Pop rivet or weld sheet metal over any holes on the firewall. Many racers use GE clear silicone to seal seams or grometts that wiring or cables pass through. Keep in mind, most silicones will not accept paints.
Inspect or install 1 or more drive shaft hoops. Some horrible injuries have been administered by broken driveshafts entering the cockpit.
If you use an on board fire extinguishing system, check the gauge to verify it has a full charge. If you are using a standard fire extinguisher, consider a full system. With the system, you can route a nozzle to the engine, fuel cell and driver and just 1 pull will activate. The main bottle can be mounted behind the drivers seat or other areas of the race car which may need some additional weight for chassis tuning.
Check the seat mounting. There are a number of methods for correctly mounting the racing seat. The incorrect method is bolting the seat to the floor pan. Most late model chassis builders have engineered their mounting points into the chassis. Street Stock type cars want to make sure their seat is mounted to the roll cage structure. Use at least 2 attachment points, the first at the bottom of the seat and the second point at the seat back. It is now becoming common to attach the seat at the lower back as well. Bolt the seat to the structure with multiple, rounded, Grade 8 hardware and use some sort of locking on the nuts to make sure they do not loosen. Large, thick washers will help prevent the bolts from pulling through the aluminum seat.
Finally, inspect your harness system. All SFI approved systems are dated and many sanctioning bodies mandate 2 years max for a usable lifespan. If you notice any fraying of the belts, replace. Complete new harness systems can be purchased for around $70.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Stock Car Racing Seat Installation

Racing Seat Installation can be a fairly simple process, as long as the installer possesses the skills and equipment necessary. If you have any doubts regarding the installation of a racing seat, take your seat and car to a reputable fabricator and have them do the work. Remember, if the seat mounts fail during a racing impact, the results could be catastrophic.

The different disciplines of auto racing all have their own unique ways of mounting the racing seat. Due to the volume and severity of crashes in Oval track racing, their methods are typically the strongest, but may be difficult to apply to Road Race or Drag Race applications.

The first step for mounting a racing seat is, obviously, it's location. With the seat and driver in the car, determine the height from the floorboard, distance back from steering wheel and pedals, incline (around 10 degree to 20 degree) and the centering location. Some racers will even skew their seat from level or square depending on the type of racing (dirt or asphalt).

Circle Track racers have traditionally mounted the seat to the roll cage structure in some fashion. Street stock type race cars will have a "hoop" that runs along the floor boards and attaches to the door bar structure and the main cage. The theory is if there is an extreme driver's door impact, the seat will move with the door bar structure, possibly preventing the cage from collapsing into the driver. Pre-fabricated seat "hoops" are available for purchase or they can be quickly fabricated with the proper shop tools. The floor board "hoop" will provide a bolting surface for the bottom of the race seat. The next attachment should be the seat back, at approximately shoulder blade height. This attachment is connected to the horizontal bar that supports the main roll cage hoop. Many racers are now using a third attachment point on the lower back section of the seat for even more precaution.

Factory or shop built "jig" racing chassis should have all the seat mounts built into the structure. Although, it is not uncommon to have to slightly modify to suit a certain seat installation. Typically, this involves extending or shortening the mount lengths. Make sure the fabrication and welding skills of the person performing the modifications are top notch, as the drivers safety is at stake. If your chassis builder is local, they will be very familiar with the proper techniques and positioning of your racing seat.

Never, bolt any circle track race seat directly to the floorboards. The metal on the floorboards is not thick enough to properly sustain the g-forces applied in an accident. Street stock type race cars can be 20 to 40 years old and the floorboard structure can be even weaker than when factory new.

All attachment points of the racing seat should use a minimum of 2 (3 or 4 is better) bolts. So that means, at absolute minimum, there should be 2 bolts on the seat bottom and 2 bolts on the seat back. Fabricators who care about their customers, will use Grade 8 bolts and nuts to complete the connection. Verify that some sort of locking hardware or thread compound is used to prevent the nuts from loosening. Make sure to check the bolt tightness before every race. Use wide, thick washers to back up the bolt and prevent the hardware from pulling through the aluminum race seat during impact. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Aluminum Racing Seat Materials

The materials used in the construction of the aluminum race seat have to serve multiple purposes. They have to be as light of weight as possible while being strong enough to survive high G-forces encountered in competition driving and the inevitable crashes that happen. The physics of crashing a race car tells us that a driver's weight can effectively double during impact and obviously, the race seat has to be strong enough to support the load. As racers, we certainly want to be safe, but we also look for every advantage to be found in order to remain competitive. Adding unnessary weight to any race car is a disadvantage, so the seat needs to be as light on the scale as possible, without sacrificing strength.

The majority of aluminum racing seats use .100" 5052 Grade Aluminum as the primary material. Obviously, this thickness of aluminum is a good combination of strength and weight. The aluminum gains even more rigidity when it is bent into the various sections which will ultimately form the seat. The fabricators will commonly use .125" aluminum when constructing the head and shoulder supports. A combination of both the .100" and the .125" can be used for additional thickness in other critical areas to increase the strength. Depending on the seat builder and the seat model, either an aluminum or rubber "U", will fit over any raw edges of aluminum. The aluminum "U" can provide some additional strength, while the rubber "U" will just provide protection against cuts in the seat pad or the actual user.  Once all the various pieces are cut and bent to fit the factory jig, a welder will use TIG to finish the final product. Proper TIG welding techniques will yield a result that resembles rows of quarters leaning on top of the next.

All aluminum race seats come with an upholstered cover or the option to purchase the cover separately. A DOT approved fabric or a Naugahyde type material are the 2 main seat cover options among the various manufacturers.  Usually, the only racers who will not use the cover are a handful of dirt oval competitors. Typically, the covers have built in foam attached to the seat bottom to add some comfort. The covers are attached to the seat with preinstalled snap rivets. The covers can be easily removed for cleaning or replacement. Standard aluminum race seats have covers of 1 or 2 pieces. Full containment race seats have covers of up to 8 pieces. Full containment race seats also have a higher impact foam attached to the headrests for increased protection. Most race seat manufacturers will provide the high impact foam on all padded sections upon customer request.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Aluminum Race Seat Manufacturers

If you are in the market for an aluminum race seat for your race car, there are plenty of styles and options, but only a handful of manufacturers.

Ultra Shield, Kirkey, ButlerBuilt, Joie of Seating and Richardson are the predominate fabricators. All 5 build seats for Oval Track Racing. Ultra Shield and Kirkey have a Road Race selection. Ultra Shield and Kirkey have drag race seats for most drag applications. ButlerBuilt has seats for the upper divisions of Drag Racing.

Oval Track Racers have dozens of choices to suit their type of racing and their budget. Ultra Shield and Kirkey offer a standard entry level seat that is well built, but basic. The latest trend is installing a full containment race seat. Ultra Shield and Kirkey also have entry level full containment seats that are very popular and used in just about every short track division from street stock type cars, Legend cars, to full blown late models. All 5 seat builders have a deluxe line of full containment models that are in the one thousand dollar range. Racers in Nascar's national divisions are required to use an SFI tested racing seat that can provide adequate protection on the superspeedways. The SFI seats are extremely expensive, so expect only a few short track racers to use them as they will not be mandated.

Kirkey has a few standard models for Road Race use. Ultra Shield has the largest selection of aluminum Road Race seats, from their Spec Miata and Rally Sport models to a line a full containment Road Race seats. All are very well built and relatively easy to install. These seats are most prevalent in road race cars that retain some semblance of their original factory origins.

Kirkey and Ultra Shield also have aluminum seats for Drag Racing. The seats are designed to support the driver and not interfere with their gear shift techniques.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Aluminum Race Seats

Unlike a decade or so ago, most of today's race cars have a purpose built race seat installed. The majority of these seats are constructed from aluminum or a molded composite material.

Virtually every Oval Track racer uses an aluminum race seat. From the dustiest, dimly lit, quarter mile oval, to the Cup racers on a Sunday afternoon, factory built aluminum seats are the preferred choice. A handful of the Cup teams have begun using seats of carbon fiber. Extremely lightweight and strong, but the carbon fiber seats are incredibly expensive, so it is doubtful their use will ever filter down to the regional and local level racers. Some entry level stock car divisions will still permit passenger car or plastic seats and probably a few fiberglass seats from the 70's and 80's are still being used. With the improved technology and relatively affordable cost of an aluminum race seat, passenger car, plastic or fiberglass seats should never be used for racing competition in 2012.

Road Race cars, particularly the closed cockpit divisions, are probably evenly split on their preference to use an aluminum or composite race seat. Many of the composite seats are FIA tested and approved, whereas, the aluminum seats are not. Although, the aluminum seats are not FIA approved, they are permitted by all the U.S. and Canadian road race sanctioning bodies (check your rulebook for your classification). A slight curve ball has been thrown by SCCA, NASA and others, as they have begun to require back braces on seats. The aluminum seats accept the back brace with no problem, but there is much debate as to whether the composite seats should be drilled and bolted to a back brace. In general, the composite seats have more padding installed, so they can be slightly more comfortable. The aluminum seats are available in a wider range of sizes and can be half the cost of the composite.

Aluminum race seats have seen increasing popularity in Drag Racing. From Top Fuel to Sportsman, many of the same manufacturers whose seats were concentrated in the oval track market, have been fabricating specialized seats for drag racing. Some aluminum seats are less than $200, so if you are using a molded plastic seat, safer, affordable options are available. Keep in mind, entry level drag race divisions are probably running speeds approaching 100 mph, your safety should be a priority.

In upcoming articles, more detail will be offered on construction, options, mounting and more!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Snell Helmet Certifications for the Racer

The Snell Foundation was established to conduct tests and establish guidelines on helmets. If you compete in any type of motorsports, your track and/or sanctioning body probably specify that you use a "Snell" approved helmet.

We are mainly concerned with 2 types of Snell classifications, the "M" and the "SA". The "M" helmets are designed for motorcycle safety. The "SA" or "Sports Application" helmets are designed for auto racing safety.

Some forms of auto racing will permit an "M" helmet. Some "M" rated helmets look similar to and are usually half the cost of an "SA" model, so why spend the extra money?

1) SA Helmets have to pass a flammability test, so the interior liners and the chin strap are constructed from fire retardant materials. The lining material and chin strap in an M helmet can ignite when exposed to flame.
2) SA Helmets have to pass a roll bar impact test. This ensures the helmet is capable of spreading the impact on a roll bar over a wider load, hopefully, reducing the chance of injury.  
3) On full face helmets, the face shield must pass a flame resistance test. The shield must self extinguish when flame is removed and the shield must also withstand a "burn through" time period.
4) The face shield has to have a positive lock down to help prevent accidental opening.

A new Snell classification is the "SAH" or the SAH2010. These are approved SA2010 helmets with the M6 sized threads installed and tested with a head and neck restraint. Only the top echelons of auto racing require the SAH helmet certification. The standard SA2010 helmet can be used with a head and neck restraint and many are predrilled for this purpose.

There is also a "K" classification. The "K" helmets are for kart racers and they have to pass all impact tests, but no flammability tests. "K" helmets may or may not contain flame retardant liners and chin strap, but the Snell Foundation does not conduct testing to verify.  

Racing Suit Certifications

We receive quite a few technical questions from racers regarding Racing Suits. While not overly complicated, it can be confusing when the time comes to purchase. There are multiple specifications, materials and price points to choose from. Hopefully, this brief summary will provide the racer with some good information.

Racing Suits, Race Suits or Fire Suits, worn by drivers in the USA and Canada are typically certified by the SFI Foundation. The SFI Foundation conducts stringent, random testing on race suits that are submitted by the manufacturers. Any garment that advertises itself as an auto racing suit and does not have the SFI patch attached, has not passed the testing needed to meet SFI specifications.
Once you have identified that the Race Suit displays the SFI patch, there are certain levels of rated protection.

• The first level is classified as SFI 3.2A/1 or also referred to as SFI-1. These are usually single layer suits constructed from a Fire Retardant Cotton (FRC) material or Nomex. When exposed to a direct flame or direct radiant heat source, SFI-1 racing suits will protect the user for approximately 3 seconds before 2nd degree blistering of the skin will occur. SFI-1 Race Suits are probably the most popular level worn by race drivers and are legal for most forms of auto racing (check your rulebook!).

• The second level is SFI 3.2A/3. Race Suits in this category are not widely produced and many of these suits, simply were not able to pass the testing for the next level, which is SFI 3.2A/5.

• SFI 3.2A/5 or SFI-5 Race Suits are worn by the broadest range of drivers. From IndyCar, Sprint Cup and NHRA to the local ovals, road courses and drag strips. Also constructed from a Fire Retardant Cotton (FRC) material or Nomex, consisting of 2 to 3 layers. The suits made from FRC can be half the cost of a suit made from Nomex, yet still have the same protection values. Although, the FRC suits do tend to be slightly heavier than the Nomex. When exposed to a direct flame or direct radiant heat source, SFI-5 race suits will protect the user for approximately 10 seconds before 2nd degree blistering of the skin will occur.

• SFI 3.2A/15 and SFI 3.2A/20 Race Suits are used almost exclusively by pro Drag Racers. These are the ultimate in flame and heat protection, but are usually too bulky and heavy for other forms of auto racing. Unlike the other levels, SFI-15 and SFI-20 Race Suits need to be re-certified every 5 years. Drag racing sanctioning bodies have complex rulebooks, based on multiple factors, which determine the SFI certification value a driver must wear. Make sure you verify your gear is legal before you arrive at the track.

Obviously, this is just a general overview of Racing Suit Specifications. Hopefully, I have simplified some of the terminology to make your gear purchase easier. Feel free to respond to this blog and consider checking out some of our Racing Suit selections, at