One area that new participants in track days and HPDE often overlook is that of the importance of being properly secured inside the car. There are two reasons that a proper racing seat should be at the top of your list, ahead of items like cold air intakes, data loggers, and performance exhaust.
First is safety. An OEM seat is designed to provide safety in normal drive conditions. In a track environment, the stresses on the seat are much higher. The track that slides the seat back and forth can give way in an impact as can the seat-back recline mechanism. Should either of these fail, it seriously compromises your safety.
The second is performance. If you’re hanging out for dear life to stay in the seat lap after lap, you’re not at your best. What you’ll find yourself doing is compromising your performance just to stay in the seat. And if you think a harness will help you’re only partially correct. Certainly they do a better job securing you inside the vehicle, but because of the configuration of the OEM seat, the belts typically aren’t at the proper angles both for security and safety. And you also haven’t eliminated the problems with OEM seats mentioned above.
What we’ve done here is rather than give you a list of rules to follow is to take a real-world track day and autocross driver who is done with fighting to keep himself secure in his OEM seat and wants to move up to a proper racing seat. This real-world example, using a popular car and a high-quality but not-too-expensive seat should assist you in making this important upgrade.
Meet Our Test Subject
After a few track days, Ivan Korda knew how badly he needed a new seat. The bruises on his knees and the unusual post-session fatigue were indicators that something wasn’t quite right. The Miata was never known for its ergonomics, but a track day in any production car shouldn’t feel like torture. The factory seat—on sliders, no less—simply didn’t provide the support needed for regular autocross and track day sessions.
“In every single corner, I’m sliding and holding myself in the seat to try to control the inputs. Under heavy braking, it’s even worse—I’m sliding forward so much that sometimes I can’t heel-toe to rev-match accurately. To stabilize myself in the corners, I am pushing so hard into the door structure that I’m bending it with my knee,” he complained.
Finding a Fit
Without carpets, air conditioning, airbags, or even much glass, Korda’s Miata was a single-purpose pony. A Track Dog harness bar, coilovers, aluminum rack bushings, and several cooling modifications further pushed it in that direction. Now Korda trailers the car to the track, and without having to compromise over street legality or suppleness over pockmarked city streets, he’s been able to focusing entirely on improving the suspension and the car’s safety.
Unfortunately, Korda isn’t exactly the driver Mazda had in mind when shaping the NB Miata’s cramped cabin. At 6’2″ and 210 pounds, Ivan barely squeezes into the Miata, and his helmeted head grazes the hardtop when he sits in the factory seat. He’s also relatively long-torsoed, so he knew he needed a concave seat bottom and posterior pad which would prevent him from sitting too high. To safely shoehorn himself into the Miata’s cockpit, he needed help from someone experienced.
Rather than guess at which seat would best suit his needs, he took his case to Brian Oleshak of Racetech USA. With Oleshak’s advice, Korda was able to move into a racing seat tailored for his dimensions and his aims. As he came to find, there’s a lot to consider and it’s critical that one needs to pay close attention to these matters, and that it needs to fit the user perfectly. “It’s like buying a pair of running shoes,” Oleshak began.
Right for the Circumstances
Having someone of Oleshak’s caliber on hand is invaluable in taking Korda’s requests into consideration and formulate some basic criteria to consider when searching for the appropriate seat. When the two talked, Oleshak started asking simple questions and came to a certain conclusion within minutes.
“It’s best to consider purpose of car when starting. Will it be used primarily for drag racing, road racing, track days, off-road racing, or what?” he began. “For example, a dedicated track car will see very limited street use—maybe once a month—or none at all. If it’s a dedicated track car, it’s best to focus on a competition-oriented, non-reclining, fixed-back seat.”
In fact, a fixed-back seat was one of Korda’s several requirements, since the safety, weight savings, and support were necessary for his intentions. “The plan for the next couple years is time trials, but you never know what will happen further down the road,” Korda added with a chuckle.
People’s aims can change quickly, as Korda alluded to. Therefore, it was worth considering the future; the possibility of greater things begged the question “does one really need FIA homologated seat for track days?”
The answer is no, but it is worth considering an FIA homologated seat if the driver plans on moving up to club racing in the future with current vehicle. It can also help in a resale situation if the buyer is considering moving into club racing.
In this case, the two decided against a seat with head restraints (also known as a halo-style seat), since Korda didn’t picture much wheel-to-door contact in the immediate future. Not exactly something you exactly look forward to expectantly, but it’s always good to plan ahead.
There are some other ways in which forethought comes in useful when selecting the right seat; several situations need to be pictured. For instance, when envisioning a seat in a car’s cabin, one must consider how hard will it be to get out of in the event of an accident. Also, one must try to picture the ergonomics a seat will offer. As long as the driver is in a comfortable relationship to the wheels and the pedals, and the transmission tunnel doesn’t interfere with mounting the seat securely, a proper race seat should work well within the confines of that cabin.
Fitting the driver properly requires a few more considerations. Obviously, one should be looking for snug fitment on the hips, rib cage/kidney area, and mid-back, but it gets a little more complicated with Korda’s torso. “It’s better to be a little tighter and snug in a seat than it is to be loose. Ivan realized that with the factory seat more than he initially realized. If you are broad-shouldered, but have a smaller waist, it’s best to get the larger seat and have your upper torso and back fit properly into the upper half of the seat. Then, if you are loose in the hips and waist, add-on cushions or a poured insert can be added to improve fitment,” Oleshak elaborates.
This is critical, since getting the right fitment in a seat is what’s needed to focus completely and feel everything that the car is doing. “If a driver is too tight or too loose in a seat, the distraction will increase lap times. Better comfort means better focus on the track,” Oleshak confirmed.
Finding that happy medium between too tight and too loose is understandably tricky, so we’ve provided a few practical tips for when getting fitted. “It’s critical to have the basic measurements,” Oleshak began. “Know the driver’s weight, waist size, inseam, torso length, and shoulder width.”
After using those measurements to determine a seat, a test fit is necessary. There are some things to consider when test fitting a seat.
- Do not sit too high in the seat, because it can compromise upper torso and shoulder protection.
- Do not sit too high in the seat to avoid the risk of having the shoulder harness rub the top of the inner seat harness guide, and could result in belt material binding. This is covered in greater detail here.
- One should test fit seats with a helmet on.
- When seated, it’s important to check peripheral vision. Some lack of side vision is normal on a seat with head restraints. With those big dog ears obscuring some peripheral vision, good situational awareness depends more on the correct placement of the mirrors, not swiveling of the head.
Deciding on a Seat
With the majority of the decision making done, they were able to filter the possible seats down to just two, and the last few questions revolved mainly around pricing. The FIA-approved RT4119 and the more affordable Racetech RT4100 were both eye-catching and safe, but differed in a few notable ways. Both are fiberglass (though the RT4119 can be ordered in carbon), and both are available in multiple sizes. However, the former is nearly twice the price, and for Korda’s purposes, bordering on overkill.
It didn’t take long to decide. The RT4100 offers most of the features and performance of the pricier RT4119, thanks to a more efficient production process at Racetech. It suits Korda’s frame; the thinner seat cushion, concave seat bottom, and the large harness slots cater to his longer torso. The RT4100’s sweat-wicking Spacer fabric will help Korda keep his cool and his concentration; he lives in humid Tennessee and has plenty of opportunities to perspire. It also offers seatback mounting to the rollcage/harness bar, which ensures even greater safety and stability. The icing on the cake is, at just 17.6 pounds, the RT4100 will shed some weight from the Miata’s already lightweight frame. With a car so light and so focused, this ought to make a world of difference.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we’ll run through the installation process and learn what needs to be done to mount a seat securely.