It's scary to think that 50 years ago people were driving around without seatbelts. What's even scarier is it wasn't until the 1960s when safety belts finally began to find their way into OE vehicles. Along with the introduction of the seatbelt into the mainstream, quality seats were also introduced. The idea of ergonomic seats and safety restraints caught on quickly, and before long, companies like Recaro were being contracted to produce seats for the likes of Porsche.
The racing world followed a similar trend to the OE manufacturers. It was also in the 1960s that people began to realize race drivers needn't die on the track before the age of 25. Although some would like to believe the driving force for safer seats and harnesses in racing was the desire to save lives-as was the case with street cars-equally on everyone's minds was the fact that seats and harnesses would help drivers maintain control of their vehicles.
When a driver is strapped firmly into a car, he no longer needs to concern himself with staying in place and can thus concentrate on the race at hand. The main flaw of most factory OE seats is that they allow the driver to slide across the surface a little-as is more pronounced with leather or vinyl seats. During hard cornering, the driver should be consumed with maintaining vehicle control, and vehicle control is harder to sustain when the driver is fighting to not slide across the seat.
In the 1970s, the seat industry really began to take off. Recaro, which was one of the first aftermarket seat companies to get its seats as OE in a manufactured car, continued its luck getting contracts with such companies as VW, Audi, and Aston Martin. Sparco, manufacturer of quality safety suits, moved into the seat manufacturing world and proceeded to obtain contracts producing performance seats for additional vehicle manufacturers.
The demand for quality seats didn't just stay on the track, either. Pretty soon, enthusiasts were drawing the connection between a safer seat and winning-and the fact that the seats looked good were an added bonus. Consumers began calling up seat manufacturers, and before anyone knew it, a performance car was not a true performance car without a driving seat and harness system.
As time has progressed, and automotive tuning has grown to incomprehensible levels, the demand for safety seats and harnesses has grown dramatically, and this growth has created an immense choice for the consumer. Anyone can now purchase anything from a mega-bucks FIA approved carbon Kevlar fixed competition seat with a six-point, cam lock racing harness, to an affordable reclining fiberglass/plastic seat with a four-point, snap-in-locking system. With so many choices now available, the question is, which seat and harness combo is right for you?
Seat BasicsThese days, especially with the eruption of The Fast and the Furious, everyone seems to have a seat available. Anyone can mold some plastic and metal into a seat-like shape, slap some pillows on it, and call it a seat; the trick is, finding a seat that's not only affordable, but also safe.
The main choice you have while purchasing a seat is whether to buy fixed or reclining seats. Fixed seats are what race cars use, as they offer the most lateral support and protection, and since they have no moving parts, chances of a seat failure are slim to none. Also, fixed seats usually have the capacity to accommodate a five- or six-point safety harness.
If your main application is street or light track use, a reclining seat may fit your purposes better. Reclining seats usually offer adjustable backs, a reduce weight, and increased levels of lateral support over stock. Reclining seats usually also house slots for safety harnesses, but for the most part don't offer a spot allowing for the installation of a submarine belt. In an impact, reclining seats will not protect as well as a fixed seat, but the protection supplied is usually better than what stock seats offer.
Fixed seats are generally made out of one or a handful of materials (called shells) with reclining seats built around some kind of tubular steel frame and covered in supportive foam. Aluminum, polyethylene, fiberglass, carbon Kevlar, and carbon fiber make up the bulk of the seat shell materials. Of those, aluminum is usually a hardcore race seat, the likes of which looks more like a torture device than a race seat. Polyethylene is a light material that is cheap and easy to pump into the form of a seat. Polyethylene seats are usually low-back seats, offering little-to-no head support, and they don't really look that great. If you're looking for a light seat, polyethylene is a good choice, but the seat will not offer much support or lateral crash protection.
That leaves fiberglass, carbon Kevlar, and carbon fiber. These materials, or a combination of them, sometimes mixed in with a little plastic, are what make up the bulk of the modern day, performance shells. Fiberglass shells comprise fiberglass sandwiched with plastics, resulting in a supportive, safe, attractive, and affordable shell. A carbon
Kevlar shell has the capacity to protect more than a fiberglass-based shell, and also weighs less. The downside to carbon Kevlar shells, however, is they're fairly expensive. Carbon-fiber shells, however, are the mega-dollar items. A true carbon-fiber shell will cost upwards of $2-grand. Carbon fiber is usually used in professional race applications due to the cost, but if you're really into safety, you may want to hunt down a carbon-fiber seat from Cobra, Recaro, Sparco, or OMP, a few of the only mainstream seat manufacturers who produce such high-end shells.
Most reclining seats are built with a tubular steel frame with no fiberglass, carbon-fiber, or carbon Kevlar shell around the steel tubing. These seats are designed for street or light track use, not hardcore race applications. Generally speaking, most of these seats offer more support than a factory seat, and are usually safer than the OE seats they're intended to replace. Purchasing a reclining seat is definitely a good option, especially if your vehicle is being built for street or light track usage. Other major advantages of a reclining seat are that they look great, they keep the driver comfortable, and they're affordable.
The decision between a fixed and reclining seat comes down to the application of the vehicle. If the car is predominantly a road-going vehicle with little to no track usage, then a reclining seat is the way to go. If the vehicle is going to see a lot of track time, or possibly even limited door-to-door track time, then a fixed seat is definitely a consideration. If the vehicle is exclusively a track car, however, there is no doubt a high-quality, fixed racing shell should be utilized.
Harness BasicsSimply put, a harness is an overly elaborate seatbelt connected to a vehicle at multiple points. Aside from saving lives, a good harness will firmly hold the driver in place, allowing him/her to concentrate on driving and not worrying about being thrown around inside the car.
There are many choices when it comes to safety harnesses. Anywhere from three- to six-point harnesses can be attached using any one of three basic tie-down methods. In addition to the tie-downs and the number of points, harnesses also vary in thickness and length. Fortunately, if you know your vehicle and application, all those decisions are pretty much made for you.
If you're building a dedicated race car, there will be little need to remove the belts from the car, so a more permanent tie-down system can be utilized. If, however, your vehicle will mainly be used on public roads and you plan to retain the factory-supplied belts, you should consider a snap-in system, or a bolt-in system that utilizes factory seatbelt mounting points.
The number of places the belt system connects to the car decides the number of "points" a belt has. If you're building a race car, you'll want to install a five- or six-point harness system. If you're building a car that will log considerable track time, but is still driven on the street, a four-or five-point harness will do. If you're simply looking for a harness to hold you into place at autocross events or the periodic track event, a three-point system will be more than adequate.
There is also a selection of locking mechanisms a harness system can employ. The three most common are cam-lock, latch-lock, and click-in mechanisms. The cam-lock is what most race cars use. One of the advantages of a cam-lock system is it can release all the belts quickly if the need arises. A latch system generally consists of sliding all the belts onto a latch-type locking mechanism, consisting of a single metal stick, and then the latch is locked closed. The final locking system is a click-in system. The click-in lock is almost exactly like the method your factory seatbelt system uses. A click-in locking harness is the only locking system that is limited to three- or four-point harness systems.
There is a lot that goes into selecting the correct set of belts-rightly so, considering harnesses are your lifeline. When you order your safety harness, let the dealer know your specific application and he/she should be able to tell you which belts are right for you and your racing requirements.