Containment seats are the norm instead of the exception in most forms of racing these days. In the areas where they’re not, many people believe they should be.
In layman’s terms, a containment seat is a purpose-built, custom-fit seat that wraps around a driver’s body to keep it from moving in the case of an accident. It has a high back to offer added protection to the head, neck and back in an effort to cut down on head and spinal-cord injuries.
Most containment seats are made of aluminum. Some are made of carbon fiber, and others are a combination of carbon fiber and some other compound, such as Kevlar. Most include significant padding to offer additional protection and aid in the user’s comfort.
Brian Butler of ButlerBuilt Professional Systems explained it in more technical terms: “Essentially, a proper full containment-seat has very robust additions that provide enhanced lateral support for the head and shoulders and provides a means to maintain essential vertical alignment of the spine. These additions also provide a platform to integrate proper densities and grades of foam to enhance ride-down effects of high speed/high-G impacts.”
We asked several manufacturers of containment seats, like Butler, to explain how containment seats came to be, what the current market is like, and what the future holds for this safety product.
How were containment seats developed?
Randy LaJoie, Joie of Seating: “My first recollection of a containment seat was a seat that my father purchased from Mark Donohue in 1972. It offered some shoulder and head containment. When I started driving in 1979, that’s what I used, but I didn’t see a lot of other people using that style of seat. Very few other seat manufacturers offered it as an option.
“It started getting more popular in the late 90s. Around 1994 through 1996, Tom Gideon from Chevy and Steve Peterson from NASCAR put some cameras in cars and saw how much movement drivers had during a wreck during tests with dummies. They tested one of my seats and showed me the video, and it almost made me sick to my stomach because I realized that could be me. I had bent seats worse than their dummies did.
“They said: ‘Your seat does very well compared to the others,’ but I realized I needed to make my seats stronger.
“Then I was in an accident and we figured that during that crash I hit something with my knee that was 18 inches away. I had to have a knee operation. So I was the crash-test dummy that time. That started my big push to figure out how to make seats stronger and to protect drivers better.
“After Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. passed away, NASCAR spent a lot of money looking into it too. If he had been using a containment seat and had a head-and-neck restraint and his belts were properly located 16 years ago, the outcome would have probably been much different.
“It boggles my mind that some people still race without a containment seat and a head-and neck-restraint today. They’ll spend $1,500 for a full body wrap of the car, but they won’t spend $1,000 to save their life. But their car looked really cool when it hit the wall. You have to protect the racer from himself.”
Brian Butler, ButlerBuilt: “I consider myself to be anacute observer of the sport of auto racing. As a seat designer and manufacturer, we try to keep aware of any emerging trends that may appear when looking at auto racing injuries or deaths. Certainly, head injuries and related affected areas are our main concern and history shows that this, by far, presents the greatest likelihood of catastrophic injury in auto racing. ButlerBuilt has been at the forefront of modern full-containment seating design in the entire industry.
“It has been widely accepted that Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 was the catalyst for creating an immediate need for more advanced seat development. But, we actually were ahead of the curve in that regard. The year 2000 deaths of Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty and Tony Roper as a result of much the same type of head injury had set the wheels in motion for us at ButlerBuilt, knowing that immediate action was necessary to decrease the likelihood of these events reoccurring.
“NASCAR Cup driver Jeff Burton shared our thoughts on a course of action and we joined forces to create a solution to this deadly chain of events. So very few people know that we actually had two full-containment seats in that very Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt was lost. We did not wait for Earnhardt’s death to start taking action. We were already on our way to learning how to implement this technology to the sport.
“A little known factoid is that we actually started to prototype some very basic designs for full-containment seating way back in 1989, as these injuries have been a part of auto racing in general for generations. The sad part of this quick history lesson is that there was no interest in what we had shown to many high-level racers and was prophetically ahead of its time.”
Steve Kirkey, Kirkey Racing Fabrication: “A true containment seat has been around for at least 10 years. At first it was hard to get racers to go toward that due to the additional cost. We used to offer additions to seats, but it never gave the structure needed in a very violent crash. Now containment seats have been very popular for about the last six years. Racers are getting more educated that if you’re in a crash, you don’t want your body to move and flex.
“Containment seats are much stronger than older seats. Previous seats were just very basic; there was nothing to hold you into the race car in an abrupt crash. It contains your body from moving forward during a crash.
“The first couple of years there was some resistance by some racers who were worried about losing some visibility by going to a containment seat, but not anymore. They realize that you have to give up a little bit of vision for better safety. We make an adjustable containment seat though, and if it’s adjusted properly that’s not an issue.”
Josh Bass, Ultra Shield Race Products: “Containment seats are a direct answer to people needing better protection from accidents. We’ve been offering them since 2002 or ’03.
“Previous seats held the hips and the ribs, but they didn’t support the head and the neck. Containment seats are a direct result of the racing industry trying to solve the problem of head and severe spinal injuries.”