SEAT & HARNESS BUYING GUIDE
In most production cars, the factory seats can leave much to be desired. In anything short of an all-out supercar, the seats typically sit high and have very mild, if any, bolstering. If you make a habit of cornering hard, whether it be on the track or on the street, they are unlikely to hold you in place. You’ll have to resort to holding yourself still by force, or else slip and slide across your seat. Not only is this unpleasant: it’s downright dangerous. Another downside to factory seats is that most of them are not designed to accommodate race harnesses. The factory 3 point seatbelt is great for mobility, convenience, and ease of use, but won’t hold you in place during hard cornering or rollover accidents. If you plan to compete or even just engage in some spirited driving, a harness is a must, especially if you are using or plan to use an aftermarket racing seat. Together, the right seat and harness can greatly improve your driving experience and, more importantly, keep you safe.
Unfortunately, picking the “right” seats and harnesses can be a bit confusing. There are limitless options available, and for the average enthusiast they can be overwhelming. But take heart! We’ve written this guide to help navigate you through the process of choosing a seat and harness setup. Just follow the guide step by step, and you’ll be cradled in the comfort and security of the perfect setup in no time!
Finding Your Purpose
No, I’m not talking about finding your calling in life. I’m talking about something even more important: deciding what your car will be used for. This is absolutely crucial to your and your car’s future. Will it be your dedicated track car? A daily driver you take for the occasional spirited canyon run on the weekends? Will it serve both purposes—grocery getter by day, and track car by night (or… later on in the day)? Or do you plan to fix it up as a show car? Determining your vehicle’s use or function will limit your range of options and therefore narrow down your choices. Because your live options between these functions—track, street, dual-duty, and show—can sometimes be mutually exclusive, it is of utmost importance that you be honest with yourself here. Are you really going to drive your car only on the track or only on the street? If so, be sure of yourself. Because once you set up your car for one, you may not be able to drive on the other.
The ideal setup for a dedicated track car is a full roll cage with FIA-approved fixed-back bucket seats, five- or six-point harnesses, a helmet, and a HANS device. With this setup you won’t need your airbags or stock seatbelts anymore; in fact, they could do more harm than good, so it’s best to disable or remove them. Although you can deviate from the ideal setup to some extent, keep in mind that each deviation you make is a compromise, so you should strive to stay as faithful to it as possible. If you’re looking for some wiggle room there are four acceptable changes you can make: reclinable seats (in place of bucket seats), 4 point ASM (anti-submarining) harnesses (instead of 5 or 6), a roll bar (in place of the full cage), and if you want, leave out the HANS device. The most important guidelines to remember are: (1) always wear your helmet when inside a roll cage, and (2) never install a racing harness without a roll cage/roll bar. The harness should always be used with a roll cage or roll bar.
The gentleman on the right is doing it right; if you look closely you can see bars passing over his head, which means this car is caged, so no driving it without a helmet. He is also fully strapped in inside a proper, FIA homologated bucket seat with either a 5 point or 6 point harness. Finally, if you look underneath the shoulder belts you can see that he’s also wearing a HANS device. This guy is all set to go!
When it comes to driving on public streets, nothing beats factory safety equipment. But sometimes safety isn’t the only concern you have. Style, comfort, and stability are important too. If you’re looking to improve on your factory seats in these respects, aftermarket racing seats could do the trick. Just make sure you retain the stock 3-point factory seatbelt; racing harnesses should only be used alongside roll bars or roll cages. Also keep in mind that, if your factory seats have built-in airbags, replacing them will in effect remove those airbags.
The biggest and most noticeable difference between a dedicated track car and a car setup for dual duty is the roll cage. A car driven on the street at all can never have a roll cage. This is because, if you’re driving on public streets, wearing a helmet is illegal. And because you can’t wear a helmet, it’s extremely dangerous to drive inside a roll cage (just imagine smacking your head against a steel tube at 80 mph). The next best thing for the track is a roll bar; it’s basically half a cage positioned completely behind the driver, with the main hoop crossing the ceiling behind the driver’s head (as usual), but without any pipes positioned near the A-pillar (or near the sides of the driver’s head). As long as the roll bar is padded and positioned far enough away behind the driver’s head, it can be used on the street.
The next most notable difference between a track-only setup a dual-duty setup is the harness. Only factory 3-point seatbelts and DOT approved 4-point ASM harnesses are legal for street use. 5 and 6 point harnesses are dangerous to use without a roll bar/roll cage, so they are not street legal. You can still install them, though, as long as you don’t use them on the street.
When it comes to seats, though, sky’s the limit! Reclinable, fixed-bucket, or even stock seats can be used both on the street and on the track. Just make sure that, if you plan to use them with a harness, they are compatible with it.
A good example of a dual-duty setup can be found in the photo on the left. The car has a racing harness in place, but the factory 3 point belt is left intact for street use. There is a roll bar installed, but it is tucked back, with plenty of space between it and the back of the seats. In this case roll bar padding is not necessary, but it would be ideal. Not just any padding will do either. Make sure you get SFI-rated padding.
With a dedicated show car, pretty much anything goes. We recommend a harness bar and any type of racing harness to get that race-inspired look without the associated cost of a functional cage and seat setup. However, if you plan to use your show car on the track or on public streets, keep in mind that you will need consider the factors mentioned in the previous sections.
Ideally, anyone in the market for racing equipment would purchase and install everything simultaneously to ensure that everything works together. Unfortunately, for most people, buying seats, harnesses, helmets, and other safety equipment all at once is not an option. Most would rather purchase these parts in steps. If you’re part of this crowd, take heart! You are in good hands. Just follow the steps below to ensure that each purchase you make will move you closer to a safe and enjoyable track experience.
STEP 1: Seats
Among the racing equipment you’ll need for your ride, the first thing you should consider buying is seats. This is because, in many cases, aftermarket seats can be installed without requiring simultaneous installation of other parts. Your factory safety equipment, including seatbelts and airbags (except for the ones built into your seats) will remain functional. However, picking a racing seat can be tricky. In addition to the use of your vehicle, there are a variety of other factors you must consider in order to find the right seat for you.
Fixed-Back or Reclinable?
Aftermarket (i.e. not OEM or factory) seats fall under two categories: reclinable seats and non-reclinable seats, also known as fixed or fixed-back bucket seats. The most salient difference between them is—you guessed it—the former reclines while the latter doesn’t. But that’s not the only difference. Other important differences are variations in support, weight, harness compatibility, and safety ratings.
Fixed bucket seats are, in general, more supportive than reclinable seats. They typically come with large and aggressive bolsters that provide an unparalleled amount of support, keeping you locked in place during the hardest of cornering. This makes fixed bucket seats ideal for track use. Some even come with full head restraints, which have “arms” that support your head from the sides. Reclinable seats, on the other hand, are better suited for street use. You can choose your back rest angle on the fly for the most comfortable seating position or lay the seat down completely for a quick nap. The subtle, mild bolsters allow for much more movement when seated, making reaching for radio controls and getting in and out of the car much easier, while still providing significantly more support than most factory seats.
Fixed bucket seats are also more commonly built with accommodations for racing harnesses; if you plan to install a 5 or 6 point harness, you’ll need two holes behind your shoulders and one between your legs to allow for the belts to slip through. Although some reclining seats come equipped with these features, they don’t always, so keep that in mind.
Finally, only fixed bucket seats (but not all fixed bucket seats) come with FIA ratings. FIA is an organization that performs safety tests on racing equipment. If a seat is FIA homologated (approved), that means it has passed FIA’s safety tests and is safe to use on the track. The only FIA homologated seats (at the moment) are fixed bucket seats. Some interpret this as a sign that they are the only seats durable enough for racing, while others argue that this is because there is no market for FIA-approved reclinable seats. What’s not under dispute, however, is the fact that fixed bucket seats are more durable than reclinable seats. Because they don’t have any moving parts and are usually made with single-piece composite shells or tubular steel frames, they are less likely to break. Some governing bodies require seats used in their events to be FIA homologated, so if you plan to take your car to the track, double check to make sure you meet your local requirements.
Reclinable seats are a great compromise and are often the best solution for those with dual-purpose vehicles. Fixed bucket seats are for the hardcore racer and offer no-compromise performance.
How a seat fits is probably the most important factor to consider when choosing a seat. Obviously a seat will only be useful to you if it fits you comfortably. Because height, weight, and physique vary wildly, most manufacturers publish at least some of the dimensions of their seats so you can get an idea of how it’ll fit you.
The first dimension to consider is width. Most seats will have a specified range of waist sizes that they can accommodate. Make sure that you fall within this range; the closer you are to the middle of the range, the better. Next, check the seat height to see how the shoulder bolsters line up with your shoulders. The holes for the shoulder straps should sit right at the top of your shoulders. If you install a racing harness on a seat whose shoulder strap holes sit below the top of your shoulders, your spine will be compressed during an accident which could paralyze or kill you. Next, consider the width of the shoulder bolsters. Although there is a strong correlation between waist and shoulder width, this can vary from seat to seat; one seat may fit your waist well but be too narrow for your shoulders, or vice-versa, while others might be perfect in both respects.
In the end the very best thing that you can do is sit in as many seats as possible and see what you like. Pictures help, but they are rarely a substitute for the real thing.
Cloth or Leather?
Although there are other options out there, most aftermarket racing seats come wrapped in either cloth or leather. A variety of materials fall underneath the “cloth” category including cotton, polyester, suede, jacquard fabric, alcantara, and more. “Leather” can refer to—well, leather of course—as well as leather-like materials such as vinyl or leatherette. The advantage of leather is that it is easy to clean and maintain and looks great. The downside is that it gets hot easily, which can get uncomfortable. It is also a fairly slippery material, which means that in a motorsports environment they will allow the driver to slide around significantly more than one would in a cloth seat. As you can imagine, sweat can exacerbate the problem even more. Conversely, cloth seats, although a bit more difficult to clean, are much better suited for track use due to their excellent friction. Cloth is also more thermally stable, keeping you cooler throughout your drive. Some seats are made of breathable cloth, making them even better suited for the track enthusiast. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds keep an eye out for seats made of both fabrics: cloth for crucial parts of the seat that make contact with the driver (especially the shoulder bolsters), and leather for the rest.
Composite, Steel, or Aluminum?
Another factor you’ll need to consider before choosing your seats is the material the shell or frame is made of. Perhaps the most popular type is the composite shell, which refers to materials like fiberglass, kevlar or carbon fiber. The main advantage of these seats is weight. Composite seats are extremely light, especially real carbon fiber seats (most “carbon fiber” seats are actually fiberglass shells wrapped in a thin layer of carbon fiber). Composite seats also tend to be the most comfortable, because they can be shaped and contoured more cheaply and easily than steel or aluminum. The main disadvantage of composite seats is lack of durability and longevity. Although high quality composite seats are difficult to crack, once they do crack all it takes is a minor crash for them to fail spectacularly. Because of this you should mind the manufacturing date posted on a composite seat, especially if you buy used. This is even more important if you’re purchasing an FIA homologated seat.
Tubular steel seats, on the other hand, are more dependable. Steel doesn’t fatigue over time, at least not at the rate that composite does. It is also cheap to work with, making them among the most affordable FIA homologated seats out there. However, because the seats are formed from tubes of steel, they are much stiffer, but tend to be less comfortable than composite seats. Steel seats tend to be flatter at sections where a rounder, more form-fitting shape is preferred, like underneath the buttocks or around the back. Also, cushioning can only do so much; most drivers can feel the shape of the tubing underneath parts of the seat, like the bolsters. Finally, steel seats are also significantly heavier than their fiberglass counterparts. If you are building an all-out race car where every ounce matters, a steel seat may not be right for you.
Aluminum seats are much less common than composite and steel seats. In terms of comfort and construction they are similar to steel seats: flat, rigid, and sturdy. They differ, however, in a number of ways: first, because they are designed for serious track enthusiasts, they come with far less cushioning (sometimes, none at all). To offset this, though, they are offered with many size and dimension options including width, height, and seat back angle. Aluminum seats are a bit lighter than steel seats, but are not quite as light as composite seats. Also, in addition to the mounting at the bottom of the seats they must also be mounted at the back. This means retaining the sliding adjustment in your vehicle would not be possible. For these reasons aluminum seats are best suited for dedicated track cars.
Safety Equipment Compatibility
To get the most out of your aftermarket seats on the track you’ll need additional safety equipment: at minimum you need a helmet, but adding a roll bar or roll cage, racing harnesses, and a HANS device is a good idea. If you do decide to add these items to your setup, you need to make sure your seat is compatible with them. To use any harness you’ll need a seat with holes above the shoulders to allow the shoulder straps to pass through. Make sure the holes are wide enough to allow your straps to pass through without folding. For a 5 or 6 point harness you’ll also need a seat with an “anti-sub” hole in between the driver’s legs. To use a HANS device you’ll need adequate clearance between your head and the seat’s headrest. A seat with head bolsters (“arms” that wrap around your helmet) would work best. However, these features may not be ideal for use on the street, so keep that in mind.
STEP 2: Helmet
If you’re planning to take your car to the track, you’ll need a helmet. This is one item that’s not negotiable. In fact, a helmet is even more important than aftermarket seats since it’s essential for your safety no matter what the rest of your setup consists of. Just make sure that the helmet you get is rated for multiple impacts (i.e. NOT a motorcycle helmet). The most widely recognized rating for racing is done by the organization “Snell.” Any Snell-certified helmet will have a sticker on the inside back of the helmet that says SAXXXX, where “XXXX” is the year the helmet was certified. The rating is good for 12 years, so the SA2010 helmet pictured on the right, for example, is good until 2022.
STEP 3: Harness and Roll Cage/Roll Bar
Racing Harness Basics
Unlike the factory seat belt, which is one belt attached to your vehicle at three locations, a race harness has multiple belts that wrap around your body, meeting at your lower torso. They are similar to the sort of safety belts used to hold passengers in place in rollercoasters. In addition to the “lap belt” that wraps around your waist, 4 point racing harnesses have belts that drape over each shoulder; 5 point harnesses have one more belt that wraps around the groin, and 6 point harnesses have two (one for each leg). Like fixed bucket seats, some harnesses come with safety ratings from FIA and, another racing organization, SFI. FIA-approved harnesses are sanctioned for track use for five years, while their SFI-approved counterparts are good for two.
4, 5, or 6 point?
A 5 or 6 point harness, on the other hand, provides a greater level of protection and is a must for dedicated track cars. However, it must be used alongside either a roll bar or roll cage. This is because, during a rollover accident, a 5 or 6 point harness will keep you seated upright. In the event that your roof caves in, the entire weight of the car will rest on your head. Needless to say, this could be fatal. A roll bar or roll cage would keep the roof of your car from caving in, so the two must always be used together.
STEP 4: HANS Device
The final item to consider is a HANS device—a neck restraint designed to keep the driver’s head in place during accidents. Although not mandated by every racing organization, a HANS device is a wise investment and there are no real downsides to speak of (aside from cost) since it’s attached to your body (instead of your car), allowing you to leave it outside of your vehicle whenever it’s not in use.
That’s it! Whether you’ll be showing off your car on the street or showroom floor, or you’re prepping your car to race at the track, that’s everything you need.