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.
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.
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.
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.