For you folks who enjoy NASA HPDE events, you may have found yourself deep in a corner, flying through the apex and feeling the g’s working against your body, ultimately sliding you uncomfortably out of your seat. Congratulations, you are going fast! As speeds pick up, you start to realize the seat designed for you to drive to the store to pick up Pampers isn’t optimal for track attacks. Good news, there are solutions and products to help you stay stuck in your seat.
As you walk through the paddock at any NASA event, you will see a multitude of seating and seatbelt options. The guys in the full-blown road racing cars have dedicated carbon fiber containment seats, with five- and six-point harnesses that resemble a child car seat. The resemblance is not a coincidence. The same design concepts that help keep a toddler safe in a car crash work for an adult in a racecar. The key is to stay in the seat and limit your movement within the vehicle. As a vehicle is involved in a collision, you, as the occupant, want to ride that collision down. You want the vehicle to crush and absorb the energy of the impact. If you are in a proper racing seat with the proper harnesses, you will survive the collision while the car may not. If you are not in a good seat or a proper harness, you will begin to move about the interior striking hard things that will injure you, things like A-pillars or roll cages. Long story short, seatbelts are designed to save your life … when installed properly.
The rules that dictate what kind of belts can be used for NASA HPDE and TT is in the Club Codes and Regulations section 11.3, Required Safety Equipment – Driver, which states the following: “(2) The driver and any passenger must utilize modern style stock seatbelts in very good condition, or a DOT approved restraint system, while operating a vehicle on the track. Lap belts used without any shoulder restraints are not permitted. Restraint system requirements are listed in Section No. 11.4.8. The only four-point belt systems that are allowed for use in HPDE / TT are 1) those that carry an “FIA B-xxx.T/98 (or newer) certification, or 2) those that carry a label from the belt manufacturer stating that the belts meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 209 and that the belts were designated for the specific vehicle (e.g. “For use only in BMW E36 models”). Such label must be easily visible to the NASA inspector. Note – four-point belt sets that have a DOT-only certification are prohibited.”
For federal law nerds who are curious what FMVSS 209 is all about, it is the required testing procedures for a seatbelt, details for load bearing, exposure requirements, and design style. Every factory belt has to pass this test and has a label that indicates its worthiness. The Schroth belts we installed in a Ford Fiesta ST for NASA TT and One Lap of America specifically had the FMVSS 209 label and the label photographed above indicating it was built specifically for a Fiesta, which fulfills the CCR requirements.
There are many options on the market to upgrade your car from its OEM seatbelt to a style of belt that will hold you snugly in place in your seat during hard cornering. However, it’s important to understand that OEM belts are actually really good. They are excruciatingly crash-tested and are ensured to be effective. If you decide to upgrade your seatbelt, you have to ensure you are doing it to upgrade your ability to survive a hard impact. I know many of us want to add a harness to our seat to ensure our foot and arm movements are dedicated to driving a car fast as opposed to trying to hold us in the seat during hard cornering. Yes, a good harness system will make you a faster driver. But at what cost? Is that aftermarket harness system installed in a way that you will be in a better situation during a crash versus the OEM stock belt system?
Over the years, I have used and installed a multitude of systems in different cars to try to find that edge at the track. Looking back, I’ll admit sometimes I was thinking more of my ability to stay in place in a stock unsupportive seat than I was for preparing for a crash. Now that I have been in some big crashes, and luckily lived to tell the story, I realize how important it is to install the right seatbelt in a car — or leave the stock one alone. For me it comes down to the ability to wear a HANS device in every car I drive on a track. To do that, I have to have two shoulder harnesses to hold the HANS in place. An OEM seatbelt will not work. I have seen people wearing a HANS with a stock seatbelt. It’s not going to help, not even 1 percent. You need to understand how these systems are designed and use them correctly for them to be effective. A HANS is designed to keep your heavy head from moving too far forward during a frontal impact so you do not disconnect your brain from your spine. That can only be done if the device is held properly on your shoulders by the two shoulder harnesses.
For ease of use over the years, I have purchased systems like the Schroth four-point belt system because it comes at a reasonable cost, clips into the existing seatbelts for some cars, and has the required FMVSS 209 approval. The belts work well, but they have limitations. For one, they don’t have a sub-belt, which means the tighter you pull on your shoulder harness the more the lap belt moves up into your belly. This is dangerous. Lap belts are designed to be on your lap, across the iliac crest of your pelvis, not up in your beer gut. Additionally, the Schroth belts don’t have the correct angle behind your shoulders. They go to the rear seatbelts and during a collision, which can cause spine compression.
I have found the best way to put a racing seatbelt into a relatively stock car is to use a seven-point system with a harness bar. The reason for the seven-points is all about the design of an OEM seat and the placement of the sub-belt. Racing seats have a hole in the bottom where a sub-belt comes out at just the right location in your crotch. Stock seats don’t have these holes. That means the sub-belt is either placed too far forward — in front of the seat — or too far rearward — behind the seat. Either scenario is incorrect and can cause injury. With a seven-point system, this can be resolved with a three-point sub-belt. The other four points are the two lap belts and two shoulder harnesses. The three-point sub-belt — one in front and two to the rear — locks the position of the sub-belt buckle in the exact place where it needs to be to ensure the lap belt is placed across the lap and pelvis.
A harness bar is a bar that is placed behind a driver’s seat to mount the shoulder harnesses at the correct location. This is for cars that don’t have roll cages in them but can benefit from the proper placement of harness straps. There are many harness bars that are commercially available for many cars. They generally mount at the B-pillars using existing hardware from stock seatbelts and have downward support rods that mount to the rear of the driver and front passenger seats. The location of the bar can be raised or lowered to get the correct angle of the shoulder belts.
It is understandable that many people who dabble in HPDE have dual-purpose cars. They have to go fast on Sunday and then get to work on Monday. Dedicated, non-adjustable racing seats are not reasonable while stock OEM seats and belts are not optimal. As you move into the gray area of adding a racing harness to an OEM seat, ensure you are bolting these belts to OEM mounting locations, using the correct size fender washers as you drill holes in a sheet metal floor pan and are following the installation instructions from the harness and the harness bar exactly. This is all to help you survive your worst day at the track.
A couple of pro tips as you jump into this venture. All new modern cars come with belt minders, annoying chimes designed to ensure you wear your seatbelt. If you add an aftermarket harness, which leaves the stock seatbelt unbuckled, this belt minder will make all kinds of noise as you drive around the track at an HPDE event. The Schroth harness solves this problem because it clips into the stock seatbelt buckle informing the car the driver is wearing a belt. We found a workaround for this with the Autopower seven-point harness installation by picking up an OEM latch plate from a wrecking yard and then threading the right lap belt through it and plugging it into the stock latch.
The idea of using a stock latch plate and threading the Autopower lap belt through it fixed three problems for us during the installation. First, we created a belt system we could quickly get out of the way for trips to the store on Monday. We simply unbuckle the belt and throw it in the trunk. Second, it ensured the annoying belt minder didn’t go off. The Honda sensor only shuts up when it knows a latch plate is inserted in the buckle. Third, we were installing the lap belt into an extremely strong place in the car, the stock belt attachment point. This is certainly stronger than drilling a hole in the floor pan and adding a large fender washer.
There are many options out there for those who want to upgrade their belts, but not all of them are the right answer. The key to success is to read the NASA CCR, ensure the belts have the correct SFI, FIA or FMVSS ratings and that they are installed correctly for your safety. Prioritize safety and I ensure you the new belts will hold you in place like you want to help will go faster. God speed to you all.