Buyer's Guide: Racing Seats

By Winding Road Staff

November 05, 2013

A good seat is a racing essential, but there is a lot to know if you want to pick the right seat. This buyer’s guide is meant to help you get started, answering your questions to make sure you are making the right purchase. There are a lot of options, after all, and in the end, you need to make sure you’re asking yourself the right questions.
If you have more questions about racing seats that haven’t been addressed, feel free to comment, and we’ll add your answer to this guide when we can.
When and why is a racing seat recommended?
A racing seat is recommended in a track setting, particularly in a car that isn’t used on the road. Any dedicated racecar should be fitted with a racing seat. A racing seat is meant to hold the driver in place. This increases driver control, providing a better grip on the steering wheel and better foot placement on the pedals. Better driver control means faster laps.
Racing seats are about safety. They are meant to protect you in the event of a crash. A good racing seat can prevent or lessen injuries, and even save your life. Sanctioning bodies require specific standards when it comes to the racing seat you use in your car for just this reason.
In many instances, racing seats also have the added benefit of weight savings.
What features are most important when choosing a seat?
First and foremost, you want the seat to comply with the rules and regulations of your track or sanctioning body. Make sure you know the rules and choose a seat accordingly. The type of racing you’re doing will dictate what type of seat you choose. Pick a seat with the proper support, good construction, and keep in mind any driver needs.
Just as with helmets, and racing suits, certification is important. Look for FIA or SFI approved seats to make sure they’re up to the standards of safety for the type of racing you’re doing.
How do materials and construction come into play when choosing a seat?
This is one of those areas where you get what you pay for. Yes, some seats cost more for what appears to be a similar design, but those extra dollars usually mean a more lightweight construction, stronger more durable materials, and attention to detail. A good seat should have no sharp spots in the edges underneath the padding, and should be reinforced to prevent deformation. This will make the seat safer, and it will last longer. Think of the extra money you spend on a well-constructed seat as an investment in the seat itself, and in your own safety and comfort.
Surface materials vary, whether they are a mesh fabric, microfiber, or leather. You want to balance comfort, durability, and stickiness. A leather cover may be very comfortable and durable, but you might slide around less in a fabric seat. Part of this will depend on the racing suit you wear, too. Choose wisely, and according to your budget.
What differences are there between racing seats, and how does this affect pricing?
That depends on how fast you’ll be racing. The faster you go, the more containment you’ll need, which raises the price of the seat. Always spend what you can on containment—don’t skimp on safety. As Jack at Ultra Shield says, “If the unthinkable happens, what seat would you want to be in?”
Basic seats are usually made out of aluminum, and you can get a decent quality Spec Miata seat for less than $300. As you require more containment and more support—and thus more design and materials—the price goes up. For around $1000, you can get excellent containment and support for even very demanding race environments.
If you’re really looking to gain the advantage over your opponents, you might be using a strategy of shaving every possible bit weight off your racer. Above the $1000 price point, you’ll be looking at lightweight seats, often constructed from carbon fiber. This will still contain all the proper safety and support as their cheaper counterparts, but will offer reduced weight, and a general higher level of quality (including comfort and durability).
How does someone choose the right seat size?
You want to pick a seat the fits the car and fits the driver. If you have a small car, measure the width at the shoulders and H-point, as well as the height inside the car, and compare that to the seat dimensions to make sure it fits.
As for the driver, measure the width of the hips through the center of the body from side to side, and match the seat width as closely as possible. If you are between sizes, choose the larger seat, and add support as needed.
Check with your dealer or manufacturer for dimensions. (OMP offers this seat dimension table.)
Proper size and support will offer optimal body control and prevent and reduce fatigue.
The best thing you can do is sit in a seat, and make sure everything lines up and feels right for you.
What if a driver is taller/shorter/heavier than average?
If you have trouble finding a seat with a proper fit, work with your dealer or manufacturer for a custom seat. It might cost a bit extra, but making sure the seat fits you properly is going to insure safety, not just in the even of a crash, but also in having better control over the car. Plus, proper fit and support means more precise use of the steering wheel and pedals, less fatigue and distraction, and faster laps around the track.
(Here is the custom seat chart form [PDF] from Ultra Shield.)
When should someone choose an adjustable seat vs. one with a fixed back?
Adjustable seats are good for cars that are used both on the road and for track days. They don’t always provide the support or safety of a fixed seat, but they offer enough for autocross and the like, but have the benefit of comfort and adjustability for daily driving.
A dedicated racecar should have a fixed back seat.
What sorts of accessories should buyers keep in mind when choosing a racing seat?
Support, support, support. You can buy seat inserts that can offer more support, and you can add cushions for your helmet, shoulders, lumbar, legs, and so on.
Also, keep in mind any HANS device you’ll be using, as well as the type of harness. A full containment seat should be HANS compatible, but always make sure. Also racing seats are usually set up to receive two- to three-inch harnesses. Most are compatible with five-point harnesses, but some are set up for six-point harnesses. Make sure your seat and harness work together.
What about installation?
Make sure you use proper installation and don’t modify your seat to fit the mounts. Make sure to check with your sanctioning body or track for their rules on how your racing seat should be mounted, usually to the roll cage or frame. Seat manufacturers usually offer the parts you’ll need to properly mount the seat to your car.
When should a driver replace their racing seat?
If the seat has been deformed in any way, it’s time for a new one. If it has suffered a collision, and is bent out of shape, it has done its job. Structural integrity is vital to safety.
If the surface has worn out, or the padding is losing its firmness and comfort, you can choose to replace the padding and recover the seat. The base of the seat is a good way to gauge it, as it will show wear from driver changes and the like. Its up to you and your budget to decide, but nothing beats the quality and support of a new racing seat.
Is there anything else to keep in mind when purchasing a racing seat?
Well, it won’t make you any faster, but it doesn’t do any harm to have a seat that looks cool. Manufacturers offer their seats in many different colors, so you can usually match the color of your paint or livery for little to no extra cost.
Another thing to keep in mind is that forums are a great place to see what other drivers are using in their racecars. Visit online forums for the type of racing you’ll be doing, and for the make and model of car you’re running, and read what others are saying, ask questions, and use that information to fuel further research. Learning from the successes and mistakes of others can ultimately save you some frustration and money.
Also, talk to the dealers and manufacturers about your needs. They’ve got tons of knowledge, and it’s in their best interest to steer you into the right seat.
Start shopping for racing seats at Winding Road Racing.