Photos courtesy Randy and Lisa LaJoie

Randy LaJoie’s crusade to keep grassroots racers safe

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Randy LaJoie is a man on a mission. He wants to keep race car drivers – particularly those in grassroots racing – as safe as possible.

For more than 20 years, the two-time Busch Series champion (1996-97) has dedicated his post-racing life to keeping drivers safe, with special emphasis on sportsman and amateur racers who oftentimes race with inferior safety equipment … if any at all.

Because of the cost involved, many grassroots tracks and local series don’t require some of the same equipment found in the higher levels of stock car racing, particularly in NASCAR.

That’s where LaJoie comes in.

Since forming his business, The Joie of Seating, in 1998, as well as forming a non-profit foundation, The Safer Racer Tour, in 2007, LaJoie has become one of the most prolific advocates of safety, particularly with the type of race car seats he builds and sells.

Since I put the helmet on the shelf, I’ve been concentrating on keeping short track America safe,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “I go to race tracks, talk at the driver meetings, show videos. I’ll also inspect cars, look in the driver’s cockpit and besides that, trade shows, race tracks.

By the end of this year, I’ll have visited 175 race tracks since 2006. We’ve been educating the short track world on seat safety.”

Randy LaJoie with his two Busch Series championship trophies and one of the first driver seats he built.

Since he began racing in his native Connecticut (he now resides in North Carolina) nearly 40 years ago, LaJoie has seen how important safety is in the dangerous world of racing. He’s seen a number of close friends, including the late Dale Earnhardt, killed in racing incidents.

One would think that safety, particularly given Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, would be on the forefront of every racer’s mind.

In the grassroots world, when it comes to deciding what to spend their limited funds on, drivers spend their money on tires, car parts, new race cars – but not safety equipment

The safety business is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” LaJoie said. “Sometimes it just amazes me when I go out to these race tracks and talk to these people.

It’s both very humbling but it’s also very aggravating. You can be told ‘no’ umpteen different ways and it’s simply amazing that some people say, ‘Oh, you just want to sell a seat.’ Yes, I do want to sell a seat, but I also tell them I don’t want to read about them in the obituaries. No race track wants to lose anybody. If the information is there, let’s just use it.”

To illustrate his dedication to safety, LaJoie estimates he’s invested more than $350,000 into his business. But to him, it’s money well spent.

I’m very lucky I have the best aluminum seat in the marketplace and I’ve educated the aluminum seat builders,” he said.

He adds with a laugh, “Years ago, I used to call myself a crash-test dummy. But now, with today’s technology, my son (Cup driver Corey LaJoie) uses them and they say it’s rude if you call him a crash test dummy, so I call him a ‘data acquisition technologist.’”

But safety is no laughing matter to LaJoie. He admits he can be a pain to drivers and sanctioning bodies at times, but that’s because he doesn’t want to see any more drivers killed or suffer traumatic permanent injury from the sport they love.

Safety has been on a back burner and I think I pushed it to the front of some people’s minds and some sanctioning bodies to have them look at it, because I’ve been a stickler for it,” LaJoie said.

Two of the current race seats LaJoie’s firm, The Joie of Seating, produces.

The reason LaJoie has been a stickler is simple. Within 18 months, from May 2000 through October 2001, NASCAR lost five well-known drivers, guys LaJoie either was good friends with or had competed against in his career.

That list included Adam Petty (May 12, 2000), Kenny Irwin (July 7, 2000), Tony Roper (October 14, 2000), Dale Earnhardt (February 18, 2001) and Blaise Alexander (October 4, 2001 in an ARCA crash).

I looked at them and I wrecked just like that and how come I’m still here and they’re not?” LaJoie said.

While there have not been any additional deaths in NASCAR’s three top series since Earnhardt was killed, there have been several fatalities in the grassroots racing ranks.

I felt it was my call to duty to the short track world to give them all of the information I can on safety,” LaJoie said

A life’s a life and it doesn’t matter if they race on Sunday, Saturday or Friday night. These guys need to be taken care. With as much knowledge as we’ve learned in the last 15-plus years in terms of safety, these guys are still 15-plus years behind on short tracks.”

LaJoie’s mission has been quantified countless times over the 20-plus years he’s been in business.

When you get a phone call from a mom or dad and they say, ‘My kid just flipped all the way down the backstretch last night and he’s okay, thank you,’ that’s like my new victory lane,” LaJoie said.

The LaJoie family, from left, Corey, Casey, Lisa and Randy.

Safety is also important to LaJoie for a more personal reason: his son Corey, is a full-time driver in the Cup Series (their other son, Casey, works as an announcer for MAV-TV and also as social media director at Kaulig Racing).

Any time when there’s 40 guys on a Sunday in Cup racing, and your son is one of them, I’m so damn proud of him,” Randy said of Corey. “I’m glad he’s gotten the chance.”

LaJoie, 57, is also very proud of the seats he produces, not just for their design and ability to keep drivers safe behind the wheel, particularly when they’re involved in crashes, but also for their durability. His seats are all certified by the SFI Foundation Inc., the leading overseer of safety in motorsports.

Some of my seats from 15 years ago are still in use,” LaJoie said, adding proudly, “that’s why my seats are better than everyone else’s. I built them the right way. I haven’t junked many of them.”

The foundation LaJoie established in 2007, the Safer Racer Tour, is a further extension of his dedication to safety in grassroots racing. That’s why he visits so many short tracks and tries to talk sense into drivers who have a “it’ll never happen to me” mindset.

I’d say 99.7 percent of short track drivers don’t pay attention to safety,” LaJoie said. “But short track America still is much safer today mainly because of Dale Sr.

Do you know how many lives that man saved? It’s sad that we lost him, but the industry needed to lose a hero so they could save other heroes.”

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Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”