Kenny Irwin

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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Bubba Wallace’s crash shows how far NASCAR safety has come

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Twenty years ago, NASCAR had no research and development center, the SAFER barrier had not been installed at tracks and drivers raced in seats that look rudimentary compared to today’s cocoons.

That Bubba Wallace walked away from his vicious impact Sunday at Pocono Raceway reinforces how far safety has come in NASCAR since the late 1990s and also how the job of safety is never-ending.

The brakes on Wallace’s car failed as headed toward Turn 1 late in the race. He turned left, went through the grass and came back up the track, slamming into the SAFER barrier on the right side.

“Hardest one of my career,” Wallace told NBCSN after exiting the infield care center. “I was just telling them that there’s no feeling like being helpless in that situation. It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know if I was going to remember when I hit or not. We’re good. Bit my cheek. Banged my foot off the pedal. I’ll wake up (Monday) and be a little sore. Safety has come a long ways. It’s good to be able to climb out of the car.”

Safety has indeed come a long way.

In 1999, two-time Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie had developed a new seat that supported drivers around their shoulders instead of rib cages. Ray Evernham, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, had talked to doctors about developing a new protective seat.

In March 1999, Gordon bruised his ribs in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Check out the video below of the CBS broadcast for the rare glimpse of a driver’s reactions before safety crews arrived and the pain Gordon was in. Also note how there is little protection from the seat on the right side of Gordon’s head (unlike today’s seats that wrap around a driver’s head to better protect it).

That’s just among the major changes in driver safety. Here are some others:

Back then drivers had a five-point safety belt. Today they use a seven-point safety belt that keeps them more snug in the seat.

Composite seats are now used to better protect drivers.

Cars have had incident data recorders to help NASCAR officials and safety experts analyze crashes and understand the impacts to provide new safety elements.

SAFER barriers are used at every track. Indianapolis Motor Speedway first installed the SAFER barrier in May 2002. By 2006, every oval track that hosted NASCAR Cup races had SAFER barrier sections. In 2015, Bristol Motor Speedway became the first Cup oval to have all of its outside wall protected by the SAFER barrier.

Foam is inside the driver’s door to absorb energy in an impact to help protect the driver.

Head-and-neck restraints are mandatory. Once tried years earlier but without much support from drivers, the HANS was reintroduced to NASCAR in July 2000 when Brett Bodine became the first driver to race with the device, doing so at Pocono. He used it just months after the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin that season. NASCAR mandated a head-and-neck restraint for drivers in its top three series in Oct. 2001.

“All the initiatives that have been put in place over the years with safety of the cars, the seats, the SAFER barriers and all the things are really, really paying dividends in situations like that,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning about Wallace not suffering a serious injury in his Pocono crash.

The latest safety initiative for NASCAR is a high-speed camera inside the car pointed at the driver to allow officials to better examine in minute detail what a driver goes through in a crash, particularly a hard impact such as Wallace’s at Pocono.

“One thing that is interesting is we have initiated the use of a high-speed camera to further investigate the big hits so that we can potentially lead to some more safety initiatives,” Miller said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “So this will be the first time we’ve had a big crash with this new potential analysis of the crash. I know the teams are interested in seeing that and seeing if there is any learnings from it.”