Randy LaJoie

Photos courtesy Randy and Lisa LaJoie

Randy LaJoie’s crusade to keep grassroots racers safe

Leave a comment

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.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Corey LaJoie: Go Fas Racing ride ‘probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had’

Daniel McFadin
Leave a comment

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In September 2010, Archie St. Hilaire delivered a clear message to Randy LaJoie after a K&N Pro Series East race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Your kid will never run in anything I own, ever, ever, ever,” the owner of Go Fas Racing declared.

St. Hilaire was caught up in the heat of the moment. The car he owned, the No. 38 driven by Alan Tardiff, had just been wrecked from the lead with two laps to go in the scheduled distance of the 125-lap race.

The culprit? An 18-year-old Corey LaJoie, the son of Randy, a two-time Xfinity Series champion who also owned his son’s K&N ride.

LaJoie had been on Tardiff’s inside entering Turn 3 when they made contact. LaJoie spun while Tardiff hit the wall.

LaJoie went on to finish 13th and in the last three years has made 57 Cup starts. The New Hampshire race was Tardiff’s last in a top NASCAR series.

Two weeks ago, just over eight years after the incident, LaJoie signed with Go Fas Racing to become the next full-time driver of its No. 32 Ford in the Cup Series.

When the signing was done, St. Hilaire told his new driver he had a call to make.

“I got to call your dad and tell him I lied to him a few years ago,” St. Hilaire recalled Thursday during the team’s announcement at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned in NASCAR, never say never. ‘Cause that’s a long time,” St. Hilaire said.

Thursday saw LaJoie, now 27, finally get to share “probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had.”

A week before he’s set to get married, LaJoie was announced as the next driver of the No. 32 Ford, a car previously driven by Matt DiBenedetto.

It’s the first time in LaJoie’s Cup career that he’s known in December that he’ll have a ride in February.

The new ride comes with other perks he’s never had in his last two years of Cup racing.

“A paycheck is good,” LaJoie said, referencing the 32 starts he made in 2017 with the now-defunct BK Racing.

“Engines that don’t blow up are good,” LaJoie said of his 23 starts in 2018 with TriStar Motorsports, where he had seven DNFs, five for expired engines.

But most importantly, LaJoie is set to be in the car for every points race for the first time. Not even his father can claim a full Cup season on his resume.

“Being in the car every week is going to be huge,” LaJoie said. “To work with the same group of guys, week in and week out where you can actually prepare, watch film, studying notes and then actually go from the first race of the year back for the second time is going to be huge. I think there’s nothing but positives here.”

That’s not an understatement for LaJoie.

Four years ago, he was a “development” driver (air quotes added by LaJoie) for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

“I was taking a different path. I just had to pay the bills,” LaJoie said. “They gave me a T-shirt and a backpack and paid me 40 grand a year and sat me on the couch for two years. They couldn’t find me any sponsorship. They put me in that (Biagi-DenBeste Racing) car. I tried to do too much. I didn’t realize the gap from a 15th-place car to a fifth-place car is as big as it is. Anytime up to that point in my career if we were 15th it was because I wasn’t driving it right or I wasn’t driving it hard enough.

“Knowing when to take a 15th-place car and finish 14th or 13th after a couple of guys wreck, I had to learn the hard way. I was lucky enough people saw the talent even when I was wrecking cars or putting myself in bad positions.”

LaJoie is also three years’ removed from being paid $500 to fly to the West Coast to be a crew chief on a K&N West team. He actually produced two wins in the series with David Mayhew, with one coming at Sonoma Raceway.

But Sundays were hard for the third-generation driver.

“There was times where Sunday nights where I was wondering what I was doing, if I should go back and start welding seats or go be a crew chief,” LaJoie said.

A path to the latter was provided at one point by one of the most successful crew chiefs in Cup history.

“Chad Knaus called me probably … four years ago now, wanting to stick me over and be a car chief (at JR Motorsports) working through that system,” LaJoie said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not ready to give up the driving thing yet.’ And it’s just worked out with different partners. I’ve surrounded myself with good people, and (it) ultimately gets me hooked up with Archie, and now we’re really going to make something happen here next year.”

And what happens after 2019 for an owner who wanted nothing to do with his new driver eight years ago?

St. Hilaire is taking it one year at a time.

“Everybody in our business we have a one-year deal, and I always say, ‘Let’s make sure we like each other,’ ” St. Hilaire said. “I do it in my regular businesses, because if it’s after one year and he doesn’t like me and I don’t like him or somebody doesn’t like anybody, I don’t want to drag anybody through a two- or three-year deal. Hopefully it’s many years, but at this point let’s try it and make sure we like it and move forward from there.”

For LaJoie, it will be his first full-time ride in NASCAR since 2012 in the K&N East.

“I need to be careful,” he said. “I might make a career of this thing before long.”

 and on Facebook

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Underdogs D.J. Kennington, Corey LaJoie have high hopes in Daytona 500

Getty Images
Leave a comment

One of the best elements of the Daytona 500 is how unexpected drivers – some may call them underdogs – can emerge to win the “Great American Race.”

Over the last half-century, several unexpected drivers went on to win the 500, including Pete Hamilton (1970), Geoffrey Bodine (1986), Derrike Cope (1990), Ernie Irvan (1991), Sterling Marlin (1994-95), Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003), Ward Burton (2002) and one of the biggest underdogs to ever win the race, Trevor Bayne (2011).

Heading into Sunday’s 59th edition of the Daytona 500, two drivers stand out as underdogs: Canadian driver D.J. Kennington and Corey LaJoie.

Kennington, 39, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will be making his second career NASCAR Cup start Sunday. His previous start was last fall at Phoenix (finished 35th).

The 25-year-old LaJoie, son of former Xfinity Series champ Randy LaJoie, will be making his third career start in the NASCAR Cup Series. His other two starts came in the fall of 2014 (41st at New Hampshire and 35th at Charlotte).

Kennington will start Sunday’s race 28th, while LaJoie starts 31st, both drivers beginning ahead of Paul Menard, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger, Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler.

Kennington may be relatively new to the Cup series, but he’s a veteran of CASCAR, NASCAR’s Pinty’s Canadian Series (108 starts, eight wins), the Xfinity Series (50 starts) and the Camping World Truck Series (five starts).

Don’t be surprised if Kennington is a bit wide-eyed and awestruck heading into Sunday’s race.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Kennington, who is driving for Gaunt Brothers Racing. “I can’t explain it really. Coming off of four (of Thursday’s Duel), I wasn’t in the race.  When we crossed the line, I was, so just an unbelievable feeling for us.”

Kennington’s achievement is made all the more outstanding given he wasn’t able to practice prior to Thursday’s Duels.

“Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning, I tell you,” he said. “At the end we made it in. That’s huge for us.

“The hard part is over. We’re going to have some fun now.”

Corey LaJoie
Corey LaJoie

Kennington is not only racing for himself and his team, he’ll also be racing for his country.

“There’s only been eight of us Canadians that have made the 500, so that’s huge for us,” he said

As for LaJoie, he qualified for BK Racing even though he was involved in a late crash with Reed Sorenson in the first of Thursday’s two Can-Am Duel races.

“Every kid in a race car dreams of racing in a Daytona 500, and I get to do that on Sunday,” LaJoie said.

He gets to race against his idols in the sport’s biggest race.

“Man, you come here idolizing Jimmie (Johnson), Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., all of these guys,” LaJoie said. “I’m fans of all of these guys and I get to race all of them on Sunday. It’s amazing. The big man has got a plan. I’m excited to get up there and dice it up.

“It’s been a hard road and I’ve still got a long way to go, but it starts Sunday.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski