- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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Randy LaJoie sees dead people.
Mind you, they aren't dead yet. They laugh, work and get ready to race covered in dirt, sweat and oil. These are local short-track racers. Teenagers, hoping they are on the first rung up the NASCAR ladder, mixing it up with old-timers with full-time jobs away from the track, plumbers and electricians and pipe fitters. Many have bankrupted the family coffers to bankroll their racing, building their race cars to run at places like this one, the four-tenths of a mile, red-clay Volunteer Speedway in Bulls Gap, Tenn.
This is just one of the hundreds of Saturday night short tracks that dot the landscape of the United States, hosting dozens of racers every weekend. All blissfully, ignorantly alive, no different from how their shared hero, Dale Earnhardt, was on the morning of the 2001 Daytona 500, just a few hours from his death. That tragedy led to infinitely safer equipment at racing's top levels. But the revolution hasn't happened here. Not yet.
An extensive study by the Charlotte Observer counted 217 racing-related deaths in the decade before Earnhardt's death, nine of them across NASCAR's three national series. In the decade that followed, through the end of 2010, no one else had died in the three NASCAR national series, but the 10-year tally was up to "at least 235." That number includes bystanders such as fans, crew members and officials, but the vast majority were weekend warriors, from drag strips to off-road racing to short tracks. Like this one.
LaJoie, a well-known former NASCAR champion and proud son of New England bullrings similar to Bulls Gap, can see into the future. Like a half-hour from now, when there's a pretty good chance that one of them will be leaving in an ambulance. Unless he can step in to change the fates ...
"Hey, boss," he says to an older, leather-faced driver standing beside his equally worn super late-model machine, a flat, wide, mean-looking monster. "How have you got these belts mounted in here?"
LaJoie leans in and grabs a handful of the nylon straps that make up the harness that is supposed to keep the driver tucked into his seat during a big collision. He pulls along as if they are a rope, following them all the way down, past the rudimentary, duct-tape-covered seat to the steel floorboard below. The belts, which should be secured to the seat and roll cage via buckles and knots, are loose in his hands. With one hard tug, he reveals a couple of feet of slack, more than enough distance for a 200-pound man to be launched forward, out of his seat and into the bone-snapping metal around him.
"Imagine what that would do hitting a wall at 100 miles per hour," LaJoie explains. He hands the racer a sheet of paper, a "Safer Racer" report card critique of the ride, upon which he had already stealthily graded everything from belt mounts to roll bar padding.
After LaJoie walks away, the racer starts to wad up the report and throw it into a pit road barrel. "That sumbitch is just trying to sell me a new seat."
"No," says a crew member already at work correctly mounting the belts. "That sumbitch is trying to save your life."
The Concord, N.C., headquarters of The Joie of Seating looks exactly like a race shop is supposed to look. In the back, there are the sounds of pneumatic machinery whirring away. Engine and chassis parts are stacked all over the place. A dog is asleep on the concrete floor.
Boxes of custom-made race seats are lined up, waiting to be shipped to waiting customers. That's what those dozen workers, including Randy's son, 21-year-old Corey LaJoie, who has just signed on as a developmental driver with Richard Petty Motorsports, are crafting in the back. Each seat, from a Full Custom to a Youth Development model to the Saturday Night Special, ranges in price from $3,000 to $4,000. Also lined up, ready to load into the truck and hit the road with Randy, are sales samples, a seat-sizing rig and boxes of forms, both sales order forms and those safety report cards. "Fill out the first one and you'll need to send me a little money with it. The other is free of charge."
This is the dual mission of LaJoie's post-driving life, running two distinct organizations all at once. The Joie of Seating is about selling the safest possible carriage at prices that racers on all levels of the sport can afford. Safer Racer is a nonprofit venture, a mission, really, to educate those racers -- as well as the leagues and tracks they race for -- about what they could be doing to save their lives.
LaJoie, 51, sits at a desk that is piled with paperwork from both entities. On one wall of the office hangs a marker board calendar scribbled with the dates of upcoming races and motorsports trade shows that he will hit, at least 25 this year. The other walls are covered with racing mementos, the most prominent posters commemorating his back-to-back NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series championships in 1996-97.
"I haven't been in a NASCAR stock car since 2006," he says in his trademark blustery-but-kind Connecticut accent. "We're too busy building seats and working to make sure we don't have another tragedy like Dale's."
He's speaking of Earnhardt. At the entrance to the shop, there's a photo of LaJoie and The Intimidator together. They were friends and sometimes rivals, sharing a bond over similar rustic racing backgrounds, albeit in decidedly dissimilar regions. "I keep that photo out front because he was my buddy. But I also keep it out there to remind everyone of exactly what we're doing here."
Feb. 18, 2001, changed big league motorsports forever. That's the day Earnhardt died in the final turn of the Daytona 500. His car was turned nose-first into the concrete wall at roughly 160 mph, an impact that tore a seat belt whose integrity had unknowingly been compromised by the manner in which it had been mounted. Earnhardt's body was tossed forward, twisting, his head and jostled helmet bouncing first off the steering wheel and then back into the metal bars to the left of his aluminum-padded racing seat. He suffered multiple injuries, from head cuts to broken ribs, but ultimately died of a basilar skull fracture, a lethal break where the spinal cord joins the head. It was the final blow of a catastrophic 283 days for NASCAR, a span in which four drivers were killed across the sanctioning body's three national series, all by similar basilar skull fractures.
The end of The Intimidator's life kicked off a long-overdue rebirth of racing safety awareness. Almost overnight, drivers throughout big league racing -- from NASCAR to sports cars to IndyCar -- began refitting their rides with redesigned multiple-belt harness and helmet-attached head and neck restraints. NASCAR put its just-opened research and development center into overdrive, taking the first steps toward creating the bigger, safer chassis that is in use today. Meanwhile, racetracks started covering concrete retaining walls with energy-absorbing aluminum and foam "soft wall" barriers.
"But the biggest change has been with seats," says Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's friend and employee, who won the 2001 Daytona 500 and is counted among The Joie of Seating's customers. "Basically, the next day, we were all looking for anything and everything that we could do to improve how our bodies were contained inside the race car. And at a time when everything in the sport was becoming about space-age engineering, it turns out the biggest seating improvements were about as old-school as you could get."
Sitting among the countless collections of stuff in the Joie of Seating shop is what looks to be a simple fiberglass bucket seat. In reality, it is revolutionary, molded by the hands of racing royalty. Despite being four decades old, it is also the template for every seat shipped out of LaJoie's shop.
It was sometime in the early 1970s that Don LaJoie met Mark Donohue. It was an auto racing trade show in Connecticut, LaJoie's home state. Don was already a legend of the New England short tracks, the reigning champion of the rugged Danbury Fair Racearena. Donohue, aka Captain Nice, was a New Jersey native, a Brown graduate and the newly crowned Indianapolis 500 champion. The two racers, both known as detail-minded technical innovators, started talking about racing seats.
"Donohue used a round-bottomed fiberglass seat. Ran it in everything he raced. IndyCar, NASCAR, sports cars, everywhere," Randy explains. "Everyone else in the world was just running flat-bottomed seats. You know, like a regular car seat. Well, Dad was just fascinated by that. So he bought one from Mark."
When Randy started his racing, he used Donohue's seat all the way up through the lower stock car ranks, quickly realizing that the cocoonlike body coverage (he claims "nearly 95 percent of my body is wrapped up") was vastly superior to the relatively scanty embrace of the industry standard. The concept is pretty simple: A device designed to protect the body will do the best job when it has the most contact with that body.
Explains LaJoie: "When a tornado comes, what do they tell you to do? Lie down in a bathtub, right? Not sit in a kitchen chair. Why? Because one wraps up the body. It holds you. The other, you might as well be naked." Donohue's seat wrapped everything in fiberglass, including the racer's round -- not flat -- rear end.
"I was a helluva crash test dummy," LaJoie jokes. "I got upside down, on fire, you name it. And that seat never let me down. Not once. I realized real quick that coverage and stiffness were the keys. Let the rest of the car fly apart, but keep that area immediately around your body as stiff as possible."
But in 1992, just as LaJoie's Busch Series career was about to take off, NASCAR outlawed the use of fiberglass in race car construction, citing easy cracking, tire-shredding messes made by splintered fibers and teams using the lighter material to cheat on weight restrictions. So, LaJoie crafted an aluminum version. "No one in the industry would build a round-bottomed seat. So I did my own."
As he began to have success, everything about his career began to draw attention. That included his seats. In 1995, The Joie of Seating was started as a small side business. But over the years it had slowly grown, and, in the months after Earnhardt's death, the interest in his handiwork went from a few occasional inquiries to a flood of requests for advice, then orders.
"For so long, I think, so many of us resisted any kind of changes just out of habit, and no doubt stubbornness," admits Dale Jarrett, 1999 Sprint Cup champion and now an ESPN analyst. "We didn't want to use a head and neck restraint because we said it was too cumbersome. We didn't want to get a new, bigger, bulkier seat because it didn't feel like our old seat. Dale was in the group. So was I. Well, when he died, that changed. And I'm one of the people who called Randy looking for something new."
Over the next five years, that change came at Talladega-like speeds. Safety implementations were widespread throughout the world's major motorsports sanctioning bodies, even what many consider to be the pinnacle of auto racing, Formula One.
Initially, nearly every NASCAR team, large and small, got in line to buy LaJoie's seats. Eventually, the big teams did what big teams always do. They started building their own, applying LaJoie's round-bottom concepts in their construction of body-molded carbon-fiber tubs. "We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to start our seat program," admits one high-level team official. "But honestly, the base model is still what Randy developed." Some top-level crew chiefs also confess to sneaking in an aluminum Joie of Seating rig from time to time, citing better center-of-weight distribution than carbon fiber.
But the big league safety revolution was slow to trickle down to the short tracks. That became all too apparent to LaJoie by '06, when he was no longer driving.
Instead, his preteen sons -- Casey and Corey -- were behind the wheel. Being the father of two racers would have been enough of a perspective change. But when LaJoie found himself back at the Saturday night short tracks to watch them race, he was downright disheartened by what he found.
"All of those same 'don't tell me what to do' attitudes that we'd had at the highest levels of NASCAR were still there at the short tracks," he says, shaking his head. "We'd all been patting ourselves on the back about the fact that no one had gotten killed in a Cup car since Dale's death, but meanwhile guys down there were getting killed or hurt real bad left and right."
"It really does stem from a lack of education," says Tony Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion who also races as many as 200 times a year on various short tracks across the United States. He also owns multiple sprint car teams and the famed Eldora Speedway, a half-mile clay oval in Ohio that will host NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series on July 24. "People think they can't afford a good seat. Or they think the way they've been putting in their belts for 30 years is the only way to do it. But once they know what's out there or they're taught the right way, they realize it's not a big deal. Especially if it'll save their life."
Randy's like one of those old circuit-riding preachers we used to have all over the South. He's out there on the road, preaching the gospel of safety.
"-- Humpy Wheeler
It was with that in mind that LaJoie founded his nonprofit Safer Racer Tour in 2007. He assembled a board of directors that includes NASCAR veterans Jeff Burton and Ken Schrader, as well as Dr. John Melvin, a racing safety revolutionary and former senior research engineer at General Motors. They offer up car and seat inspections and at-track safety seminars, all free of charge and all hosted by LaJoie.
He comes to the track either at the invitation of sanctioning bodies and promoters or just showing up to crusade. He goes into the garage area and pulls on belts. He tugs on seats. He bangs on helmets. He hands out report cards. Whether the racers want him to or not.
The performance of Joie of Seating equipment is widely praised, particularly by veterans who begrudgingly came on board, citing shocking differences in how they feel after even the smallest crashes and their ability to now walk away from the big ones. His design ideas can be seen coming off the production lines of his three main competitors, which he takes as a compliment and as further progress in safety development. In addition to selling high-end wares, he also offers a much cheaper Safer System kit that upfits any seat, including those from his competition, to meet higher safety standards. His Spencer Clark Child Development Program, named for a promising teenage racer killed in a highway crash, is a single-cost seat that Joie of Seating will resize as young drivers grow.
"Yes, I need to make money to keep my doors open," LaJoie explains. "But we're not getting rich off this. It's about getting everyone to buy into being safer, especially these kids on the way up."
On May 24, dirt track ace Josh Burton suffered a fatal crash in a sprint car race at Indiana's Bloomington Speedway. Just 20 days later, former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jason Leffler died in another dirt open-wheel event, this time at New Jersey's Bridgeport Speedway. Some short-track racers have used those deaths as motivation to change their ways when it comes to safety, reaching out to LaJoie for advice and updated gear. But amazingly, others continue to resist, even expressing anger at LaJoie when he suggested Leffler might have been saved had he been using a proper, stiffer headrest that provided complete coverage and containment.
Undeterred, LaJoie just keeps plowing.
"Randy's like one of those old circuit-riding preachers we used to have all over the South," says board member Humpy Wheeler, former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and the P.T. Barnum of racing promoters. "He's out there on the road, preaching the gospel of safety. And even if those old crusty short-trackers don't want to listen, they know they have to. Because he's wrecked big. He's won big. His dad did the same. Now so are his boys. He's one of them. He just wants to help them."
Back at Bulls Gap, another red-clay-caked racer returns to his pit stall, having hit the port-a-potty and grabbed a hot dog. As he walks up, someone else is in his race car, bent into the window, butt in the air and elbows cranking on a socket wrench. Mouth agape, he watches a two-time Busch Series champ emerge, wipe the sweat from his brow and toss the wrench into the toolbox as he walks away.
"Your seat was too damn loose," Randy LaJoie shouts. "Now that we know you're going to live, do me a favor and go win the race."