There are seldom benefits to an accident that leaves a driver in the hospital for four days with broken collarbones and fractured vertebrae. But when you're in the safety business, every tumble and each injury is a learning experience. Laboratory research can reveal much, but there's no substitute for real-world data.
“I hate to be my own crash-test dummy, but we learned an awful lot. One of the issues was with the head and neck restraint. Even though I was wearing one, I still fractured C6-C7,” says Robbie Pierce of his accident at the Glen Helen round of the Lucas Oil off Road Racing Series last season that saw him tumble end over end at the beginning of the Pro 2 race. The “we” that Pierce (ABOVE) refers to is he and the crew at his company, MasterCraft Safety.
MasterCraft was long in the business of manufacturing seats for off road racing when Pierce acquired the company. It has expanded into other safety offerings, and grew even more at the end of 2010 when MasterCraft acquired Bill Simpson's Impact Racing.
“A gentleman named Jack Miller founded the company in 1970. He had owned a little upholstery shop in Chula Vista, Calif., and was an avid off-road racer,” explains Pierce. “A gentleman brought in some unique seats to be reupholstered, and Jack asked why the seats were so different. The guy says they're out of a helicopter.”
The helicopter seats were tubeframe with mesh stretched over the frame. The reason for the unique construction, the customer explained, is because helicopters sometimes land hard. Well, off-road racers land hard time and time again during the course of a race, so that's how the suspension seat came about.
“That's where MasterCraft was born. It's evolved over the years. I bought the company in 1999 and we've done an awful lot of research and development. We've added restraints and we've added driving suits. Now with the acquisition of Impact, we've added a top line of helmets and suits,” says Pierce.
And, in one way, the company has come full circle. The company inspired by helicopter seats has found a way to keep the men and women fighting in the Middle East safer by incorporating off-road technology into seats for military vehicles (RIGHT).
“In Iraq and Afghanistan, with the IEDs [improvised explosive devices], they experience the same g-load situations as off-road racers, but with a much higher energy into the vehicle. So this seat has some unique properties in mitigating that energy. It actually reduces that energy by about 84 percent. We recently did a sled test and hit the seat with 350 g's and it mitigated that energy into a survivable rate for the soldier. To give you an idea, when NASCAR driver Elliot Sadler went into the wall at Pocono, I think it was 80 g's. It's a remarkable feat for the human factor to be able to survive a 350g hit.
“We've got probably 30 or 40 thousand vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan with our seats in them,” Pierce adds. "With the acquisition of Impact, we've got some of the best drivers in the world using our stuff. But getting those e-mails from those soldiers is probably the neatest thing and the best reward."
But it's the off-road racers his equipment helps protect he sees week after week. And while many of the safety issues in off-road racing, whether it's short course or desert, are the same as in other forms of motorsport, there are some unique aspects as well.
“In normal racing, we have a lot more g-load situation because we're a vertical sport as well,” Pierce explains. “We're jumping 10, 20 feet in the air, flying 50 to 100 feet. If you overfly a jump or something like that, you're getting some pretty severe g-loads into your seat. In an open-wheel car, sports car or stock car, you're not too worried about g-load in vertical. Of course, those other speeds are a lot greater than we see. In the desert we see 120 or 130; here we're at 80 to 100mph. But the crashes are often as violent, so we see the same issues with wanting good containment, good restraints and good helmets. We're seeing a lot more concern with head and neck injuries, just like we are in all the other motorsports.”
One issue that off roaders face is the inability to use the halo-type seats long popular in GT sports cars and now gaining acceptance in NASCAR. The problem is that an off-roader's head bounces between the restraints like a ping-pong ball through mogul sections. That's one reason head restraint nets are so important.
In his crash last season, Pierce learned a few things the hard way. But they are lessons that he'll apply to the equipment MasterCraft and Impact make, perhaps saving other racers the same pain.
“I broke both collarbones, so we took a look at the angles of the restraint mounts,” he says. “We're taking a closer look at all the chassis builders and making some recommendations to them as far as the angle of the shoulder harnesses, making sure that they're parallel with the occupants' shoulders, and the angle of the lap belts as well. We're looking at the window net release as well. I hit the ground on top of the A pillar, right on top of the window net release and the first hit released the window net. I was very fortunate not to injure my arm. So we came up with a new system. It's a constant battle, just like in other motorsports.”
It's a battle that will never be won. But with constant research – and people like Pierce becoming their own crash-test dummies – the casualties can be reduced.