A version of this article originally appeared in NASA Speed News in March of 2016
Proper seat placement is the foundation for a driver’s communication with the car. Fundamentally, the seating position you employ in your daily driver is the seating position you will be comfortable with on a racetrack. If this prompts you to change you preferred adjustments then recognize that you may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first. There will be an adaptation period where you will be very conscious of the change in driving posture but this will pass as you settle in to it. The performance improvement will be worth the initial discomfort.
Optimizing the driver’s position with respect to the pedals, steering wheel and shifter will provide the best vehicle control and reduce driver fatigue. This is true whether belting into a street car for a trip to the grocery store or jumping into a race car for an endurance race. Unfortunately, finding optimal placement and comfort may require some compromises. Additionally, drivers that share a car for endurance racing or split sessions will have some additional considerations. Regardless of your intended use, the same principles apply.
Whenever setting up your seat with track use in mind, it is best to wear your helmet, shoes and gloves so there are no surprises when you first roll out to grid. With so many adjustments available in modern cars, we start with the seat base. Drop the seat as low as practical while still maintaining ample visibility over the hood. This drops the overall Center of Gravity (CG) and positions your core closer to the vehicle CG and roll axis. Move the seat forward until you have full range of motion on the pedals without hyper-extending your toes to operate the pedals. When your feet are covering but not activating the pedals, there should be roughly a 45 degree bend in the knees.
Note that some cars have an adjustable stop for the clutch pedal and/or adjustable pedals. Moving these around can help establish the optimal leg extension while still achieving full pedal actuation. Warning: done properly, this can reduce shift times; done wrong, this can damage the transmission. If in doubt, seek professional help. Also, verify or reposition the rest-pedal (if applicable) to maintain a comfortable place to support your left foot in between shifts or braking, as the case may be.
Next comes the seat back and steering wheel. These will be adjusted together to optimize comfort and range of motion. Put the seat back as far upright as is reasonable - even if initially uncomfortable. Feel the space between your helmet and the headliner and headrest with a hand. If there is any potential interference, recline the seat back to accommodate. Move the steering wheel as close as possible and then adjust the seat back and steering wheel to suit your preference. Proper distance from the steering wheel will allow roughly a 60 degree bend in your elbows with your hands at 3 and 9-o’clock on the wheel. Another trick is to place one wrist over the top of the steering wheel. If your shoulder separates from the seat-back then you are positioned too far away from the wheel. This rule of thumb doesn’t quite apply to NASCAR style or Formula cars where the steering wheel tilt is nearly vertical and range of steering may be less than 180 degrees. Whatever the case, verify the full steering range of motion so that the wheel does not pull away from your hands nor does your back pull away from the seat.
Additionally, you want to make sure that you have full visibility of the instrument cluster and easy reach to the shift lever. The lever should rest in the palm of your hand while running through all gears without any interference from the seat. Move the wheel, base (vertically) or seat-back in that order of priority. If this compromises the seating position too much then find a balance between sight-lines, shifter and seating position. Now click-in and tighten the seat belt or racing harness and check everything again. Just remember that seat belt tensioners lock with high forces experienced on the track and so any slack during this check must be avoided.
Molded racing seats complicate the process because of the limited adjustments available and the difficulty of making adjustments. Nonetheless, the same principles apply. And if you must share a fixed seat, find a compromise you can both live with without sacrificing safety and control. If that’s not practical, then an added cushion or molded seat insert will allow each driver to achieve their desired position. Keep in mind that it’s better to be too close than too far away.
It’s always worth the time and effort to find the best seating position. You will be rewarded with improved kinesthetics from forces through the steering wheel and seat. The solid feel and control through the steering range as well as a solid seat support build confidence. Altogether improved driver confidence, feel and support translate into lower lap times, which is really what it’s all about.