Roll cages are required at the drag strip once you eclipse a specific elapsed time (e.t.) threshold for most vehicles. Now, you can have a chassis shop install the roll cage for you, but if you’re a DIY type, you can tackle the project at home. We chose to go the latter route, working with S&W Race Cars and Jake Burton at Burton’s Kreative Motorwerks to get a pre-bent roll cage installed in our Project Red Dragon. Along the way, we picked up five key tips that you can use to install your own roll cage at home.
A pre-bent roll cage is perfect for a garage installation project, if you’re equipped with the right tools and skills. We admittedly don’t have quite the skills or equipment to go it alone, so that’s why we turned to Burton’s Kreative Motorworks to have the roll cage installed. The process that Jake and his team used to install this cage at the shop is the the very same you would use at home with your friends.
Tip 1: How To Prepare For The Project
Just like any other project you work on at home, the better prepared you are, the smoother things will go. The last thing you want to deal with is not having the right tools or required materials during a critical part of the installation. The preparation phase is probably the most important of a project like this, so take your time and make sure you have everything you’ll need.
Burton talks about the items to have on-hand before you start your roll cage installation project.
“You’ll want to have a few different materials that don’t come with the kit. MIG wire and gas for your machine should be at the top of the list,” Burton says. “You don’t want to run out of these items in the middle of the job, especially if you’re doing the work over the weekend and there’s no place open to get more supplies. It would also be a good idea to have some extra tubing on hand, because mistakes happen when you’re making cuts. You’ll want to review what comes with your pre-bent roll cage kit to see what, if any additional materials will be required. I also like to have some sheets of aluminum on-hand to protect the interior of the car from sparks when I’m welding in tight spaces.”
Obviously, you’ll need a MIG or TIG welder (NHRA rules require chromoly be TIG-welded), along with a grinder to install a roll cage. But there are a few other tools that will need to be in your arsenal. You don’t need to go out and spend big money on special tools to install a roll cage at home — chances are, you might already have what’s needed laying around your shop.
One method of welding the cage is to tack everything together and then cut holes in the floor and drop the cage through the floor. – John Burke, S&W Race Cars
“A tube notcher would be helpful, but if you don’t have access to one, an angle grinder can get the job done, too,” Burton explains. “You’ll also need a protractor to get the most accurate measurements for making adjustments, along with an angle-finder. A good tape measure is a must-have item for this job, as well. You’ll also want a few different black or silver Sharpie markers. You’ll want to have a high-quality hole saw so you can cut through the floor and drop the cage down to weld the top…that’s very important. I would also suggest having a nice supply of cut-off wheels and grinding wheels for your angle grinder. The grinder is going to get a workout during this project, so you’ll need to be prepared,” Burton says.
S&W made ordering a pre-bent roll cage for our 2000 Firebird super easy. The kit was shipped in several bundles of tubing and a box for the plates and other items. Before you start the assembly process, you’ll want to check the kit over to make sure everything is correct for the vehicle make and model and that you’re good to go.
“I take the kits, break them down, clean all the labels off, and lay them out on the floor so I can inspect the parts,” Burton explains of the initial stages of the process. “The next thing I do is inventory everything that was delivered to make sure I have all the parts I should have. I check to make sure the main hoop and roof hoop are as flat as possible when I lay them on the ground. There’s a good chance that these two hoops will need to be adjusted, because they might be tweaked slightly during shipping.”
Tip 2: How To Adjust The Fit Of The Roll Cage
A pre-bent roll cage will require some small adjustments to make it fit perfectly in any vehicle. The adjustment process doesn’t require any special tools or skills, just patience and attention to detail. An extra set of hands is helpful during this part of the project, since the tubes will be going into and coming back out of the car often.
“To find out where you need to make fitment adjustments, you have to test-fit the cage inside the car a lot. An example of this would be the spread of the main hoop where it meets the floor of the vehicle. That spread could be pushed in or out slightly, so you’ll have to adjust the hoop to correct this. I like to mock tubes up with clamps so I can make adjustments as needed,” Burton states.
An important point that Burton mentioned several times during the installation is how critical it is to measure multiple times at different points when you’re test-fitting the cage. You want to sneak up on the adjustments you need to make to ensure you don’t remove too much material. The multiple measuring points are vital to make sure everything stays square as you fit the cage into place.
The tubes for a pre-bent cage will be notched, but they will still need a final adjustment so they fit correctly. It may seem intimidating to notch tubing at home if you’ve never done it before, but it’s something that anybody can do as long as you take your time.
“The first thing you want to do is make sure you get the correct profile of the notch. I like to use some scrap tubing to get the notch how I want it. I’ll use a paper transfer to get the notch I’ve created onto the tube I’m using for the roll cage. I like to leave some extra material on the notch so that when I’m using the angle grinder to finalize it, I have the ability to sneak up on it without taking too much material off right away,” Burton explains.
We mentioned earlier that an angle finder and protractor are very important when you start a roll cage installation. These two tools are really valuable if you’re going to use a tube notcher, since they will help you index the tube correctly and create the proper notch.
Burton gives his thoughts on how to approach using a tube notcher for a roll cage installation.
“You can get yourself in trouble in a hurry with a tube notcher by removing too much material. Make sure you leave some headroom with the notch that you lay out. Test-fitting is going to be your friend so you can make the tubes fit together as tight as possible. The last thing you want to do is have to fill the gap between the notch and tube with your welder.”
Tip 3: How To Get The Roof Hoop Right
The roof hoop can be tricky to get fitted and into position. This is one of the most important parts of the roll cage, so you can’t afford to be off by much. Taking your time to get the notches right and measuring several times will make getting the roof hoop in the car much easier.
It’s easy to get excited to just start welding tubes into place, but that’s how you end up with spots you can’t easily access to weld. – Jake Burton
John Burke from S&W Race Cars shares how you should approach the installation of a roof hoop.
“The legs of the hoop aren’t notched, so you will have to notch them. The tricky part is holding it in place so that you can mark the ends for the notch. One way to make this easier is to hold it in place with a ratchet strap. The strap is draped around the roof through the windows and holds the hoop up. Another method is to use a prop to hold the front of the hoop in place. The roof hoop doesn’t have to be flush with the top of the main hoop. It usually attaches to the main hoop somewhere in the bend section of the tube. Be sure to check that no part of the helmet is above the roof hoop when the driver is seated in the vehicle before you weld it into place.”
Burton adds his thoughts about how to get the roof hoop installed correctly.
“The roof hoop comes longer than what it needs to be, so it’s going to need to be trimmed down. You’ll want to measure the main hoop to find your center point, and then measure the roof hoop so you can find where it will land on the main hoop. Really pay attention to how you notch the roof hoop — make sure it fits properly so the front of it will be oriented correctly.”
Tip 4: How To Weld The Tricky Parts
Every roll cage installation is going to have a few challenging areas you will have to weld. You want to be mindful of what you’re doing currently and plan ahead at the same time so you don’t work yourself into a corner. A good start is to read the roll cage installation instructions and create a plan of attack before you even turn on the welder.
Burton likes to use spring clamps to position the tubes so he can see where they need to be placed. That allows him to visualize the project and create a plan before anything is welded.
“It’s easy to get excited to just start welding tubes into place, but that’s how you end up with spots you can’t easily access to weld. You want to tack stuff in and slow down to think about what you’re doing. Visualizing what you need to do several steps in advance will make navigating the tricky parts of the installation easier. This is why it’s so important to pre-notch all your bars and mock the cage up before you do any serious welding. That’s where you can find these tricky spots and avoid them up front,” Burton explains.
Tack welds are a great way to get tubes temporarily in place so you can see how everything fits. After you’ve made sure the tubes are the correct length and notched properly, then you can start to attack the difficult areas as needed.
“One method of welding the cage is to tack everything together and then cut holes in the floor and drop the cage through the floor. This allows you to weld the top joints of the roof hoop and main hoop, and the roof hoop and windshield runners. Another welding method is to break the roof hoop away from the main hoop, lower it, then weld the windshield runners to the roof hoop,” Burke explains.
Tip 5: How To Weld The Floor Plates
The tubes of a roll cage are what keep you safe, but they have to be anchored to the vehicle, and that’s the job of the floor plates. Roll cage floor plates are typically made of 1/8-inch thick plate steel and must be under each point where the roll cage tubes are mounted to the floor.
“In most cases, floor plates will have to be formed to sit on the floor so that there are no large gaps between the plate and the floor. The plates can be bent in a press brake. Most installers will not have access to a press brake, and in that case, the plates can be formed using a vise and a hammer. It may be easier to flatten the floor than shape the plates. Usually, it’s a combination of those two methods that work the best,” Burke explains.
The chassis inspector is going to take a long look at your floor plates, so you’ll want them installed correctly. Most passenger vehicles aren’t going to have perfectly smooth floorpans, so each vehicle is going to require some type of modification to the floor plates to make them fit properly.
“Taking your time to form the plates to the surface is important. You want these plates to fit to the floor as tight as possible with minimal gaps. If you run into a situation where there’s some type of ledge, you can join the plate to the floor with some type of box, rather than beating it into place. If you box the plate in that will increase the strength of the roll cage,” Burton states.
Hopefully, these tips will assist those who are thinking about tackling a roll cage project at home. If you’re good with a MIG or TIG welder and have a few key tools, there’s no reason you can’t install a safe pre-bent roll cage in your home garage. A special thanks goes out to S&W Race Cars and Jake Burton for sharing their knowledge on how to properly install a roll cage.