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HANS device acceptance slow until fateful crash

September 11, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com



HANS device acceptance slow until fateful crash

Many of the advances in racing safety have come quite literally by accident. Fuel cells, flameproof uniforms, improvements in seat belt and helmet construction were all directly relatable to on-track tragedies.

Twenty-five years ago, sports car veteran Jim Downing unveiled a unique head-restraint device at Daytona -- invented by biomechanical engineer Dr. Robert Hubbard -- that was inspired by two serious racing incidents.

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In 1980, Downing escaped serious injury at Mosport. But one year later, Patrick Jacquemart died of a basilar skull fracture at Mid-Ohio, prompting the two to try to come up with a piece of equipment that would protect the head and neck in the event of a high-speed accident.

And that turned out to be the first HANS Device. At the time, neither man knew the impact that their restraint would have on racing safety.

"We were going into the unknown," Hubbard said. "There wasn't any good knowledge of racing crashes back when we started back in the early 1980s, no systematic record keeping and no real analysis of driver injuries and deaths in racing.

"It was a whole new world. I had studied human injury biomechanics and I knew what happens to humans when they get hurt. I also knew crashes were not predictable, that there was a huge diversity when it comes to how people get hurt and the medical consequences. I knew a lot about the world we were entering and it was sobering."

In his suburban Atlanta office, Downing still has the first working prototype, a "funny-looking, big old collar" made of carbon fiber and strapped on a plain white racing helmet. It sits in what Downing calls "his archive room" with a number of other variations of head and neck restraints.

The idea behind the HANS is simple. The body is protected by seats and belts, and held in place in the event of a quick deceleration, but without a restraint, the driver's head and neck is not. The HANS, which is connected to the driver's helmet and rests on the shoulder, keeps the head from snapping forward on impact.

But getting the racing community to accept -- and regularly wear -- the HANS Device wasn't an easy sell at first. Even though safety experts, racing series officials and manufacturers were suitably impressed, Downing estimates he sold around 250 of them in the first decade of production.

"... Earnhardt came in. He sat down with a big grin on his face and we were ushered out right away. He was not interested in [the HANS device]. He wasn't going to talk about it. He wasn't going to spend any time. Really, he was the only driver that I didn't get around to."

--DR. ROBERT HUBBARD

"It was one of these overnight success stories," Downing said.

It took the tragic deaths of Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore in CART, followed by Ayrton Senna's F1 accident in 1994, to really turn the heads of open-wheel drivers into thinking about how to protect themselves better from head and neck injuries.

Even then, only a handful of NASCAR drivers saw the benefits: Kyle Petty, Bill Elliott and Brett Bodine, to name a few. Downing came to the 2000 Brickyard 400 to showcase the device, but most who tried it weren't willing to wear it in the race. One of those who had no interest was Dale Earnhardt.

"I have to say most of the drivers were willing to at least get in the car and put it on," Downing said. "They were polite. We had a funny incident there. At one point, we went into the NASCAR trailer. Mike Helton was in there and we were going to talk about it. It was going to be a discussion, no big deal.

"For some reason, Earnhardt came in. He sat down with a big grin on his face and we were ushered out right away. He was not interested in it. He wasn't going to talk about it. He wasn't going to spend any time. Really, he was the only driver that I didn't get around to."

When Earnhardt died of a basilar skull fracture at Daytona six months later -- the fourth such fatality over a span of less than a year -- drivers immediately lined up at Downing's door. Since then -- and with the introduction of SAFER barriers and a redesigned chassis -- the rate of serious head and neck injuries in NASCAR has declined sharply.

Now Downing's biggest push is to better protect weekend racers.

"The challenge for us is to get the Saturday night circle track drivers to understand that if you stop fast enough at 30 miles an hour, you can die," Downing said. "The dirt tracks, they can't afford to put up SAFER walls, but they can buy better seats, they can buy better belts, they can buy a HANS device and that's the challenge for us now."

Since its introduction in 1986, more than 125,000 HANS Devices have been sold to drivers around the world. The HANS has been significantly refined since then, both in size and weight. And both Downing and Hubbard see no reason why the evolution can't continue.

The HANS Device is one of the major safety improvements in racing. And that's no accident.