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Dale Earnhardt was known for taking risks. He kept it old-school -- and many respected him for it. But after his death at the Daytona 500 in 2001, NASCAR officials decided that driver safety was more important than preference. In 2002, it mandated the use of a head and neck support (HANS) device to prevent a driver's unrestrained head from moving forward during a front-on collision while their body remained strapped to their seat.
According to Thomas Gideon, senior director of Safety, Research & Development of NASCAR, about six drivers were wearing a HANS device in the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt crashed. That day was a turning point in the way the sport looked at the once laughed-at device.
"There was a major change in the way everybody looked at what they did," he said.
Dr. Robert Hubbard, brother-in-law to NASCAR driver Jim Downing, had seen this sort of injury before. He became aware of the lack of protection surrounding the head and neck of drivers during a crash, and sought to build a restraint that would keep the head stable in a collision. Downing began wearing the device -- at the time a bulky piece that limited head movement that was worn over the shoulders but under the seatbelt. The device snapped onto the sides of the driver’s helmet, ensuring the head couldn’t move too far without the shoulders. By the time NASCAR mandated the device, Hubbard and Downing had turned their invention into something that drivers could wear almost unnoticed.
The fatal separation of the head and neck from the body is called basilar skull fracture. With its ability to keep the head from facing so much forward force, the HANS device is believed to have saved many drivers’ lives since it became mandatory.
"As time went on, and these guys were still hitting the wall and nobody was getting hurt, it kind of dawned on them that it was working," Gideon said.
Today, many drivers say their fire suits feel incomplete without the restraint. The current, evolved HANS device is made of carbon and Kevlar, making it both durable and lightweight. Drivers strap their seat belts over the HANS and attach it to the sides of their helmets. According to Gideon, in a front-on crash, wearing the restraint decreases the force your neck is subject to from about 900 to a bearable 200 pounds of force.
"It's all about physics, that's the basis of everything we do," Gideon said.
While most drivers today wear a HANS device, NASCAR has also recently approved the Hutchens device for use during races. Like the HANS device, the Hutchens Hybrid device is also attached to the helmet, but straps around the driver’s chest and shoulders instead of being held into place by the seatbelt. Whichever device drivers choose, the restraints, combined with many other technological advances, have resulted in a much safer sport.