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HANS is a 25-year evolution in driver protection

February 16, 2011, Mark Aumann,

ATLANTA -- HANS: 'Overnight success story' is a 25-year evolution in driver protection

One of the most important safety advances in the history of racing is manufactured in a nondescript, one-story brick building on the same street as a ceramics shop, a company that creates stained glass and a pet mortuary.

Welcome to the home of the HANS device.

Downing wears the HANS device during this year's Rolex 24.

"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."


Jim Downing sits in a window-shaded corner office of his Downing/Atlanta Inc. headquarters, surrounded by stacks of papers, technical drawings and reference books, in addition to posters and photos that detail his racing career. It's difficult not to notice the five golden camel statues on shelves on the far wall, a testament to his five IMSA driving championships.

But for the past decade, Downing has been better known as the principal driving force behind HANS -- the acronym for the "head and neck support" system -- that he and brother-in-law Dr. Bob Hubbard invented almost 25 years ago.

"It was one of these overnight success stories," Downing says with a wry smile.

There was a time early on when success seemed impossible at best. Crash test results showed the product worked well, but Downing had a hard time convincing other drivers to try it. In the first 10 years, Downing estimated he sold no more than 250 HANS devices.

"If we sold one a month, it would be amazing," Downing said. "Frankly, it got to be pretty discouraging. I was beginning to think we were never going to get this thing off the ground. I was a professional road racer and the Mazda factory paid my bills for 20 years. We weren't making a living off HANS devices, I can tell you that."

But Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident at the 2001 Daytona 500 was about to change everything.

Out of tragedy

Racing safety rarely progresses at a slow and steady pace. Sadly, major leaps forward are nearly always the result of calamitous circumstances. Mandatory fuel cells were the direct response to fires that killed Fireball Roberts, Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964. NASCAR mandated window netting after Richard Petty's horrifying rollover crash down the frontstretch at Darlington in 1970.

And when four NASCAR drivers were killed within an eight-month span, including Earnhardt, suddenly everybody in the garage area was knocking down the doors to get one of Downing's devices.

"When that string of deaths started in NASCAR with Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, and then Tony Roper and then Earnhardt, we were ready with a device that would work, that was something the drivers were willing to try, so the push got going," Downing said. "I took orders for 250 in the first week after Earnhardt was killed. It was a very hectic start to a very hectic year. I had like one on the shelf."

That wasn't the case when Downing came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000 with the intention of introducing the HANS to the drivers participating in the Chevrolet test session for the upcoming Brickyard 400. The response at the time was lukewarm at best, although one driver in particular was adamant in his disinterest.

"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.

"Some of them did brush us off, but by and large, most of them were pretty good. It didn't mean they accepted it and wanted one, but it was a test day and there was a lot of down time. There wasn't the pressure of a race where people have their race face on."

Downing understands why drivers are sometimes resistant to change. Even without Earnhardt's death and the resulting NASCAR mandate for head and neck restraints, he believes most drivers would have voluntarily made the move.

"Certainly we would have been accepted if Earnhardt hadn't been killed," Downing said. "But that accelerated it by five or six years, maybe even 10."

At his shop in Atlanta, Jim Downing holds up the original HANS device, circa 1986, still attached to a helmet.

Walking the walk

Dressed in a denim shirt, sweater and jeans, Downing looks like he'd be comfortable in the role of a college professor. And with a degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech, the tall, angular 69-year-old with thinning hair and rounded glasses certainly has the engineering chops to back it up.

Downing caught the racing bug early, entering soap box derbies when he was 11. He raced smaller sports cars until he could get his SCCA license at 21, at which time he rebuilt a Elva Courier and entered it at Daytona. After 11 years of amateur racing, Downing went pro with factory backing from Mazda.

During that time, Hubbard -- a mechanical engineer with a doctorate in biomechanics -- assisted on Downing's pit crew, and invariably the two would talk about safety issues, since Hubbard did crash test studies at General Motors involving the head and neck.

The conversations became more substantial when Downing escaped serious injury in a hard crash at Mosport in 1980. A year later, his good friend Patrick Jacquemart died in an accident at Mid-Ohio.

"Patrick was killed because of a basilar skull fracture," Downing said. "It was one of those things where there's not a mark on your body. He went into a bank at the end of a long straightaway at Mid-Ohio and snapped his head. His body was restrained and his head wasn't. Very few people escape dying from that type of wreck."

Downing wondered if there might be a piece of equipment designed to keep the head and neck protected in the event of a high-velocity accident, and Hubbard had an idea for what would become the original HANS.

"I asked the question of how can we be safer, and he answered it," Downing said. "He came up with the idea of this funny-looking, big old collar. He came up with the idea, got a patent on it and we built them in my composite shop. We actually had the first working prototype -- that I was wearing -- in 1986."

Behind Downing's office, he has his "archive room," where metal shelves are stacked with a visual history of the HANS device. There, among a number of successful and unsuccessful prototypes of all shapes and sizes, is device No. 1, still strapped to a unadorned white helmet.

Downing's work caught the attention of safety expert John Melvin, who took one of the first devices to his lab at Wayne State University in Michigan and gave the HANS the thumbs up after thorough testing. But the original HANS was big and bulky and drivers thought it limited their ability to move around in -- and out of -- the car.

But manufacturers were paying attention.

"The unfortunate death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 really influenced this quite a lot because it got Mercedes -- Daimler Benz -- interested," Downing said. "They started testing our device and discovered in their sled tests that it really did work. It worked on the first hit and the second and the third. Sometimes, it ain't over until it's really over."

In 1998, representatives from several manufacturers met with Downing and Hubbard.

"It's when we got together with Mercedes, Ford and Chevy and met at Chevrolet in Detroit and talked about this device," Downing said. "Mercedes stepped up because of the testing and funded us. They just had tested the big one and knew the concept worked but it wouldn't fit in a Formula 1 car. That was their interest.

"So we downsized it and downsized it, and massaged it and got it to where it would fit. The product today is a far cry from that product, but you put them side to side and you know where the parentage came from."

CART physician Dr. Terry Trammell began requiring drivers with previous neck injuries to wear HANS devices, and slowly more open-wheel drivers began to use it, particularly on ovals. But Downing still faced an uphill battle in NASCAR.

"We're so busy right now, I almost haven't got time to figure out about what else to do, other than just solve problems and work on new variations We talk about adding products. We have a world-class brand, with a good reputation."


Toehold in NASCAR

There are still reminders of Downing's racing days in his expansive shop at the back of the building. The driver's compartment of a Mazda prototype sits amid a collection of vintage vehicles and race cars in the process of being constructed. In addition to the work on HANS, Downing still does manufacturing and bodywork, so it's a busy place, filled with the sounds of grinding metal and the smells of paint and fiberglass.

The carbon fiber pieces that make up the key elements of the HANS are molded off-site, but there is a room, perhaps no bigger than a master bedroom, where all the parts are hand assembled. There are two heavy-duty sewing stations to attach the tethers, and one worker is busy making sure the metal hardware is a perfect fit.

Since the Intimidator wasn't interested in Downing's newfangled device, HANS got a toehold in NASCAR thanks to the son of the King, Kyle Petty.

"He's a guy who thinks outside the box," Downing said. "Kyle doesn't have blinders on as much as some of the other drivers. He was never the hero driver as much as his dad was. He was still a thinker.

"Bill Elliott had tried it early on, even early on when he was Million Dollar Bill. I can't remember if it was the late '80s or early '90s, but that was a big one."

Another driver who wore the HANS early on would also eventually go on to perform a key role in NASCAR's safety initiatives.

"Brett Bodine was probably the first real regular to wear the HANS device," Downing said. "He realized it early on. He was an engineer and he was a smart guy."

Still, Downing estimates no more than five or six drivers were wearing a HANS device when the field took the green flag for the 2001 Daytona 500.

"We had guys who didn't want to know about it and fought it, tooth and nail," Downing said.

Tony Stewart's resistance to the HANS is legendary. Downing remembered how much of a battle Stewart put up when forced to wear one at the Daytona 24-hour race one February.

"When it became mandatory in Grand-Am, he didn't want to wear it there," Downing said. "It was required of everybody. I and my wife went down at the request of Grand-Am to make sure that even though they knew they had to wear it, we knew people would show up and not have it. We went down just to help out and we ended up working for three days solid in 30-degree weather, fitting HANS helmets with the parts and making sure everybody had it.

"We had to fight Tony down there. He had four of them at the time but he kept making excuses like, 'I don't have one that fits right.' We even flew some in on Saturday morning before the start of the 24-hour race. I got up early, went to the FedEx office and brought them over so he had every possible selection."

Finally, Jim France stepped in and gave Stewart an ultimatum.

"Jimmy -- to his credit -- said, 'Tony, if you're not going to wear this thing, go home. That's your choice,' " Downing said. "And he wore it. But it took Jim France to get it done. I could sit there and explain to him why they ought to do it, all day long, and he didn't give a damn what I had to say. But now he's a believer. He's had big wrecks. They all got religion, finally."

The religious metaphor went from figuratively to literally later that year in the All-Star Race at Charlotte.

"I remember when Jeff Gordon had that huge wreck at Charlotte, at the start of the all-star race," Downing said. "He wrecked on the first lap, and he got up and thanked God and he thanked HANS for saving his life. But you have to think those things affected other drivers. It was already mandatory then."

Trial and error

For Downing, the HANS device is a never-ending work in progress. That's why he has a small room with a testing bench and weights that allow him to check quality control on the current model, plus perform stress and load analysis on prototypes. That, and the feedback he gets from drivers has been the key reason why HANS continues to improve.

"I've got personal experience. I'm still racing," Downing said. "I talk to the drivers when I'm out there and hear the complaints. One of the bigger complaints -- and one of the biggest changes we're able to make -- is a sliding tether.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

"It came about because the fixed tethers, you could turn your head only a few inches before it would stop. In fact, on the race track, that's all you ever turn your head. Indy-car drivers, they only move their eyeballs. So it took us a while to figure out first how to do it."

That means strapping on the helmet and figuring out what will -- and won't -- work.

"I do most of the product changes," Downing said. "I tried sliding tethers. I make myself the test dummy, as I have been since Day 1. The first sliding tether didn't work very well. It had a little groove for the tether and it worked, but when you got on the track, every time you'd turn your head, it would catch before it continued to turn. It wasn't a big deal, but it was irritating.

"So we finally got that right, and it was fairly simple to get it right."

And an unexpected bonus came when the new tether was checked on the sled test machine.

"It turns out that the sliding tether is probably even a little bit safer than the fixed tether," Downing said. "People like John Melvin have agreed with us that it actually might take some of the jerk out of a rotational wreck.You get hurt because of rotation and tearing. The slide tether helps reduce that probability a little bit."

The current configuration of the HANS device is a "one size fits most." However, some drivers -- because of their size, neck length and stature -- need a little extra tailoring.

"We went up and [recently] fit Danica Patrick at Jefferson Speedway [northeast of Atlanta]," Downing said. "Danica's been bellyaching about her HANS. It doesn't work, it doesn't fit right. She would never spend time with us and tell us exactly what the problem is.

"So fortunately they were testing up there and asked us to come up and see. We went up and brought all our HANS and put one on there that no one had ever tried before. And it fit, and she seems to be happy."

When the HANS first became popular, unique molds were made for certain star drivers. But Downing says that's no longer economically feasible.

"In the early days, everybody wanted their own personal one," Downing said. "Danica wants one, too. OK, send me the $50,000 check. By the time you build the proper mold, and you train the people to build it at where we have the high-end ones built, and then you go through the SFI testing, the FIA testing -- if it passes the first time and you don't have to redesign it, change it, do it again -- it's big money to do this.

"We did one for Jeff Gordon and a couple of others. But as we developed a more universal model -- and several of those with different angles and different widths, we're able to fit anybody."

Evolution and expansion

Downing has a virtual monopoly in Sprint Cup. Only one driver that he's aware of in NASCAR's three major touring series -- Brendan Gaughan -- doesn't use HANS. But where he feels his company has the opportunity to make the biggest difference isn't under the bright lights of the high-banked superspeedways, but in the dimly lit bullrings of local tracks.

"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."

The message is working, because over 120,000 HANS devices have been sold by almost 200 dealers in North America and Europe. And most of those were by show and tell. The device retails for $600-$1,000, depending on the model.

"What we've tried to do is sign up dealers who will go to these small tracks on Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, with a little trailer," Downing said. "The guys out in the field typically won't buy one unless they can touch it, feel it, put one on and sit in their car. It hasn't become a commodity yet where you buy it from one of the big distributors."

And Downing never stops thinking about ways to improve HANS. On his desk is the most recent prototype, with a lower and more rounded neck brace. It's a result of feedback from Funny Car drag racers who need to be able to exit their cars through a small opening in the roof.

"We're so busy right now, I almost haven't got time to figure out about what else to do, other than just solve problems and work on new variations," Downing said. "We talk about adding products. We have a world-class brand, with a good reputation. In Europe, in Japan, people know what a HANS device is. I probably should hire some professional brand manager who knows more about it than I ever will. Right now, we're just working away."

Downing has raced for more than four decades and has acquired trophies of every shape and size. But for him, finding a way for drivers to survive potentially fatal accidents is worth more than any checkered flag.

"I'm thrilled that I'm known now as the HANS guy," Downing said. "I got into racing because I like racing. I had some success and I enjoyed the success.

"But this is a much bigger deal. This is important for everybody in racing. Both Bob and I are thrilled that this happened to us. It's far more important than being a racer."