Jim Downing, well known sports car racer has seen many racing accidents during his illustrious career. Some, tragically, resulted in death due to what is now famously known as basilar skull fracture. Downing asked his brother-in-law, Dr. Bob Hubbard to see what he could do to help eliminate this type of injury.
I spoke with Dr. Hubbard recently to present to our readers, the history…the how, when and why of the HANS. “The history really starts with my background before we recognized the need for HANS,” began Hubbard. “I did a research for my PHD degree in engineering on the mechanical properties of skull bone. I was at the University of Michigan Highway Safety Research Institute and we were studying the mechanics of head injury and part of that was to understand the mechanical properties of skull bone which I did for my Ph.D. thesis. Then I was at General Motors starting in 1971 until 1977 working in a group that developed injury measurement technology. A big part of that was the development of the hybrid III crash test dummy, which I worked on and was responsible for the design and development of the head for that dummy. I also worked on some of the design specifications for the rest of the dummy, so, I had background of head injury and injury assessment.”
“Then in about 1981, Jim Downing, who is my wife’s brother, had a friend of his, Patrick Jacquemart, go off the track at Mid-Ohio and run into an embankment with the front of his car. His torso was restrained, but, his head was unrestrained and he had a fracture of the base of his skull or the basilar skull fracture. Jim knew how Patrick was injured and he asked me what could be done about that. I had this background in head injury and injury assessment and had pit crewed for Jim having been interested in racing for some years and I came up with the idea of the HANS Device to restrain the head relative to the torso in a way that wouldn’t add injurious loads to the neck. My thinking was if I could keep the head on the shoulders then it wouldn’t stretch the neck, a pretty simple concept. I also thought of other ideas with straps, and so on, and didn’t pursue those because I didn’t think they would be as effective as the HANS.”
“I came up with the basic concept for the HANS Device in the middle 80s and filed my first patent application in 1985. I am a professor at Michigan State University and I was doing this on the side. I didn’t have any real funding behind me at all. In 1987, the first patent was issued and then I needed to figure out how to actually make some functioning prototypes. I got some money in a small business development grant from the state of Michigan. With that money I built the prototypes that we tested in 1989 and those were the first HANS tests done with the people at Wayne State University, Dr. Paul Begeman, who is still there running tests on neck support devices. These tests in 1989 were the first crash sled tests ever run in America for any racing safety equipment.”
I asked Dr. Hubbard since this injury was well known at that time and documented as one of, if not the, prevalent cause of death in race car drivers, why did it take so long for the head restraint idea to take hold? “I think there are a couple of answers to that,” he continued. “Number 1 was that it wasn’t until the 1990s that people really began to look at racing crashes and injuries with any kind of systematic study. The other thing was that these kinds of injuries are fairly rare. The thought was that there may be a few a year, so, chances are a race car driver would not have a problem and if someone did, everyone knew racing is dangerous. It just didn’t register that there were that many and that anybody could do anything about it. Basically people weren’t aware of it and weren’t keeping track. So, these tests of the HANS Device with these dummies and crash sleds at Wayne State in ’89 were the first tests of any kind in racing safety with a sled and they were very successful. The loads were dramatically reduced, well below the injury tolerance thresholds, and we were able to run the sleds at about 35 Gs, 40 mph velocity change, which is as fast as the sled would go.”
“Paul Begeman is a researcher on spinal injury and I spoke with other experts who said this thing was really effective, so, we couldn’t think of any reason not to use one of these things. I talked to a few safety equipment suppliers, but, they weren’t really interested in it because there wasn’t really a market for it. Nobody knew they needed it, but, Jim and I felt obligated to pursue this because we knew it would be helpful, so, we started our little company called, Hubbard/Downing, Inc. In 1990 we started making and selling HANS devices. I think we actually sold the first one in 1991.”
How did they market this device? “(Laughing) We didn’t have any money and Jim started using it and we got some press. People thought he was crazy because it was a lot bigger then than it is now and had a collar that went around to the sides. It looked like Darth Vader, but, we had some interviews. ESPN was running racing back then and we had some early press coverage because Jim was a fairly prominent sports car racer, a Mazda racer, and a lot of people knew about him and the word got out. We had never bought any advertisement and Jim had a race car shop, so, we were making these things in the back room and selling them.”
“One of the key factors was the device had to be comfortable enough for Jim to wear it. That’s been an important part of this whole thing all the way along. You can’t make somebody do something that they’re going to be uncomfortable with. They’ve got to forget they’ve got it on. Then In 1992, General Motors started a motor sports safety program. The biomechanical part of that was led by Dr. John Melvin, who is still prominent in that field. He did some testing on the HANS Device and some other improvements like 5 and 6 points harnesses. He looked at reclined and upright drivers and began to run some basic research on racing driver restraint. So, that added to the information that we had gotten in 1989. And another thing that General Motors did was to work with CART teams with Dr. Terry Trammel and Dr. Steve Olvey. Steve was the medical director and Terry was one of the guys that worked on the CART medical safety team. They worked with General Motors in recording injuries and also helped in doing the investigations in to the crashes with photographs and measurements and so on. GM also started putting crash data recorders in the cars so we would know how severe these crashes were.”
Then, according to Bob, Ford came on board with funding in 1995 and continued with the same program that GM had begun earlier. This allowed Melvin to continue with sled testing at Wayne State and computer analysis. Greater information was being gained and shared within this area and between the car manufacturers. Safety, said Hubbard, was, after all, the only goal.
Then in the mid 90s Melvin began looking to the IRL cars because, as Hubbard explained, all of this work had been in the open wheel racing arenas and at the same time GM started supplying motors to IRL. In ’97 Mercedes contacted Dr. Hubbard requesting information about the HANS. Prior to that and following Ayrton Senna’s death, F1’s superstar in ’92, Mercedes had been involved with air bag system development. When FIA testing revealed the HANS (which was the older large collar configuration) showed competitive or better testing numbers to the air bag development, Hubert Gramling, the engineer in charge of that development, contacted Jim Downing, Hubbard and a few select others to round table the HANS discussions. The was the beginning of the combined effort between Hubbard/Downing Inc. and Mercedes Benz which resulted, after approximately two years of development, in the basic and current HANS configuration.
In September of 1999, Penske CART driver Gonzalo Rodriguez died during a practice session at Laguna Seca. Dr. Terry Trammel was there that day, and even before the medical team arrived on the scene, suspected that Rodriguez was dead and that the fatal injuries were basilar skull fracture. Then on October 31st, some 6 weeks later, Greg Moore died in a horrific crash just 10 laps into the Marlboro 500 at California Speedway. While Moore’s crash was more complicated, he sustained many other types of injuries and did, in fact, die from the same skull fracture. Dr. Trammel knew, because of his earlier affiliation with the GM motor sports safety program and the HANS Device, instantly what could be done about these injuries in the future. Hubbard said of that time and the drivers who were dying, “It was heart breaking, it was gut wrenching. It was very frustrating (knowing he had a device that could change the outcome of such accidents and save lives) and I’m still frustrated about it because there are still drivers who don’t wear these devices.”
Newman/Haas of CART began working very diligently with Hubbard/Downing during practice sessions with their drivers Michael Andretti and Christian Fitapaldi. “They were very dedicated,” stated Hubbard. Work began on the development of a comfortable application for these car designs. In 2000 CART made the HANS Device mandatory.
Other series became interested with more implementation taking place and while the HANS was gaining worldwide attention and use within several prominent racing series, it had not yet reached the NASCAR realms in any major way. During the same year that Rodriguez and Moore from CART died, the need for head and neck restraint became tragically and graphically demonstrated in the upper NASCAR series with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper. All of these drivers died of basilar skull fracture. After that some drivers in upper NASCAR series were seen using one of several devices available, but, unfortunately there was no widespread use or acceptance of head and neck restraint devices.
At Daytona the following year, “There were about 8 guys who had HANS Devices on. I was actually at the track,” continued Bob, “working with Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton. The device we had wasn’t actually comfortable for Jeff because he is smaller and it hit him in the arms and so on. It took us a little while to get one that was comfortable for him. Then I was working with Bill Elliott and he couldn’t wear it because they needed to make some changes to the seat that they couldn’t do at the track. That was the first time they ran the Dodge and just didn’t have time to deal with it. But, I was walking back and forth between Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott and half way between the two was Dale Earnhardt. I was within a few feet of Dale (E) and he just didn’t want to hear about it. He wasn’t interested. You don’t go where you’re not invited at high levels. I was in the garage at the invitation of these teams and I knew who was going to listen to me and I knew who wasn’t going to listen. I learned through a decade of experience that if people don’t want to listen to what you have to say you’re wasting your breath.”
“The car companies sponsored Dr. John Melvin to give safety lectures during practice in January before the 2001 Daytona 500. We were cooperating closely with NASCAR and the car companies to educate the drivers. The car companies were buying devices from us and giving them to the drivers. The drivers didn’t have to pay for them. They were pushing the drivers to wear the HANS Device basically in response to the crashes they had had the previous summer. And, of course, at that point I don’t think it’s any secret that NASCAR was managing their risk by having it be a driver and team decision. It wasn’t something they were going to mandate. I can’t second guess that. That is their business.”
Without warning, the attention for the need of head restraint struck the racing world with the shocking impact that is still felt today. On February 18, 2001 Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 of these same head and neck injuries. It was just too much. Too many lives had been lost in such a short period of time. No longer was basilar skull fracture considered an acceptable racing risk. Racing safety was about to change in, probably, the most important way. The mechanics of these injuries were becoming familiar to the sanctioning bodies, innovators and race fans. Graphic details on why these injuries were fatal could be found all over the internet and in print publications. And reports were also finding TV time about the head and neck restraint devices that were able to greatly reduce this risk.
Following Dale’s death Hubbard remembered being, “…shocked by that. I recorded about 80 entries in my telephone log the first day. And I didn’t even write them all down. I was on National television 10 times that Monday. I had been down in Florida and came home on Friday and went cross country skiing in Michigan. So, I didn’t know he died until I got home and there was voice mail on my answering machine at 10 o’clock at night. I actually had 2 interviews that night before I went to bed.”
“The history of the post Earnhardt death is well known. It was a watershed because it brought everybody to the awareness that even though this is rare it can happen to big people. And Earnhardt was probably one of the most popular drivers that NASCAR has ever had. I think that his death was instrumental in changing a lot of people’s attitudes. But, you have to realize that NASCAR, before Dale’s death, was taking steps to improve racing safety. They had a huge cultural change after Dale’s death and now NASCAR and FIA are the 2 world leaders in terms of studying driver safety in racing.”
Immediately after Earnhardt’s death two devices were approved for use in NASCAR, but, not mandated until 2002. In 2005 only the HANS Device remained as approved and is mandated for use within the NEXTEL Cup, Busch Grand National, Craftsman Truck Series and all NASCAR’s regional and touring series.
On an interesting note the total number of HANS devices sold during the entire 90s decade was somewhere around 250 devices. Approximately the same total number of HANS sold in the week following Earnhardt’s death.An estimated 100 prototypes have resulted in the current HANS design. The original device was made of cardboard and tape and allowed a visual side for further development. One device from the early designs stands out by name as well as looks. It is affectionately known as the “FrankenHans”
Today over 40 (a very conservative figure) racing series that fall under the banner of various sanctioning bodies use only SFI 38.1 certified head and neck restraint devices. Of that figure all but 4 have a HANS only mandate.
To learn more about the HANS Device please visit their website at http://www.hansdevice.com.