After five drivers were killed on NASCAR tracks in the past year and a half, NASCAR elected to mandate the use of a head and neck restraint system for all of its competitors in Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, and the Craftsman Truck Series. Testing found that a driver was more likely to survive a frontal impact collision when their head and neck was restrained from whipping forward at the moment of impact.
On the surface it is a positive move for NASCAR. Historically the organization has been slow to move on safety issues, often preferring to implement the advances discovered by the race teams. When Dale Earnhardt crashed at Talladega in 1996, his car hit the wall head on, turned upside down, and was hit as it barrel rolled down the frontstretch. After inspecting the car, NASCAR found an added rollbar that likely kept the roof from collapsing on the driver. They quickly mandated the bar in all cars.
Head and neck restraint systems are a new phenomenon in NASCAR racing. In 2000, Brett Bodine became the first driver to wear a device. He chose the Head And Neck Support (HANS) device. It was invented by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a biomechanics professor at the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, in collaboration with his brother-in-law, longtime IMSA sports car driver Jim Downing. No driver wearing a HANS Device has suffered a severe head or neck injury in a racing accident. "The concept is simple, just to keep the head on top of the shoulders," Hubbard said. "I can’t see any reason why every driver who races cars and boats with a shoulder harness shouldn’t be wearing one of these things. I think that day will come some day."
Only a handful of drivers were wearing the HANS device before the season began. Terry Labonte said he became convinced the HANS was the way to go after viewing a video documenting the effects of a crash on the human body (as portrayed by dummies) during preseason testing at Daytona. "I took that video out to the shop and had all the guys come into the break room, and we watched it," Labonte said. "And now everybody there realizes what takes place, and what we have to do on these cars to make them better."
Despite its proven results, the HANS device remained out of most drivers realms. That is until February 18, 2001. Dale Earnhardt hit the wall betweens turns three and four on the final lap of the Daytona 500 nearly head-on. Orders for the HANS device skyrocketed in the week that followed. While some drivers found the HANS device to be too bulky, there was an alternative. Autoliv, a world leader in automotive safety research and design, had designed a restraint system using straps that attached to the driver's seat belt system and helmet. Richard Childress Racing crew member Bobby Hutchens was one of the first try the new device. Hence, it became known as the Hutchens device.
NASCAR chose to sit on the sidelines and allow the teams to experiment with the devices. Requiring safety equipment has long been a peculiar situation for NASCAR. In its rulebook (of which the contents are not made public due to "trade secrets") NASCAR states that a seat belt is required. Obviously no driver would take to the track without wearing a helmet, but it is not a required safety item according to the NASCAR rulebook. As the second Talladega race approached, NASCAR mandated the use of either the HANS or Hutchens device for all of its competitors in touring series.
It was clearly NASCAR's way of saying "Yes, these devices are necessary pieces of safety equipment. And they must be used now." A few drivers had not gotten comfortable with either the HANS or Hutchens device. Tony Stewart felt the restraint systems increased his feeling of claustrophobia inside the race car. He was working to come up with a suitable system on his own, but was forced to adhere to the NASCAR mandate. The rules of racing had changed from one week to the next, almost without warning. An official memo mandating the use of either the HANS or Hutchens device came on Wednesday before Talladega. For a driver who hadn't used either device up to that point, it seemed like a sudden decision. After all, there was no inkling beforehand that NASCAR would mandate the device on two days notice.
That being said, restraint systems save lives. In terms of cost, the HANS device can be attained for around $1500. The Hutchens device is $300. For driver's on a limited budget, the choice is clear. The $1200 savings can best be put toward that weekend tire bill or crew member's salaries. But which restraint system is best?
Perhaps Loni Richardson answered that question in a Craftsman Truck Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. Most racing fans have never heard of Richardson. He's a 29 year old virtually unknown driver trying to make it in NASCAR. As he headed into turn one, his truck headed straight for the wall. He got hard on the brakes but slammed the turn one wall at a hard angle with the right front corner of his track. The impact sent him off the wall and back into oncoming race traffic where Ricky Hendrick hit the side of Richardson's truck. Richardson escaped serious injury and got out of the truck under his own power. Shortly thereafter he was interviewed by ESPN. It was noted that one of the fasteners of his Hutchens device had broken off from his helmet upon impact.
Clearly, the Hutchens device had suffered a failure under pressure. Perhaps it did its job and restrained Richardson before it broke. Then again, perhaps that broken seat belt from Daytona did its job before it broke.
But nary a word was mentioned about Richardon's incident in the days that followed. At Chicagoland Speedway earlier this race, Mike Harmon's seat belt suffered a minor laceration after a crash. NASCAR put the belt on display for its teams to view. When Jeremy Mayfield's seat belt suffered a smiliar fate at Dover, NASCAR put the belt on display and held a press conference. But at Phoenix, a NASCAR mandated piece of safety equipment had failed... after being approved universally by the sanctioning body just one week earlier. There was no press conference with Mike Helton and Gary Nelson holding up Richardon's helmet and Hutchens device from Phoenix.
Earlier this season in Atlanta, Elton Sawyer hit another car head-on after a crash in turn one. Sawyer was wearing the HANS device and credited it with helping him to avoid a serious injury. The device Sawyer was wearing was cracked during the accident bringing up some questions as to its performance. "The HANS device I was wearing at Atlanta didn't break, but fractured and absorbed energy as it was designed to do. It did its job." That much is certain about the HANS device. At Talladega, Bobby Labonte, who had been wearing the Hutchens device this season, went to Jeff Gordon to borrow a HANS device. Labonte's feeling was that the HANS would stand up better in a major crash. Unfortunately he was able to try it out on the final lap of the race. His car flipped over and hit the wall. But he walked away unscathed. "(The HANS device) did what it was supposed to do," Labonte said afterwards.
But what about the Hutchens device? Is it normal for a helmet buckle to snap
off during an incident like it did in Loni Richardson's crash? The device
is now a NASCAR mandated piece of equipment. Is the HANS a better piece of equipment? What is the downside?
Will other head and neck restraint systems, such as the one Tony Stewart
is working on, be accepted by NASCAR in place of the HANS or Hutchens?
For the protection
of the drivers, answers are needed now
more than ever.
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