You Really Do Need HANS – Full Story
There’s a little ritual the people at HANS have. Drivers who send them a letter of thanks are sent a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend ‘HANS saved my neck’. And so far the company has despatched 800 such T-shirts. That’s a lot of necks saved since 2005.Given the ubiquity of HANS (Head And Neck Support) the number itself isn’t surprising. Perhaps more so is the fact that most of those T-shirts have been mailed in the past decade.
HANS celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first use in competition a few months ago, but for much of its life the device and its inventors fought an uphill battle to win acceptance from the motor racing community. That they overcame doubt and ridicule is testament to their perseverance and confidence in the benefits of HANS.
Today, elite racers consider their HANS device to be as essential as their helmet.It wasn’t always thus. When multiple IMSA champion Jim Downing first raced in the prototype it was widely ridiculed. “Yeah, people used to point and wonder what I was wearing,” he says. “I guess I looked like a fool – but that’s how we got our early publicity.”Downing developed HANS with his brother-in-law, Bob Hubbard, but it wasn’t the garden-shed project it sounds: Professor Robert Hubbard is one of the world’s foremost experts in spinal biomechanics.
Having spent his formative years working in crash research for General Motors, Dr Hubbard accepted an assistant professorship at Michigan State University in 1977 and retired from what he calls “the day job” as distinguished professor of biomechanical engineering in 2006, though his extra-curricular activity continues with the company that began as Hubbard-Downing Inc and is now known as simply HANS Performance Products.”I had a background in injury biomechanics and when Jim recognised the problem of the restrained torso and unrestrained head leading to the basilar skull fracture, I was well equipped to respond.
I came up with this concept of restraining the head relative to the torso – which is essentially the function HANS fulfils.”Downing’s interest in the project began after the death of Patrick Jacquemart at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Jacquemart, director of Renault Racing in the US and a friend of Downing’s, died during private testing of a Renault 5 Turbo Alpine. Witnesses report he struck a sandbank head-on and died of a basilar skull fracture – the injury that HANS would later combat.Skull fractures of this type are an unwelcome consequence of other safety measures.
In a head-on collision, shoulder belts restrain the torso – but the unrestrained head continues along its path. As the harness pulls the shoulders rearwards and down the neck is stretched. Something has to give and the base of the skull is the weak point. “It will break loose from the rest of the skull – and the major blood vessels and spinal chord go through the base of the skull,” says Hubbard. “Often the fatal injuries are ruptured blood vessels: the driver essentially bleeds to death.”
Under such circumstances injuries are actually exacerbated by the helmet, which adds around 20-25 per cent to the weight of the head and increases the loading between head and shoulders – though it also provides the basis for the HANS solution: anchor points on the helmet are used to secure tethers, which connect to the HANS collar. This sits under the shoulder belts and spreads load across the torso. In a frontal collision it reduces the forward motion of the head relative to the torso and takes the basilar skull fracture out of the equation. Some have hailed it as the best safety device since the seat belt.
Hubbard says that to anyone with a grasp of injury mechanics, the advantages of HANS were obvious, though the racing community didn’t immediately take to it; and while Downing was using it week-in, week-out at the racetrack, he wasn’t inundated with imitators.
“In those early years between 1986-91 we got almost no one to wear it,” says Downing. “We had a few early adopters like Paul Newman, but he had a neck problem – that’s primarily where a lot of our early market came from: a few saw it for what it was, but others already had damaged necks and wanted protection.”
Many early adopters came to the device via famed motor sports orthopaedic surgeon Dr Terry Trammell, then CART director of medical services. He allowed several drivers to return to racing after injury only on condition that they wore a HANS device.
“I think most racers didn’t really think they had a problem,” adds Hubbard. “People who race tend to disregard the potential for injury or death and that was certainly a factor. Another was that even though the basilar skull fracture is often fatal, it’s relatively rare. Some racers could go through their career without knowing anyone who’d had the injury, so many thought they didn’t need it, which was very discouraging.”
Part of HANS’s lack of appeal was the bulky nature of the original model. There was a belief that it would be uncomfortable but also, among stock car and closed canopy sports car racers, that it would impede their exit from the vehicle in an emergency. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr is credited with calling HANS a “damned noose” and refusing to wear it.
Downing disputes both notions. “Model One was actually very comfortable. It spread the load over your chest much better than seatbelts did. I was driving long distance races – 24 Hours at Daytona, Sebring 12 Hours etc – and we had some features back then that the new ones don’t have. You could pull extra tethers and tighten the straps that hold the head so that when you’re into the seventh or eighth hour at Sebring – a bumpy, tough course – you could hold your head up straight and take the tension off your neck.
“The complaints we got were from people who had to crawl through a small window. It added some size to your head and made it a little more difficult. But it’s just one of those things – and after you’d done it a few times it was pretty simple.” (In Downing’s first year wearing the HANS he took the fourth of his five IMSA titles.) And it did shrink over the years to become more acceptable to closed-cockpit racers, and – with considerable very welcome help from Mercedes’ Hubert Gramling [now a research consultant with the FIA Institute] – suitable for use in open-wheel single-seaters.
However, like many other safety initiatives the real impetus to get HANS adopted came out of tragedy. The 1990s and early 21st century were a particularly awful time for basilar skull fractures. They weren’t new, but the advances in crash structures which kept the chassis largely intact during heavy collisions made them more obvious: the safety cell survived but the driver did not. In Hubbard’s view it was out of these tragedies in NASCAR, F1 and CART that recognition of the problem – and of HANS as a potential solution – came about.
“I think that was the case, the problem really came to light because of the major incidents and basilar skull fractures that were obvious in the big series. Roland Ratzenberger [killed during practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix] died from a basilar skull fracture.”
Gonzalo Rodríguez [killed at the 1999 Laguna Seca CART race] died from the same cause, and his death was followed by several fatalities in NASCAR. “There were,” Downing continues, “a number of notable accidents where people didn’t have HANS, in CART especially. When Rodriguez was killed that really raised the question for them. The big stories in NASCAR were Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty, and then of course Dale Earnhardt, which really finally gained us acceptance.”
When racing series started taking HANS seriously much of the research was already underway – and much of the impetus for widescale adoption of HANS came from the industry rather than regulators. General Motors studied HANS after launching a racing safety research programme in 1992 under Dr John Melvin, later NASCAR’s technical consultant for racing safety. And in the wake of the Imola fatalities Hubert Gramling then included HANS in his studies of motor racing safety.
Hubbard and Downing had done initial validation research with sled testing at Wayne State University in 1989. Later testing gave their research the industry seal of approval when HANS went from niche aid to an everyday part of racing. CART mandated a head restraint device on oval tracks in 2001, then NASCAR, in the wake of Earnhardt’s death, did the same. F1 followed in 2003, and since 2007 all FIA championships require competitors to wear a device. In some instances HANS is specified; in others it’s merely a popular choice, having spawned an industry and competition from rivals such as Hutchens (the only one FIA-approved), Defender, LFT, NecksGen, Leatt, Isaac and Simpson..
MIIKKA ANTTILA – FORD WRC CO-DRIVER FOR JARI-MATTI LATVALA – “I’ve been wearing the HANS since 2006 when Jari-Matti and I were in Group N, and then in the WRC Finnish Championship. We both wear a standard rally HANS and I keep the tethers quite long so I can read the pace notes. A couple of times it has saved me from serious injury – there is a crash in Portugal where we rolled off a cliff, but in the 2006 Rally Corsica we had a head-on with a tree. If I hadn’t been wearing my HANS I’d have had a very painful neck – at least – for a long time. As a co-driver I’m often not looking at the road so I’m not prepared for a big impact. Now I wouldn’t get into a WRC car without it.”
HEIKKI KOVALAINEN – CATERHAM DRIVER IN FORMULA ONE – “The HANS device has certainly made F1 safer – as a driver you feel protected. The devices have developed over the past few years and the latest are more comfortable to wear. Actually I don’t even notice it – it’s just there, one of those safety devices you’re aware of but don’t notice. It absolutely made a big difference for me in a couple of accidents. At Barcelona I had a big one [hitting the barriers head-on at around 125mph after a front-wheel failure] and when you stop that suddenly, your head wants to carry on. Without the protection of HANS, I’d have damaged my spine and neck. So I’m glad I had my HANS.”
One peculiarity of the HANS story is that the first life saved by the device was not at a racetrack but on water. Both Downing and Hubbard claim powerboat racer Andy Anderson was the first man to survive an otherwise fatal impact thanks to HANS. Hubbard tells the tale: “Andy’s boat became airborne, flipped onto its right side, nosed in and came to rest upright. He was unconscious and bleeding from his nose and mouth, common with a basilar skull fracture. The rescue crew thought he was dead because they’d seen several similar crashes, all fatal. Andy’s nose was broken and he was knocked unconscious, but he went home after the race.”
While it’s impossible to prove HANS’s success rate, it’s also plain to see that the incidence of basilar skull fractures fades away from sports that mandate a head restraint. Today HANS spans a range of products that fit drivers of all shapes and sizes with seating positions as varied as the near-horizontal of F1, to the more conventional WRC cockpit. More than 130,000 devices are in use every weekend, and thousands of racers have been saved from injury, and hundreds from death.
“We have eight or nine models which vary depending on the size of the driver and the angle of the seat,” says Downing. “It isn’t quite one-size fits all, but I haven’t found anyone I couldn’t fit. The most extreme we’ve had is a guy called ‘Big George’. We read his statistics and couldn’t believe a guy weighing 500lb was racing – but there he was, out in Baja California racing a giant off-road truck. We fitted him, no problem.”
HANS may have achieved saturation in elite-level racing but the science of head restraint still has converts to make at amateur level. And while headlines will be made by a 200mph shunt at Ponoco or Monza, an effective restraint is all the more vital at venues that don’t come with the latest safety barriers, an emergency operating theatre or medical chopper.
“I’ve been racing for 49 years,” says Downing. “25 of them professionally, but now, at 70, I’m back in club racing and I can’t go to a track without people coming up and giving me at least an anecdotal story that says HANS saved their lives. Now, I know they probably exaggerate, but HANS has prevented a lot of injuries.
“We like to think motor racing is F1 and NASCAR and IndyCar, but it isn’t. The vast majority of racing is amateur and we get those stories a lot – and when we do we send them a T-shirt that says ‘HANS saved my neck’. It’s a nice way to do a little PR, it helps us a little bit and they enjoy it. It’s worked out well for everybody.”
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