Mandated 10 years ago, HANS device has ushered in era of safety
After 'Black Sunday,' NASCAR made Head and Neck Support device mandatory
Drivers initially bristled at it, but HANS is now like second nature to most drivers
In preventing basilar skull fractures, it has saved countless lives on all circuits
ELBURN, Ill. -- This year's Daytona 500 marked the somber 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death. That dark day, Feb. 18, 2001, ultimately led NASCAR officials to mandate the use of the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device to prevent basilar skull fractures. Since that time, the use of the HANS device has saved numerous drivers in all forms of racing, and while the data cannot quantify how many lives it has saved because that would be attempting to prove a negative, the 10 years since that "Black Sunday" have ushered in a remarkable era of safety in all forms of racing.
Jim Downing, who, along with his brother-in-law, Dr. Jim Hubbard, developed the device in 1986 and began to sell them to racers in 1991, can't attend a race without a driver telling him, "You saved my life.
"Jeff Gordon, a few years ago at the All-Star Race, thanked God and thanked HANS for saving his life in a crash," he said.
"When Earnhardt was killed his legacy was starting to develop and it was bringing safety to racers around the world. It brought soft walls and safer seats and more attention to how safety belts are mounted [and] attention on wear and tear to your equipment so it wasn't too old."
Dr. Terry Trammell, a partner in Orthopedics Indianapolis Inc., who has more than 35 years of experience in medical service in motorsports, is one of the most noted orthopedic surgeons in the world and a major proponent of the HANS device is all forms of racing, beginning with young drivers at the karting ranks. Last December, Trammell spoke at a youth safety seminar at the International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) in Indianapolis and demonstrated the effectiveness of the HANS device using an olive and a toothpick.
"With no HANS in a frontal crash, the olive is your head and the toothpick is your neck and your head comes off your neck and smashes into the window," Trammell told SI.com. "If you fasten the olive to the toothpick with tethers like the HANS does, nothing happens. It stays there and it won't come off. The HANS basically fastens your head to your neck."
An instantaneous basilar skull fracture causes the driver to suffer sudden death when the brainstem snaps loose from the spine. The suddenness of such an impact had a lasting effect on Dr. Trammell when he was serving on the CART safety team at a race in Laguna Seca, Calif., in 1999. During that race, Gonsalo Rodriguez, an aspiring race driver from Uruguay who was driving for Team Penske, died from a basilar skull fracture.
"I was sitting up in Turn 9 in the safety truck and the car went off in front of me and it was like, `Oh, this is nothing. He flipped over the fence and he'll be fine,'" Trammell recalled. "I was astounded when we got to the car [and] he was dead. It completely blew me away that such a trivial accident had such a catastrophic outcome.
"That's what the HANS has done -- taken away that kind of injury."
Rodriguez's death on Sept. 11, 1999 began an ugly era of fatalities in racing. CART star Greg Moore died from massive trauma in a horrific crash in a race at Fontana, Calif., on Oct. 31, 1999, when his car flipped and his helmet hit the corner edge of a wall at high speed in the final race of the season.
But it was NASCAR that was hit hardest, beginning with Adam Petty, the grandson of "The King" Richard Petty. The younger Petty was killed when his car crashed in Turn 3 at New Hampshire on May 12, 2000. Less than two months later, on July 7, NASCAR Cup driver Kenny Irwin crashed in the same turn at the same track and was killed. Instead of addressing the impact of such a crash on the driver's body, NASCAR officials implemented the use of a "kill switch" to shut off the car when the throttle hung on a race car -- something that happened in both crashes.
A third NASCAR driver would die that same season when Tony Roper slammed hard into the wall during a NASCAR Truck Series race at Texas on Oct. 14, 2000.
Three deaths in the same series in six months and NASCAR still did not mandate the use of the HANS device.
That would all change during "Black Sunday" when the biggest name in the sport -- a man considered to be a herculean figure -- would die in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt was a "bigger than life" stock car racing hero. He was the last driver to wear an "open-face" helmet long after all of his competitors wore the much safer full-face helmets, which completely enclosed and protected a driver's head and face. The seat in his race car was also an old seat out of a Ford Econoline van instead of the purpose-built Butler racing seats.
The speed of Earnhardt's car when it lost control along with the unusual angle at which Ken Schrader's car ran into the back of Earnhardt's Chevrolet after Schrader's car was hit by Sterling Marlin's car were all key factors in Earnhardt's death
NASCAR conducted a $1 million investigation into his death that included investigation experts Dr. James H. Raddin and Dr. Dean L. Sicking of the University of Nebraska. The six-month inquiry was the most comprehensive investigation of safety in NASCAR's then 53 years.
The results of the investigation were announced at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta on Aug. 21, 2001, and they concluded that a broken seat belt and subsequent blunt force trauma to the head resulted in a ring fracture to the base of the skull, which instantly killed Earnhardt. His head actually hit the steering wheel causing the fatal injury.
The report suggested that the HANS Device may have helped save Earnhardt, but NASCAR had yet to make the HANS mandatory.
"We think there's still some things we need to understand completely," NASCAR president Mike Helton said on Aug. 21, 2001. "Mandating [the HANS] completely at this point is not a wise thing to do based on production schedules of the parts and pieces themselves and the understanding of the entirety of their uses."
Earnhardt had a "violent head whip" which played a role in the fatal injury and that likely would have been reduced dramatically with the use of a HANS Device. But at the time of the report it was concluded that "no single factor can be isolated as the cause of Dale Earnhardt's death."
After much debate, NASCAR finally made the HANS Device and its rival, the Hutchens Device, mandatory in Oct. 2001. Earnhardt's death was the wake-up call the sport needed and the mandate has become one of the defining moments in safety in auto racing.
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