NASCAR and other forms of motorsports have made great strides in recent decades to improve driver safety on the racetrack. No one wants to see a serious injury or death during competition. One improvement often referenced as a great, life-saving success is the mandatory use of the HANS device.
The HANS (head and neck support) device works by supporting the driver’s head during a crash, keeping it from whipping forward. By keeping the head restrained with the torso, vulnerable skull and neck areas are less susceptible to fractures that often result in serious injury or death.
The implementation of the HANS device in NASCAR and other motorsports is considered a watershed moment towards improving driver safety. Below you will learn the origins and science behind this life-saving piece of equipment.
What Is The HANS Device In NASCAR?
The HANS device in NASCAR is a head and neck support system designed to keep a driver’s head from whipping forward during a hard crash. The HANS device tethers a driver’s helmet to a collar. Seatbelts placed over the collar ensure the head moves with the body, diminishing whiplash during impact.
Without HANS, the torso is restrained but the head and neck are largely unrestrained, sending it violently ahead during impact. When an unrestrained head whips forward in such a manner, it can result in a basilar skull fracture or a neck fracture. A basilar skull fracture has been one of the most common causes of fatalities in NASCAR and other forms of motorsports.
The HANS uses a raised collar with two fabric tethers. These secure the driver’s head. The collar is held in place by the driver’s shoulder restraints. The tethers attach the sides of the driver’s helmet to the collar using anchor points. All these parts keep the torso and head secured and together, limiting the excess load being placed on the driver’s vulnerable head and neck areas.
Crash test simulations show a head restrained with a HANS during a NASCAR-type crash endures less than 130 pounds of neck load. Compare this to an unrestrained head enduring over 1,000 pounds of neck load in the same crash and it’s easier to understand how massive a difference this device makes in a hard crash.
It is important to contextualize the impacts NASCAR drivers can experience and why this necessitates some type of head and neck restraint. During some NASCAR crashes, g-forces reach a range between 120-150. To put that in perspective, death is likely to occur at g-forces 60 and above in passenger cars. The HANS device offers an extra layer of safety for NASCAR drivers experiencing intense crashes.
Why Was The HANS Device Introduced?
The HANS device was introduced to NASCAR in the 2001 following a string of deaths in the sport. Three NASCAR drivers died during on-track accidents in 2000 alone: Cup Series driver Kenny Irwin Jr, Busch Series (now Xfinity) driver Adam Petty, and Truck Series driver Tony Roper.
The NASCAR world saw more tragedy in 2001. Legend Dale Earnhardt died from a basilar skull fracture suffered during a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February. He was 49 years old. 25-year-old ARCA Series racer Blaise Alexander suffered the same lethal injury after a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October.
Alexander’s death ultimately provided the final impetus for NASCAR mandating all drivers to use some sort of head and neck restraint device, which it did only two weeks later. Since making HANS use mandatory, there have been no crash-related deaths in any NASCAR series.
The HANS device was conceived and created by brothers-in-law Dr. Robert Hubbard and professional racer Jim Downing. Hubbard was a biomechanical engineering professor at Michigan State University when he started working on the HANS in the 1980s. He also worked at General Motors in the 1970s researching highway injuries and designed the head of the longtime standard crash test dummy, Hybrid 3.
Downing raced in IMSA (International Motor Sports Association), where one of his friends, Patrick Jacquemart, died of a basilar skull fracture during a testing accident in 1981. Hubbard and Downing discussed Jacquemart’s death and wondered what could be done to help prevent this recurring and often fatal injury. The two conceived the idea for HANS and began developing the technology.
Hubbard and Downing filed a patent for the HANS device in 1986 and sold the first example device in 1991 after years of testing and research at Wayne State University. The devices were slow to garner widespread acceptance, however. Hubbard said they sold as many in the single week following Dale Earnhardt’s death, 250, as they had the entire decade prior.
Do All NASCAR Drivers Have To Wear The HANS Device?
All NASCAR drivers must wear a HANS device while driving in races. NASCAR mandated their use during competition starting October 17, 2001. Drivers could initially choose between the HANS device and its rival Hutchens device. Since the 2005 NASCAR season, drivers can only use the HANS device.
Some drivers were already using the HANS or a similar restraint prior to Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in February 2001, particularly at high-speed tracks. Twenty-one drivers were wearing HANS devices during that year’s tragic Daytona 500. Ford Motor Company conducted a seminar with its drivers before the 2001 season where it provided scientific evidence promoting HANS use.
The HANS device became the only restraint allowed by NASCAR in 2005 after the Hutchens device failed two out of three performance standards tests. The Hutchens device is close in style to the HANS but lacks the same sturdy collar. The tests, ran by NASCAR and the SFI Foundation, led NASCAR to ban use of the Hutchens during races. Most drivers had already been wearing the HANS by this point.
While the HANS device had some early proponents and adopters, others long refused to even consider using them. One objection some drivers initially had with the HANS was its additional weight and bulk. They did not want a new, obstructive presence while they drive. Others worried the movement restriction could impede their ability to quickly exit the car in the event of a fire or other emergency.
Nearly all hesitant NASCAR drivers changed their minds before the NASCAR mandate took effect and began voluntarily wearing HANS devices. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wore one for the first time in August 2001. Tony Stewart was a vocal holdout but ultimately complied with the rule. He told Sports Illustrated in 2011 he suffers from claustrophobia, and it took him time to adjust to driving with the HANS.
Now, Stewart says he could never imagine racing again without one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also vocal about it at first but would never think about racing without one again. Jeff Gordon and Michael McDowell credit the HANS device for saving their lives during separate, horrific crashes in the late 2000s.
Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 Crash
To modern NASCAR fans, Earnhardt’s fatal accident may seem relatively routine. But because of the less sophisticated safety technology in the car and on the track (the first energy absorbent SAFER barriers now lining the walls at every track were not installed until 2002), this crash was anything but. Broadcaster Darrell Waltrip called this type of crash “frightening” in his immediate analysis.
Earnhardt ran much of the final ten laps of the 2001 Daytona 500 in third place, essentially playing smart but aggressive defense for the two cars in front of him: Dale Earnhardt Incorporated drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was split three-wide racing down the backstretch on the final lap, with Sterling Marlin diving underneath him and Ken Schrader moving to his outside.
Earnhardt’s spin and subsequent wreck happened entering turn three. He appears to have moved inches down the track into Marlin’s right front, which sent Earnhardt spinning up the track where Schrader hits him in his right-side door. Both cars strike the wall, with Earnhardt slamming head-on into the concrete barrier. The cars then slide down and off the track into the grass infield.
Schrader was able to walk away and went to check on his friend. Earnhardt’s window net was still up (putting the window net down after an accident is the common signal the driver is okay) and Schrader looked in the car. He immediately waved to medical personnel arriving on scene. After years of declining to delve into specifics, Schrader admitted in 2011 he knew right away Earnhardt was dead.
FOX broadcast analyst and longtime NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip, brother of race-winner Michael, vacillated between being celebratory for his brother’s accomplishment in winning NASCAR’s biggest race and genuinely concerned for Earnhardt. Darrell Waltrip immediately recognized the severity of the wreck, saying “how about Dale? I hope Dale is okay,” only moments after the checkered flag waved.
Would The HANS Device Have Saved Dale Earnhardt?
It is unclear if the HANS device would have saved Dale Earnhardt. This was the conclusion in a report by over 50 experts after a 6-month investigation commissioned by NASCAR. One of the experts, Dr. James Raddin, said “we can’t identify a single factor enough to say, ‘It was this and not that.’”
Multiple things went wrong leading up to and during the crash and subsequent impact that led to the reasonable doubt about what was the one true cause. Earnhardt’s helmet moved upon impact, leaving a portion of his skull exposed. The unique angle his car took into the wall magnified the impact as well, as it propelled Earnhardt so quick he never had time to adjust his head.
A Torn Seat Belt
Earnhardt also raced with an improperly fastened seat belt. This was apparently his preferred way, but his belt tore during his fatal crash. Bill Simpson, owner of the Simpson seat belt Earnhardt raced with, claims to have told the driver for years he needs to fasten his belts properly, but his advice went unheeded. Others have confirmed Earnhardt’s relaxed safety belt usage throughout his career.
Earnhardt’s torn seat belt is one possible contributing factor in his death. The NASCAR report hypothesized that Earnhardt’s lap belt may have bunched up and then torn once he hit the wall. The impact then propelled him into his steering wheel. The investigating team ruled it could not positively determine if Earnhardt died when his head hit the steering wheel or on the rebound back into his seat.
Others Are More Sure
An independent study in April 2001 concluded Earnhardt likely died because of a basilar skull fracture after his head and neck whipped violently upon striking the turn 4 wall. This study, conducted by Dr. Barry Meyers, a Duke University crash injury expert, more definitely outlines the cause of the fracture leading to Earnhardt’s death.
The NASCAR-appointed investigators disagreed with the sole conclusion, calling it unlikely. One important distinction between the two investigations is that Meyers was granted access to Earnhardt’s autopsy photos while the other investigators were not. The photos were under court-ordered seal during the six-month NASCAR investigation because of an ongoing lawsuit.
Whether because of his violent head movement or his poorly fastened seatbelt, Earnhardt suffered the very injury the HANS device is designed to prevent. While we can never definitively know if wearing one would have saved him, it is safe to assume his survival chances would have improved significantly. No driver racing in NASCAR’s top three series have died on-track since the HANS became mandatory.
HANS Device In Other Motorsports
HANS device use has become standard across most levels of motorsports. Its use by CART (now the IndyCar Series) drivers predated widespread use in NASCAR, with the series requiring HANS use at oval tracks during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. They were soon mandated at all tracks. Some NHRA drivers were using the equipment as early as 1996, but they were not mandatory until 2005.
Formula One also acted around the same time, mandating HANS use for drivers in 2003. Some drivers expressed similar reservations as those in NASCAR but ultimately complied. ARCA mandated HANS use after Blaise Alexander’s death in 2001. Sports Car Club of America was one of the latest series to institute a head and neck restraint mandate, doing so before the 2011 season.
Even many local short track racers wear HANS devices during competition. Most experts also recommend young kids racing go karts wear a HANS because serious head and neck injuries can happen at impact speeds as low as 35 miles per hour. Basically, if you plan on driving a race car, no matter the speed, invest in a HANS device.
How Much Does A HANS Device Cost?
An adult HANS device costs between $470 and $1,400, so there is quite a range of possibilities depending on what you are looking for. New youth devices cost about $430. The HANS Professional Series, used by current and former NASCAR drivers Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and others, costs about $950.
HANS devices can be reused over and over but should be inspected periodically. The official HANS website says the devices need almost no regular maintenance unless it is worn during a harsh accident. The tethers should be replaced every five years. A single HANS device can also be transferred across different helmets if each one has the proper anchors.
The HANS device keeps a driver’s head and neck from whipping or stretching excessively, greatly reducing the chance of a serious injury occurring. A rash of fatalities in the 1990s and early 2000s in NASCAR and other motorsports led to the mandatory use of the device, greatly improving safety.
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