Ignoring The Warnings

Two decades later, a parable about safety in sports—one that led to the death of a NASCAR legend—feels more relevant than ever.

By Andrew Egan

Today in Tedium: When I was a kid, the thing I wanted to be more than anything was right. This is a kinder way of explaining that I sucked. Know-it-all, arrogant, annoying. Take your pick and it was a common adjective for me by the time I was eleven. Through the grace of God, Gods, or lack thereof, I had people in my life that let me know that I sucked. Over the years, such behavior has been mercifully muted but I still catch myself being a jerky little know-it-all or just stopping myself from saying, “I told you so.” Eventually you have to realize that being right usually means someone was wrong. The best case scenario is mostly harmless but rarely beneficial. And sometimes it means dire consequences for those that didn’t heed warnings. Today’s Tedium is looking at the HANS safety device used in auto racing and the tragedy that took place before its adoption. — Andrew @ Tedium

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The number of college football players that died due to injuries between 1900 and 1905, according to The Washington Post. The brutality of the sport led then U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to host a summit with representatives of Ivy League football teams to the White House to discuss reforms to the game. The goal was “reducing the element of brutality in play,” the Post reported in 1905. The long line of reforms would continue over 100 years later when President Barack Obama convened a summit on concussions in football. While football has gotten a lot of well deserved publicity for safety, most sports have significant concerns about safety.


A scene before a race during the 1997 NASCAR Craftsman Truck series. (Darryl Moran/Flickr)

A recent controversy in some sports has long been a racing problem

Though most sports have some degree of health risk associated with participation (I hear random onset color blindness ravages the upper ranks of chess), rarely do those risks come with death. The NFL and football as a whole drew widespread attention for its efforts to downplay the link between concussions, the sport, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which first made national attention via GQ. Pretty soon, health professionals began exploring the links between CTE and full contact sports like hockey, boxing, and even baseball.

Despite public outcry and debate (remember when Tom Brady’s dad caused an uproar after he questioned whether or not he would let his son play football nowadays?), football has rarely led to on field deaths in the modern era. In fact, though football does occasionally lead to horrific injuries, the only on field death in the NFL was in 1971 when Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack in the closing minutes of a game against the Chicago Bears. Of the major professional sports, only one comes with a very real risk of death during every event. Accepted as an inevitability when machines started moving at speeds approaching 200 mph or more. Of course, we’re talking about auto racing.

Auto racing takes many different flavors. NASCAR, Formula One, hot rods, the rally circuit. In general, considering the technical nature and skill required to succeed, I’m a little surprised that Tedium hasn’t covered auto racing more. However, I do suspect that it’s because most of us tend to take David Mitchell’s view on, well, just about everything (can we just make him the official Patron Saint of the site already?) but especially his hilarious 2008 column for the Guardian, “Televised traffic is a crashing bore”.

However, Mitchell’s column does include a line that demonstrates just how remarkably flippant we as a public are about the lives of racing drivers. “No, formula one is hardly a sport and, as far as I can tell, does no good to anyone apart from the drivers—and even they occasionally die or get melted.” Mitchell is a comedian speaking in jest but… is he? Race car drivers really do deal with death every time they hit the track. I guess we do too every time we get into a car. Still, that’s hardly a one to one comparison.

Instead, as Mitchell points out, the real sport in auto racing is between car makers. “… if Formula One organisers were serious about fast-car-driving being a sport, they would make the cars identical. They have not and that is why the real competition we are watching is between manufacturers. And, if car manufacture is a sport, then so is double-glazing and pottery and designing the quickest-drying paint—and what a spectacle the world championship finals of that would be,” he wrote.

Aside from the world championships of paint drying being something I would watch at least once, this brings up an interesting point. Car manufacturers can spend millions supporting racing teams in various formats. American car makers tend to stick to NASCAR while European and Japanese brands focus on Formula One and prestigious races like Le Mans. Racing glory can be a significant marketing force and help drive sales. Both glory and defeat happen in public. So when failure results in death, that too happens in a very public manner. One would think that everyone involved in auto racing, but especially car makers and drivers, would be incentivized to make the sport as safe as possible.

You can probably see where this is going …


The number of race drivers killed during auto races in the United States between 1989 and 2014, according to a study by the Charlotte Observer. Only 28 of these deaths occurred in NASCAR races with the last being in 2001 during the Daytona 500, taking the life of Dale Earnhardt. The passing of one of the sport’s legends finally motivated changes to protect the lives of drivers during crashes. But the device that is now required in virtually every form of auto racing was available for nearly a decade before Earnhardt’s death.

HANS Device

Racer Scott Gaylord, wearing a HANS Device in 2005. (Jay Bonvouloir/Wikimedia Commons)

Why an effective safety tool for auto racing faced driver resistance

When it comes to safety in sports, it should be of little surprise that doctors and scientists are usually the first to speak out. Bennet Omalu is the insanely well educated pathologist (medical doctors who perform autopsies to determine cause of death and underlying medical conditions, many of which can only be diagnosed after death) that first linked CTE and football. For his achievement, he received significant push back from the NFL, along with attacks on his reputation and training, much of which had racist overtones. Dr. Omalu is originally from Nigeria. At least, he got a Will Smith movie for his trouble. Sorry about that doctor.

Safety has long been a concern in auto racing. Pretty quickly after cars were invented, people started racing them. The first automobile was built by Mercedes in 1886. By 1895, the first organized auto racing event was held. Then in 1900, the first death at a race in Coppa Fioro, Italy. The push to make cars safer in general is a long and fascinating history. Listening to former Secretary of Defense and Ford Motors executive Robert MacNamara discuss research into the impact of seat belts is one of the more fascinating parts of The Fog of War directed by Errol Morris. Which is surprising because that documentary is ostensibly an insider’s perspective on America’s reasoning for entering the Vietnam War.

Spreading the gospel of safety in auto racing is nothing new. However, the creators of the head and neck support (HANS) system were in a unique place to witness the tragedy and glory of automotive sports. Jim Downing is the son of an automobile dealer that understandably developed a taste for fast cars. He went on to graduate from Georgia Tech, became a race car driver, and entered various parts of the automotive/race car industry. He also won five International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) championships. Somewhere along the way, his sister married Dr. Robert Hubbard.

Hubbard earned his doctorate in biomechanical engineering from Michigan State. He worked for the state of Michigan researching traffic safety before finding his way to General Motors helping improve safety standards. In the early 1980s, Hubbard and Downing, related by marriage and sharing a mutual love of cars, witnessed in horror as their friend Patrick Jaquemart, the president of Renault America, crashed during a race in Ohio. Though crash is a generally sufficient cause of death for most people, Hubbard and Downing wanted to know what injuries specifically killed their friend. Basilar skull fractures often result from violent, uncontrolled movement of the head relative to the rest of the body. Think a body strapped to a seat with an unrestrained head during a crash. The resulting injuries are always serious and almost always fatal.

Preventing the head from moving during a crash was the pivotal, and admittedly obvious, solution. As much as drivers work on crash avoidance, engineers plan for the inevitable. Depending on the type of auto racing, cars then were outfitted with flaps to keep them from flipping, reinforced roll cages that maintain integrity during collision, and five-point harnesses that keep the body still should the inevitable prove inevitable. But it was the movement of the head that was killing people.

Hubbard explained to an interviewer in 2016, “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.”

And like many good ideas that save lives but add no competitive value, early resistance wasn’t even fierce. It was dismissive. In retrospect, Hubbard is kind and understanding of the pushback racing communities gave to the HANS system, explaining, “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.”

To think of Hubbard and Downing as quirky outsiders pointing to a problem no else considered would be a bit misleading. At the same time, a German engineer named Hubert Gramling was working on the same problem in Formula One. As Hubbard noted, basilar fractures were a known cause of death in auto racing so Gramling went about his own solution: air bags. Fortunately for race drivers, Gramling abandoned his approach once he learned about the HANS system. His early research into the device helped encourage major race teams to also research the device. Still, for the most part, research is the only thing they did. Some drivers in Formula One and NASCAR, arguably the biggest forms of auto racing, had adopted the HANS system by 2001.

Some legends of the sport refused. Two decades ago this month, one legend paid the ultimate price.

Dale Earnhardt

Earnhardt, as shown in his vehicle. (Darryl Moran/Flickr)

A racing legend’s untimely passing changed the safety game for NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt’s death is considered “a watershed moment” for auto racing. The man known as “The Intimidator” for his aggressive driving style had once referred to the HANS device as “that damned noose”, complaining it restricted his range of motion and limited his competitive advantage. At age 49 with over 25 years of professional racing experience, Earnhardt had long earned his right to drive the way he pleased. You wouldn’t tell Babe Ruth to alter his swing or Michael Jordan that his shooting motion is wrong. They became legends because of how THEY did things.

Earnhardt died 20 years ago during the Daytona 500 protecting a lead for his son, Dale Jr., and another member of his racing team. He slammed into a wall in a crash the legend had experienced more than once in a career. As another NASCAR-legend-turned-race-commentator Richard Petty explained, “So, there’s a stupid saying that you’ll hear around the sport. ‘The ones that look really bad are never really bad, and the ones that don’t look bad can be bad.’”

Earnhardt’s crash that day fell into the later category. A recent ESPN overview of the crash includes this moment when another racer realized what had happened, “[Ken] Schrader became the day’s unwitting messenger of tragedy. His car slid alongside Earnhardt’s and they stopped nose-to-door in the infield grass. When he limped around to talk to his friend, he instead dropped the window net to an unimaginable scene.” Like many before him, Earnhardt suffered a basilar skull fracture, passing away on one of the storied race tracks where he created his legend. Word of his death spread almost immediately though, per tradition, the race continued until done. Only five of the 43 drivers competing that day at Daytona used HANS devices. Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver that year to die of a basilar fracture.

Resistance persisted in the wake of Earnhardt’s death, though Downing noted that while they had only sold 350 total HANS devices in the decade before they sold 350 in the week following. By the end of 2001, they had sold some 3,000 HANS devices. NASCAR would also mandate their use in the same year. After completing a comprehensive investigation, their committee still wavered on forcing HANS systems in competition. That October, another driver, Blaise Alexander, was killed in a collision with Kerry Earnhardt, one of Dale’s kids. Alexander went into the wall, dying of a basilar fracture, while Earnhardt’s car flipped. He survived. Less than two weeks later, NASCAR mandated HANS systems for all drivers. Formula One followed in 2003 based on research collected by Mercedes with the help of Gramling.

In 2016, all three were honored with the John Melvin Motorsports Award by SAE International, an engineering standards organization. The trio has been credited with saving an “untold number of lives” of auto racers. No doubt they would have preferred a few more.

There’s a difference between Walter from The Big Lebowski and trail blazers like Omalu, Hubbard, Downing, and Gramling. Being right for your own satisfaction is selfish but when you do it for the sake of others, historically, it’s frustrating. You can scream for people to listen and when they don’t, maybe you get to say, “I told you so.”

There have been moments of late where many of us have gotten this chance. Take your pick of recent events, there’s been that moment where you either did or didn’t say it.

The curse of truly righteous is never getting that chance.


Thanks again to Andrew for a thought-provoking piece. Find this one an interesting read? Give it a share.

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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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