The man who helped create one of the biggest breakthroughs in auto racing safety has died.
Dr. Robert Hubbard, who along with partner Jim Downing invented the HANS Device in the 1980s, should be remembered for his persistence as much as his expertise in getting racers to embrace his godsend for head and neck safety.
“It took a lot of trial and error to get it to work but Bob was tireless in his efforts,” said Dr. Steve Olvey, who along with Dr. Terry Trammell were pioneers in IndyCar safety and both worked alongside Hubbard to make the HANS user-friendly. “It looks so simple but what they had to go through to get it workable was exhausting.
“Bob got a lot of resistance but kept working and today it’s mandatory in all major forms of motorsport and one of the great breakthroughs of all-time.”
Trammell, the orthopedic guru whose skills revolutionized the treatment of foot and leg injuries, was asked where the HANS ranked in the pantheon of racing safety.
“The two biggest and most important safety changes since I’ve been doing this have been the safer barrier and HANS Device,” replied IndyCar’s safety consultant.
“I don’t think there’s been a basal skull fracture fatality since the HANS became mandatory.”
A professor of biochemical engineering at Michigan State University, Hubbard was associated with racing because of Downing, his brother-in-law who raced sports cars. After a friend of theirs was killed in 1981 at Mid-Ohio in a “sudden stop” accident, Downing decided it was time to try and improve head and neck safety.
Hubbard and Downing’s creation was a collar-shaped device with a yoke that fits over the driver’s shoulder and is tethered to each side of the driver’s helmet. In frontal impact crashes, the driver always remained secured by the belts while the head is carried forward by the momentum.
With extensive experience as a biomechanical crash engineer, including in General Motors’ auto safety program, Hubbard’s first prototype was developed in 1985. Using crash sleds and test dummies secured by seat belt harnesses, he immediately proved the energy exerted on the head and neck was lowered considerably.
But the HANS was monstrous in those early days.
“We didn’t pay a whole lot of attention at first because it was so big and balky and wouldn’t fit into a Indy car,” continued Olvey, whose book “Rapid Response” is being made into a racing safety documentary that should debut this May in Indianapolis.
Trammell recalls one day at Indianapolis Raceway Park in the late ‘80s. “Dr. Hubbard brought it to my office so we took it to IRP. I think Michael [Andretti] was driving for Kraco and we wanted him to try it but it couldn’t even fit it in the cockpit so we said ‘No thanks.’”
The HANS was tested in the mid-90s by a few F1 drivers and continued to be downsized to accommodate a tight, open wheel cockpit. After Gonzalo Rodriguez lost his life at Laguna Seca in the fall of 1999 to a basal skull fracture, Olvey asked Christian Fittipaldi to be CART’s test pilot with the HANS.
“We kept thinking how in the world we could make it mandatory so I picked Christian, since he was most picky guy we had and everything had to be perfect in car,” said Olvey. “If we could get him to go for it, we’d be golden. Well he worked all winter and with Hubbard until he was satisfied. Then he gave a talk at our first driver’s meeting in 2000 so after that I made it mandatory in CART — before NASCAR and F1.”
The HANS likely would have saved Dale Earnhardt’s life in his 2001 Daytona crash, along with Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. before him. NASCAR recommended the HANS or Hutchens later in 2001 before making the HANS mandatory in 2005, while F1 followed suit in 2003 and NHRA in 2004.
Today it’s also prevalent for drivers in midgets, sprints, stock cars, sports cars and off-road racing.