By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
The safety revolution that motor racing has experienced in the last two decades would not have been possible without Bob Hubbard, who died Tuesday at age 75.
The inventor of the HANS Device, motor racing’s first head restraint, Hubbard created what became the needed linchpin. For want of a head restraint, the revolution might have otherwise been lost.
Fortunately for fans and all who make a living in auto racing, the sport has been bolstered, if not saved, by improvements to cars, cockpits, and the arrival of improved containment systems such as the SAFER barrier. Starting with Ayrton Senna’s death in 1994, the push for safety at the major league level began with the FIA, continued in CART and then arrived in NASCAR, which built its one-of-a-kind safety research center as a result of Dale Earnhardt’s death from a basal skull fracture in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Yet, no matter how good the car construction, how improved the barrier systems, how much better the seats, harnesses, helmets and head surrounds, none of it could be truly relied on to prevent fatalities without Hubbard’s concept of a head restraint to prevent basal skull fractures.
The safety revolution occurred because professional racing could not be sustained by live television, corporate sponsorship and manufacturers if the sport’s star drivers were continually being killed by crashes occasioned by increased cornering speeds. One need only look at the current status of all the major series to realize how delicate the financial health of the sport can be. In the U.S., had the safety revolution not occurred, perhaps there would have been a repeat of what happened in the early 1970s, when enough pressure from the U.S. Congress forced U.S. manufacturers out of racing.
Max Mosley thought enough of the need for safety in the FIA that he sold the marketing rights to Formula 1 to Bernie Ecclestone for $360 million in 2001, which created howls of protest given the 100-year duration of the deal. That money funded the FIA Institute, which spearheaded the international safety movement in racing and on highways. The latter effort, Mosley believed, was necessary to insulate the FIA from political pressure on Formula 1 from individual countries, pressure that had been so acute in the aftermath of Senna’s death.
It was the FIA’s initial push for safety after the death of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger (killed by a basal skull fracture) at Imola, Italy that eventually led to the smaller Model II HANS in 1998. This was the offspring of investigations into the use of air bags in F1 cars after future two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen barely survived a basal skull fracture in Adelaide, Australia the year after Imola. The air bags came to naught because the small explosion necessary to open the bags fast enough in an F1 cockpit would have been enough force to kill an occupant. A downsized Model II HANS, a static device by comparison that could work in multiple hits, became the best choice.
The Model II was the second major breakthrough for Hubbard and his device. The first was the decision by him and brother-in-law Jim Downing to start their own company to market the HANS. It was Downing who originally posed the question about head injuries to Hubbard, who pinpointed the basal skull fracture as the key element behind many of them.
Starting in 1986, when Hubbard received a patent for the admittedly bulky original Model I HANS, he and business partner Downing, a five-time IMSA champion, diligently sought an established safety equipment manufacturing company to market it. No company was interested. In 1990, Hubbard expressed to Downing that they had a moral obligation to create their own safety company and bring the HANS to market themselves, resulting in HANS Performance Products. Hubbard had documented the HANS worked in sled testing and felt that it was a matter of saving lives.
The first key design revelation for Hubbard, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State, came in the early 1980s when he realized that he only needed legs in the front of his device and nothing in the back below the tall collar. This was his big conversion moment, the point when he realized his head restraint concept was feasible. He already had figured out the high collar and tether system to transfer energy from the head to the torso in a crash. That transfer of energy is the key to keeping the head in place relative to the torso and preventing a basal skull fracture.
Creating his tether system was more complicated than it might appear, because the device had to work without unintended consequences and with drivers of widely varying physiques. I am well steeped in this subject because I worked for several years with Hubbard during his retirement and Downing to write a book on the history of the HANS. Titled Crash! – How the HANS Device Helped Save Auto Racing, the book is due for publication later this year.
I had a professor/student relationship with Hubbard, a fellow Duke graduate, since I had to learn a lot about engineering to tell the tale in full. As anybody who ever worked with Bob knows, he had a professor’s knack for orienting his conversation and approach in a way that made sure what he was talking about made sense and was accessible.
Always an engaging man to talk with, I learned a lot about Bob’s depth of character in the course of writing the book.
The CART team of Newman/Haas Racing, for one example, played a key role in developing the smaller Model II in terms of its shape – how the device’s legs fit over the shoulder so it would not interfere with a driver’s arms or cause too much discomfort around the collar bones. The testing, at one point, became a little testy with Christian Fittipaldi at the wheel and he told Hubbard, “This thing is shit.” He later suggested Hubbard probably didn’t like him. The professor thought about it overnight and came back to the testing at Sebring the following day and told his test driver, “Christian, I like you enough to save your life.”
Eventually, the two became friends. It’s likely a HANS later saved the career of Fittipaldi, possibly his life, in a 60G crash on the oval in Cicero, Ill. in 2000.
That testing in the winter of 1999 with Newman/Haas led to a universal shape for the HANS and enabled drivers of all physiques to use it comfortably. Downing’s longtime fabricator, Jerry “Rabbit” Lambert, played a key role in this process. The HANS was mandated on ovals prior to 2001 by CART and was mandated by NASCAR in October of 2001.
The adaption of the HANS in Formula 1, ironically, was delayed by the fitting problems, individual driver and team resistance. That was eventually resolved in 2003 by introducing to F1 what was learned about the Model II during testing in conjunction with Newman/Haas.
Another future two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso was wearing a Model II custom-built by Renault that, according to an FIA physician, saved his life after his horrendous multiple impacts at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2003. This helped finally quell the ongoing revolt by F1 drivers about wearing the strange new device.
These were the initial steps that led to the adoption of motor racing’s first head restraint by 200,000 drivers around the world, including mandates in every FIA international championship. The number of lives – and families – saved by the HANS is hard to calculate, but it’s no doubt in the hundreds, possibly more.
Hubbard may have been in the right place and right time when brother-in-law Downing posed the significant question of “Why can’t something to be done about head injuries in racing?” But it took twenty years of non-stop development work, testing, networking, financial risk and faith before his device became an “overnight sensation” following the death of Earnhardt in 2001.
Bob and I became friends in the course of writing the book, in part because he shared his struggle with Parkinson’s as part of the process. He was professorial in a kind manner, which meant we sometimes enjoyed dinner together or watched Michigan State football. He was a deeply generous, caring and committed man as well as brilliant and hard-working, which is why the kingdom of motor racing was saved from basal skull fractures.