By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Why would a guy write an entire book on a single safety device? At first blush, that sounds like a rather narrow, technical subject. I’ve had friends and publishers tell me this on more than one occasion.
Offered in good faith, I wonder about such advice and observations. My book titled CRASH! is the story behind the saga of the HANS Device. It touches every form of auto racing on the planet and several subjects close to all of us: political intrigue and struggle; scientific discovery; tragedy; triumph; and matters of conscience. There’s some romance and bromance, too. Above all, there’s a lot of racing and information that even the most diehard fan will find new and compelling.
Through sheer fate, CRASH! has arrived in the same time frame as major motion picture documentaries on racing safety. One was built around the story of Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip and the other is about the work of racing physician extraordinaire Steve Olvey. I humbly and honestly don’t know if my book, which I started researching in 2012, will ever get that far. At least the book’s title easily fits on a marquee …
Subtitled From Senna to Earnhardt -- How the HANS Helped Save Auto Racing, I believe CRASH reflects a recently established pantheon of books whose theme is the danger in racing’s major series. My colleague Olvey (in terms of writing, not doctoring!) started it with the book Rapid Response, followed by the extraordinarily detailed Black Noon by Art Garner and Brian Redman’s Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks, which was co-written with Jim Mullen.
Each of these books examines the safety conditions at certain times in auto racing’s history and how they influenced the racing in those times. CRASH! tells the story of how the safety picture has changed since the dawn of auto racing and why. It is dedicated to those drivers whose deaths led to the recent revolution in safety as well as the work of racing professionals who were instrumental to the revolution’s success. The sad list includes three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna, a future IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Greg Moore and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
The saga closely follows the work of HANS inventor Dr. Bob Hubbard, his brother-in-law and business partner Jim Downing and their struggle to change racing safety. If one includes the families of drivers, their work has saved thousands from the plight of death from basal skull fracture, the plague that haunted major league auto racing for more than a decade (and still continues among weekend warriors). Without the HANS, of course, the plague would have continued in the major series and subjected big-league racing to almost certain death by the withdrawal of media partners, sponsors and manufacturers. Had the sport tried to continue to thrive on the specter of drivers cheating death, it’s future would have been uncertain at best if its biggest stars continued to be killed on live television in front of millions.
Yet … The idea of a head restraint met resistance at every turn despite its life-saving benefit tested with laboratory sleds and in real world racing.
Starting with the Paris-Madrid race in 1903, at least one major driving star was killed behind the wheel in each decade of the 20th Century. A sad fact, that pattern has continued despite so many successful efforts to make safety a fundamental part of the racing equation. (Think Earnhardt in the first decade of this century and Dan Wheldon in the second.) But thanks to the efforts of hundreds of safety experts, teams, manufacturers and sanctioning bodies, the number of deaths at the major league level has diminished considerably compared with the decade before Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and the century before.
Who killed Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994? How accurate was NASCAR’s investigation into the death of Earnhardt? In what manner did the deaths of Indy car drivers Scott Brayton and Greg Moore influence the HANS saga? In addition to what made each of these individuals such great drivers, these questions are answered in significant detail with an author’s eye jaundiced only by a penchant for the facts and admittedly aided by the passage of time.
There was plenty of political blood on the operating room floor when it came to implementing change. CRASH! also details the stories behind the safety initiatives in CART, NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar. Above all, it follows the efforts of Hubbard and Downing to create the device, prove its worthiness and their decision to shoulder the responsibility for its implementation. For these two gentlemen, it was a matter of conscience despite enormous resistance from drivers, teams and sanctioning bodies in all forms of racing. The saga of resistance continues, unfortunately, in the realm of weekend warriors.
I conceived of CRASH! as a tribute to a time when the risk of fatality was considered integral to auto racing and as a way to document why this approach to racing had to change. In many respects, it sums up a career of chasing the racing circus all over the world, to any locale and track where I could get paid as a full-time journalist to work on the front lines of the sport’s history.
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! / From Senna to Earnhardt / How the HANS Helped Save Racing has been released by RJP Books. To purchase the book, see www.jingrambooks.com.)