Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Rookie Stripe: NASCAR Safety -- The HANS Device

Photo Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

By Logan Stewart

It’s been said that there’s a gritty mentality in racing that makes the velocity of the race addictive for a passionate driver. With a laser-like focus steady on the task ahead, the world around him slips away as he become ones with the high speed that moves him.

"During a race, the mental background noise of ordinary life, the static that chatters along in the everyday consciousness, is muted, and the racer fuses with the car and the craft of driving, absorbed completely in the slow-motion passage of the seconds.” – Wendell Scott

NASCAR is a powerful combination of intrepid, competitive race car drivers blended with fast tracks and raw adrenaline, and it yields a recipe for dangerous conditions. The high-octane pace brings fans back weekend after weekend. If you’ve been to a race, even as a rookie, you surely feel the excitement that seems to reverberate from below the ground and settle into your bones. Fixated in part by exhilaration, in part by elation and in part by fear, we all sit on the edge of our seats because we know there’s peril that comes with racing.

Several Rookie Stripe posts will touch on some of the safety aspects of NASCAR, because in addition to being an integral component of racing, safety is an impassioned topic. Most safety improvements and technological advancements have come about as the result of some tragedy and helped outline different periods of racing. Yet there are still fans that yearn for the bygone eras of NASCAR when part of the thrill of the race was the unbridled danger in what lay ahead when the green flag dropped.

What to know about the HANS Device

One of the most critical pieces of safety equipment in a race car, the HANS (head and neck support) device makes sure that the driver’s head stays aligned in the helmet with the rest of the body, helping prevent basilar skull fractures. Despite the fact that the HANS device protects susceptible neck and skull bones, drivers were slow to adopt it. Only six drivers were wearing HANS devices when Dale Earnhardt crashed during the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001, resulting in his death. NASCAR drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper also suffered fatal basilar skull fractures.

A driver’s torso and upper body are strapped into the seat in the cockpit, but he or she needs some degree of head movement that's still safe. If a head not supported by any kind of restraint is forced forward during a collision, the external forces, pressure and tension can be too much for the body to handle. If worn correctly the HANS device can reduce the total neck load by 78 percent.1

Kevin Harvick in August 2015 at Pocono Raceway
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
Other HANS facts:
· Biomechanical engineer Dr. Robert Hubbard created the HANS device with his brother-in-law Jim Downing. It first became available in 1991. It was mandated by NASCAR in October 2001.

· The device is constructed from carbon fiber and Kevlar composite. It sits on the driver's shoulders and has an upright back piece that extends partway up the next behind the helmet. Two arms extend from the back piece over the collarbone and hug the driver's chest.

· It weighs 1.5 pounds.

· Two flexible tethers across the shoulders attach it to the helmet. The seat belts coupled with the HANS device allow the head, neck and chest to move as a single unit during impact, without the head and neck snapping forward.2

·  Any driver involved in an accident must take his HANS device and helmet with him to the infield care center because cracks in either can signify that the driver is at risk for concussions or internal injuries.

· The HANS device is believed to have saved many drivers' lives since it became mandatory, simply because it keeps the head from being in the line of such a high degree of force.

Marcose Ambrose; Fall 2014 at Dover International Speedway
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs

More on safety improvements in NASCAR
HANS device acceptance slow until fateful crash – NASCAR.com
The history of the HANS device as told by Dr. Bob Hubbard
This 30-second video makes the case for HANS devices

1 “The Physics Of: How the HANS Device Saves Lives”; Caranddriver.com. Jan. 2012.
2 Leslie-Pelecky, Diandra. The Physics of NASCAR. New York, New York. 2009.

May 2015 at Dover International Speedway
Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs

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