Jim Downing tests his HANS device

by Gordon Kirby on 8th June 2012

These days most people in racing take the HANS Device for granted. Invented 20 years ago by veteran American sports car racer Jim Downing and Michigan State University bio-mechanical engineering professor Bob Hubbard, the head and neck restraint first appeared in major league racing in the late ‘90s with Christian Fittipaldi doing the early HANS development work while driving for Newman/Haas in CART.

It took a little while to make the package comfortable enough for other IndyCar drivers to adopt, reluctantly at first, but with increasing enthusiasm. In quick order everyone in Formula 1 and even NASCAR began wearing the device and over the last 10 years its value has been proven time and again. Today the HANS Device is considered de rigeuer by all professional and many amateur racers.

The message was driven home yet again in practice for a recent SCCA National race at Mid-Ohio when HANS co-inventor Jim Downing (on the left above with Bob Hubbard) crashed his C Sports racer. A five-time IMSA champion, the 70-year-old Downing remains an enthusiastic club racer who finished third in the C Sports/Racing class at last year’s SCCA National Run-offs at Elkhart Lake.

While practicing at Mid-Ohio last week Downing’s car spun on the back straight when the rear cover of the gearbox casing failed, allowing the rear wing to collapse. The car got airborne and landed upside down, sliding for some 200 yards. Downing suffered two compressed discs in his mid-back (the T-7 and T-11 vertebrae) and has been fitted with a custom-fitted brace as a precautionary measure but he was up and about within a week of his shunt. “This crash just goes to show that a driver can never predict if a HANS Device will be needed," said Downing. "We see drivers wear a HANS in some series where it’s obligatory, but when they go to another series where a Head and Neck Restraint is not required they stop wearing it. I guess these guys pretend that somehow they can predict when a crash might happen or whether it will be a HANS-type crash or not.

"This accident certainly came with absolutely no warning," Downing added. "This is the first time in 30 years that I've been upside down in a race car. A driver can never fully anticipate what might happen. But it's possible to take the absolutely best precautions with driver safety equipment and car preparation."

More than 140,000 HANS Devices have been sold worldwide and Downing is proud of his contribution to improving safety in motor sport. In the wake of his accident at Mid-Ohio Downing emphasised how important it is for the world’s many amateur and club racers to consider wearing a HANS Device. "Because of proper safety precautions, I’m back at work," Downing said. "We keep trying to educate the weekend warriors about how important it is to make sure you can continue working and enjoying racing on the weekends while supporting your family."

Amen to all that.

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