The question is as vexing today as it was almost 20 years ago: Would Dale Earnhardt have survived his 2001 Daytona 500 crash if he’d been wearing a HANS device like five other drivers on the grid that Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway?
Earnhardt, approaching 50, died of a basal skull fracture in the last turn on the last lap of that year’s first Cup race 20 years ago this month. He succumbed almost instantly to the same head trauma that had killed three other NASCAR drivers in the previous seven months. At the time, even one of the men who created the revolutionary Head And Neck Support device hesitated to say with certainty, choosing to speculate when the question was raised.
Because accident reconstruction is difficult and sometimes imprecise, Jim Downing treaded softly. “The left lap belt obviously held through much of the accident and energy was dissipated,” he told Winston Cup Scene in August 2001. “If he’d had the device on, it would have stopped a fair amount of the (body) twist and taken a bunch out of the neck (stress). It may have pushed him below that threshold where he didn’t die. But it’s speculation.”
Ten years later, nearing the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, Downing maintained that stance. “I believe that when his car hit the wall and the belts from his safety harness were loaded, I think a HANS would have kept his head back,” he told The Birmingham News. “That likely would have produced a better outcome under the different scenarios that have been proposed by experts. This is what it seems like to me, but we don’t really know for sure.”
Several days ago, nearing another anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, a more confident Downing addressed the question again. “There were times back when I was 60% to 70% sure the HANS would have saved Dale’s life,” he told Autoweek from his shop near Atlanta. “But I had to be careful about it because it was difficult to speculate at that time. Even so, I thought there was a high probability of him surviving with a HANS.
“Since then, we’ve had wreck after wreck after wreck, and we haven’t lost anybody since Dale. Similar wrecks to his. Really bad wrecks (that HANS-wearing) drivers survived. So, now I can be even stronger than in the early days. I can say it’s probably 95% he would have survived. The evidence is in and it’s pretty conclusive that the HANS eliminates the ‘snap’ that causes the basal skull fractures.”
“I can say it’s probably 95% he would have survived.”
The question was first raised shortly after the seven-time champion died. Fellow drivers Kyle Petty, Brett Bodine, Matt Kenseth, Dale Jarrett, and Andy Houston wore the HANS Model-II that was designed to stabilize the head in a crash. Earnhardt had famously derided it, claiming it restricted his freedom of motion and made him uncomfortable. He barely acknowledged it, once saying, “I don’t know what that is” when questioned about it. On another occasion, the sport’s biggest star called the device “a noose.” Mark Martin once said he’d never wear one, that he’d “cross my fingers and hope for the best.”
Not unexpectedly—for drivers seldom openly embrace anything new and different—Bodine caught some flak for wearing a HANS Model-II for much of the 2000 season. Ironically, the good-natured ribbing hadn’t gone away by Speedweeks 2001.
“In our last conversation, Dale came up to me (prior to the 500) and ridiculed me for wearing it,” said Bodine, the first driver to use a HANS in competition the previous summer at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. “He said, ‘What are you, some kind of pussy?’ He said he didn’t know if he’d feel comfortable racing around me if I had it on. He said he’d tried one and didn’t feel good in it, that it limited his vision and he couldn’t turn his head. But none of that bothered me because that was just Dale being Dale. You know, the Intimidator, the guy who was always going to do things his own way.”
Noted motorsports journalist Jonathan Ingram from Atlanta recently authored Crash! From Senna To Earnhardt, How The HANS Helped Save Racing. It exhaustively and clearly chronicles how Downing, a five-time IMSA champion, along with Michigan State University biomechanical engineering professor the late Dr. Robert Hubbard (Downing’s brother-in-law) created the device in the early 1980s. They began working together—the engineer and the racer—after mutual friend French driver Patrick Jacquemart died of head injuries in July 1981 during an IMSA race at Mid-Ohio.
The men used a carbon-fiber polymer to create a U-shaped collar that rests behind the driver’s neck. Its two sides cover the shoulders and extend down the chest, at the pectoral muscles. Two arms secure the driver’s helmet via anchors on each side, and everything is attached to the driver’s body—not the seat, the seat belts, or any part of the roll cage. Today’s M-II is significantly smaller, lighter, less cumbersome, and stronger than the earlier M-I model that Kyle Petty tried briefly in the 1990s.
When properly fitted and installed and working correctly, the device keeps the driver’s head stable when things go seriously wrong at speed. In almost all accidents, the driver’s torso is gradually slowed by the six-point seat belt harness system. But the head maintains its pre-impact velocity until it is abruptly slowed by the neck. During accidents, the HANS maintains the head’s alignment to the torso, neck, and shoulders. It also transfers energy to the rest of the body as the head stays relatively in place.
Bodine became a fan during a 2000 Brickyard 400 test at Indianapolis. HANS Performance Products representative John Carver stopped by to explain the workings and benefits of the piece, then asked if Bodine wanted to try one for a few hot laps. More curious and open-minded than many racers—Bodine holds an engineering degree from Alfred (N.Y.) State College—he gladly agreed.
“We had to adjust the seat’s headrest a little, but we made it work,” the long-retired driver recently said. “I made five or 10 laps and was just fine with it. The device didn’t bother or hinder me at all. I could instantly see the value and didn’t see anything that was a problem. I called the shop and said to alter the seats on the other cars like we’d just done on the test car. I said I was going to use the HANS in all of my cars, starting the next race at Pocono.
“Once I tested at Indy, I never got back in another car without one. I used it the rest of that (2000) season and the rest of my career. I’m absolutely convinced it saved me in a practice crash at Bristol later that year, and I’m just as sure it saved my life in August of 2003 at Michigan, the head-on that basically ended my career. Even with the HANS, I strained my neck both times. I don’t think I would have survived without it. I won’t let my kids drive their go-karts without their HANS. That’s how much I believe in it.”
Despite Earnhardt’s death in February, many drivers balked at the HANS until it became mandatory eight months later. It’s likely NASCAR took that time to judge the piece’s merits. Once its safety people signed off, lawyers needed time to settle the liability and insurance contingencies. (FYI: Like any huge corporation, NASCAR never does anything without first shielding itself from liability.)
Petty had more reason than most to try the HANS before it was required. His 19-year-old son, Adam, had died in a single-car accident in the spring of 2000—on Mother’s Day weekend—at Loudon, New Hampshire. The sport’s first fourth-generation driver died of a basal skull fracture when he hit the turn 3 wall almost head-on during an Xfinity practice. Kyle had tried a HANS M-I in the early ’90s, but quickly abandoned it because it didn’t fit well with his car seat.
“But after Adam, I would have tried anything,” the long-retired driver who is now a TV analyst told Autoweek. “I would have drilled holes in the back of my helmet and worn it backward if I thought it would have helped. There were plenty of nights when I wondered what woulda, coulda, shoulda been done for Adam. After his accident, there was no question I would wear whatever came along that might help in a crash.”
Petty wouldn’t say whether Earnhardt would have survived with a HANS. He called it “not just a difficult question but an impossible one because the answer isn’t going to change anything.” But he very openly went this far: “In my heart I know it has saved numerous lives since that day at Daytona Beach. And that’s at every level of racing and every series. You’ll never convince me otherwise.
“Everybody has seen accidents that make you know in your heart—you just know—that it’s over for the driver. Then he gets out and waves at the crowd and goes on his way. I think the HANS is the greatest thing to ever happen to racing, after helmets and seat belts.”
Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver to die of head injuries in the previous seven months and eighth within the previous 10 years. That group includes F1 driver Roland Ratzenberger; NASCAR drivers Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Tony Roper, and Kenny Irwin; ARCA driver Blaise Alexander; NHRA driver Blaine Johnson; and CART driver Gonzalo Rodríguez. Nobody has died of a basal skull fracture since 2006, when the HANS was finally mandatory for all major racing series.
By rule, CART drivers were required to have it on oval tracks by 2001 and all tracks in 2002. NASCAR mandated either the HANS or a Trevor Ashline-designed, Bobby Hutchens-endorsed restraint system in October 2001. (The HANS was required exclusively by 2005.) The accident that killed Alexander at Charlotte in October 2001 spurred ARCA to require the HANS immediately. NHRA made it a rule by 2007 for some classes, 2012 for others. The World Rally Championship and the Australian V8 Supercars Championship made the HANS mandatory in 2005. The FIA did so in 2012 for all World Championship events.
Owing to Earnhardt’s outsized place in the sport, his accident was the most studied in NASCAR history. (Maybe, truth be told, in all of motorsports … ever.) The unprecedented seven-month investigation brought together dozens of doctors, motorsports safety experts, accident reconstruction specialists, physicists, engineers, NASCAR officials, Washington-based PR and media-relations lobbyists, members of academia, and lawyers representing upwards of a dozen individuals or groups. The investigative team gathered in Atlanta in August 2001 to offer its report.
To some NASCAR watchers, the bottom line left many unanswered questions. The report said the perfect storm of right-side contact from Ken Schrader and the dreaded “1 o’clock” angle at which Earnhardt impacted the turn 4 wall contributed to his death. His autopsy said a basal skull fracture quickly led to major blood loss, resulting in death within seconds. Three doctors agreed that violent head-to-steering wheel contact broke Earnhardt’s neck, which led to the fatal bleeding.
Evidence was presented that the bottom portion of Earnhardt’s left-side seat belt broke on impact, allowing the body to hit the steering wheel. But a speedway safety worker disputed that, saying the belt was whole when he reached the car. A fan reportedly found a video showing an EMT with a knife reaching into the car, perhaps cutting the belt to help remove the body. In the end, the crucial question of whether the seat belt broke on impact or was cut during the recovery—indeed, whether the belt was completely or partially separated—was never settled.
Noted safety crusader the late Bill Simpson told the media his equipment had done its job, that the belt wouldn’t have separated if it had been properly installed. He said Earnhardt had repeatedly been told his belts were attached incorrectly, a claim team owner Richard Childress disputed. It was generally known that for comfort, the notoriously hard-headed driver wanted his seat and belts installed his way … and nobody was going to stop him.
Too, Earnhardt was wearing his traditional Simpson open-face helmet with tinted bubble goggles. His autopsy suggested the impact with Schrader and then with the concrete wall allowed his head to whip forward and strike the steering wheel with his chin. There was conjecture that Earnhardt might have survived if he’d been wearing a full-face helmet, something he disdained as much as the HANS device. But three doctors and an independent safety expert disputed that, saying Earnhardt likely would have died of a broken neck even if the belt had remained intact.
Ingram was close to Earnhardt—he has authored two books about him—and took the loss especially hard. “There’s not a day at any NASCAR race where I don’t think about how different things would have been if Dale was still with us,” he said shortly after Crash! was published in 2019. “After racing a Corvette in the Rolex 24 at Daytona that year, Dale was making plans with GM to form a Corvette racing team, intending to drive one at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“And he believed he could still win an eighth Cup championship. As a NASCAR team owner, there’s no telling what he might have done with Dale Jr. as one of his drivers at DEI.”
Understandably, Bodine is proud of his role in the international acceptance of the HANS. He realizes he made a difference, that his very public support of Downing and Dr. Hubbard late in the 2000 season directly impacted the device’s commercial success. (Only 275 were sold in its first 10 years; clearly, Downing and Hubbard weren’t in it for the money.)
Would the other four drivers on the Daytona 500 grid that Sunday afternoon have worn a HANS if Bodine hadn’t been the first to wear it in competition? “I was there first, so I feel I made a difference that changed worldwide motorsports,” he said. “I think I sparked their interest in a positive way by wearing one in 2000 and then in the 500. Yeah, the HANS people would have found someone to wear it, but they found me and I’m proud I immediately saw it could save lives.
“It’s a funny thing about race-car drivers and how they think. Safety has always been up to them. The safety section of the Rule Book has always been pretty small. If a driver survives a wreck, he probably won’t change anything on his car because what he had always used had worked just fine in that latest wreck. Why not keep what you’ve got?
“For years, there was nobody around to tell us there might be a better way. Or if there was, nobody in the garages much listened to them. People didn’t want to use the HANS because it was new and unfamiliar and they didn’t know it might save their life. I’m glad I was part of changing some minds.”
And, certainly without question, saving some lives.
20 years ago this month, the world lost NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. The sport has become much safer in the wake of his death. No NASCAR Cup driver since 2001 had died in an on-track incident. What do you remember about that day in 2001 when we lost the Intimidator?
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