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TACH SPECIAL: The Earnhardt Tragedy Aftermath

By David Treffer
Contributing Motorsports Editor
The press conference held yesterday by NASCAR did nothing to reveal what direction the sanctioning body will take on the issue of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) unit. The lack of candor and waffling on the device should enrage every race fan on earth. When will you guys admit that you have been "asleep at the wheel" on this issue? I love this sport. I have followed racing and racecar drivers for 38 years. But I have grown tired of seeing racing results in the obituary column.

2001 Daytona 500 Champion Michael Waltrip revealed that he will test the HANS unit at the Atlanta Motorspeedway in a couple of weeks. Waltrip's answer "The HANS device is something that I think all of us are curious about and some drivers are wearing it and others have tested it and elected not to use it. There's mixed reviews about it." Yeah, well there is no mixed review about drivers dying from basal skull fractures. It's bad news no matter how you try to couch an answer. Waltrip further commented, "People like the way it [HANS] stabilizes your head in an incident, but people also are concerned that it's cumbersome and hard to get in and out of the car, which would be a concern during an accident as well." I have heard some awful reasons why people do not wear seat belts. Waltrip's answer ranks somewhere in that grouping.

Let's face it. If Earnhardt had been wearing a HANS unit his chances of survival would have been at least fifty-fifty. Those odds are a lot better than no chance at all. Earnhardt hit the wall somewhere between 170-180mph. That's a lot of G-Force at work on the body. We know the rest of the sad story.

In 1989, Jim Downing and his brother-in-law Bob Hubbard started design work on the HANS unit. Downing, known in sportscar circles for his driving as well as his racing innovations was looked upon as something of a curiosity for his desire to build the HANS device. Hubbard, a GM safety engineer who worked on making cars safer could not have found a better match than Jim Downing. The two started the ball rolling on this safety device. If the NASCAR driver's think this current model of the HANS was bulky too bad they have never seen one of the early prototypes. It looked like something that Jules Verne would have built.

In 1994 Neil Bonnett was killed during a practice accident for the Daytona 500 in almost the same spot where Earnhardt died on Sunday. Bonnett was also killed instantly. The autopsy (public record traffic death report) revealed basal skull fracture was the cause of death. Following Bonnett's death I began preparation for an article on safety in NASCAR. I tried to interview some of the NASCAR driver's about the HANS unit. Not one driver would give me a comment other than, "that NASCAR was always working toward making racing safer." After hearing that same comment or variation of the same I gave up. Being somewhat of a cub reporter at the time I did not press the issue. But I can tell you that scorn and sneers were projected my way from several drivers and team managers. Off the record I was told that "those devices were for the p*****s in sporty car and F1 racing." Dismayed at the cavalier attitude I never raised the issue again.

Now comes the issue of NASCAR losing four drivers in nine months. It was bad enough when Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed in New Hampshire. Some people wrote it off as "racing bad luck." Then when Tony Roper was killed in a truck race a few weeks later some drivers began to have second thoughts. "Maybe we should give that HANS device a second look," some drivers said privately.

Now comes the death of Earnhardt. This man was Mr. NASCAR. Sure Gordon, Wallace, Stewart and Labonte are well known but Earnhardt was in a league of his own. His persona was truly bigger than life. Unfortunately, Earnhardt's attitude toward the HANS unit was one of disdain. That attitude cost him his life.

So what does NASCAR need to do? At the very least, encourage the driver's to test the HANS unit. Some of the NASCAR officials have expressed concern over mandating the safety device for fear of lawsuits. I say "hogwash." Sure there are scum-sucking attorneys who will sue for any reason. But is it not reasonable to make racing safer? What better way to remember Earnhardt than the next time a driver hits a wall head-on at 180 mph and he or she gets to climb out of the battered race car all the while saying "I'd like to thank my so and so sponsors and oh yeah Jim Downing and Bob Hubbard for this HANS device."

Do you have the courage NASCAR? I sure hope so.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.