IRL Stands Pat On Safety
December 13, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Brian Barnhart, vice president of IRL operations, wants more information before he decides the IRL should mandate a head-and-neck device for drivers.
“It is an ongoing development in process,” Barnhart said. “The more information we can gather out of all of the head-and-neck-restraint devices out there, obviously, the better we’re going to improve our database with regards to accidents.
“At this point in time, our medical director, Dr. Henry Bock, has not changed our position on where we stand on the head-and-neck-restraint devices.”
The two most common head-and-neck-restraint systems are the Head and Neck Support device, also known as the HANS, and the Hutchens Device.
The HANS has been the most popular safety device, but the Hutchens Device has come into favor among NASCAR drivers after the death of Dale Earnhardt this past February.
With the emergence of the Hutchens Device and the popularity of the HANS, Barnhart believes a good portion of the IRL drivers will be wearing some sort of safety device designed to prevent head injuries.
“We’ve actually had a couple of our drivers experiment with the Hutchens device in some private testing this winter, and between the HANS, I think we had about between a third and a half of our competitors using the HANS device by the end of the season, and some of the ones who were not using that device are now trying the Hutchens device,” Barnhart said. “We encourage all of our participants to gather as much information as they can about the number of devices that are out there, and we’re just asking that they make intelligent decisions in their own regard to their safety.”
Barnhart has also decided not to mandate helmets for over-the-wall pit crew members. CART and NASCAR both require them. NASCAR made the move this past week in the aftermath of a pit-road accident at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November that seriously injured a tire changer. He received head injures but has since made an almost full recovery.
“We are, again, exploring options and encouraging our team members to look at the devices that are out there and balance the potential good of them with the potential downside such as restriction on vision, hearing, and the ability to communicate,” Barnhart explained. “So, there are some balances you have to find there. I think we probably had two or three teams wearing helmets for everybody over the wall. We’re working with the manufacturers to try to come up with a helmet that’s better suited to eliminate some of the downsides.”
Barnhart is concerned that helmets for over-the-wall pit crew members might limit the crucial communication needed between team members and drivers.
“If you put helmets on people and the ability to communicate is reduced, then it’s obviously a different situation,” he said. “So you’re balancing the safety aspect of improving the atmosphere for the person as an individual, but also balancing the potential hazards created by making it, and we’re still exploring those areas, as well.”