Safety Reigns Supreme: NASCAR Seeks HANS-On Solution

When Terry Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield tangled with Michael Waltrip on Lap 82 in the Pepsi 400 last month, both drivers received concussions but left Daytona ready for battle at New Hampshire. The following week Labonte took a hit again, and by Pocono on July 23 the team was looking for a replacement driver.

Mayfield survived the Loudon and Pocono races unscathed and compiled two top-10 finishes in the process. But he wasn't so lucky at Indy. During practice, Mayfield encountered oil on the track and went spinning into Turn 3, then slammed driver's-side first into the wall. When the window net did not come down, once again, the garage stood silent, wondering, hoping and praying that their comrade would be whole when he was removed from the car.

Mayfield had hit his head on the top hoop or "halo" bar with such force that, according to insiders, the impact cracked his helmet. After he was released from the hospital, Mayfield returned to Charlotte where he became a spectator on Saturday.

"It was real tough for him," said Mayfield's crew chief Peter Sospenzo. "I know, because I had to sit out for four weeks earlier this season. But he's doing good. We're shooting for him to return at Michigan. He has a concussion, which concerns us, but he's not experiencing any dizziness. It's a concern, but we're not too worried about it. We just have to wait it out."

Last Saturday, Sospenzo said that Mayfield had been fitted for the HANS (Head and Neck Safety) device and the team had planned on testing it this past week before going to Watkins Glen. The HANS device is an in-car harness system that was developed over a decade ago by Dr. Robert Hubbard.

Weighing approximately 700 grams, the HANS device is a collar-shaped carbon fiber shell attached to both the helmet and the seat belts and allows a driver's head and neck to move with the body. Formula One introduced it to its teams in April before the San Marino Grand Prix and will make the HANS device mandatory in 2001.

Sospenzo added that it takes a while for the drivers to get accustomed to the "bulkiness" of the HANS device. According to Dave Hederich, manager of communications for GM Racing, for some drivers it can actually be a deterrent, which is why representatives from GM introduced the system to the teams during testing at Indy last month.

"What you have to be careful of in a race car is you could come up with a safety device that would protect a driver in an accident," Hederich said. "But if it's not comfortable, the distraction might create accidents that wouldn't happen otherwise. We bring ideas to the teams, show them and explain to them how they work and then let them make the decision.

"The real key to being a race car driver is to be able to focus, to concentrate. Anything that breaks a person's concentration, that can be worse than not having a safety device at all."

General Motors also enlisted the services of Dr. John Melvin of Michigan State University to create a program dedicated to improving safety procedures.

"Some people say that he is the world's leading authority in human survivability in high-speed impact," Hederich said. "He's worked with the Air Force and was instrumental in starting our safety program at GM. He goes beyond GM, because we had nothing to do with (developing) the HANS device, that was Dr. Hubbard's deal. But we work with Dr. Hubbard in developing sled tests, which involves a sled test with a dummy with and without the HANS device. Then we measure the recordings on the dummy.

"Our safety program is primarily concerned with the safety of the drivers. Anything we see out there, whether it's with Dr. Hubbard and the HANS device, seat manufacturers or (safety guru Bill) Simpson or anybody like that we try to work with them."

This week Ford Motor Co. held a seminar in the Charlotte area to introduce the HANS device to its teams.

Jay Novak, NASCAR program manager for Ford, said that his company is willing to carry the expense of the HANS device for any team that chooses to use them.

"We have made the commitment to safety," Novak said. "If we have to spend the money out of our testing budget, then we'll do so. We've done sled tests and seat testing and have offered our resources to NASCAR. There is nothing more important to us than our driver's safety.

On Saturday crew chief Gary DeHart watched Labonte's consecutive racing streak of 655 events come to an end. The veteran crew chief shared a seat atop the pit box with the man and friend that he guided to the 1996 Winston Cup title. It was a difficult situation for the teammates.

"Terry's broke up about it," DeHart said. "He's very emotional. He's down. He doesn't think he's done enough for the team. But we're behind him 100 percent. Terry Labonte is the team, we all love him to death and don't want to lose him. The speeds are faster than we've ever been before and with all these young guns coming on, it's harder for some of these older guys to keep up. It's not that Terry is over the hill. It's just making everyone step it up a notch. People take chances more than they used to. Plus you have the
pressure of the sponsors."

"We need the cars to make more downforce if we want to run those speeds. You can't take a car that's out of control and go out there and ask them to drive a car that's right on the verge of staying on the ground. It wants to make lift in too many places. We have 780 -- 800 horsepower cars that are just dangerous. We need things that will keep the cars on the ground whether it be more valence, more spoiler or, hell, even a wing on the car. Something to make the cars drive safer. If it slows the cars down 10 mph, then that's fine."

DeHart and Labonte had planned to use the HANS device at the Brickyard. Although Labonte will sit out again this weekend, he is expected to test the car at Bristol in two weeks. In the interim, DeHart is thinking of ways to make Labonte's return safer and that includes using the HANS device.

"We have a HANS device and we were going to run it this weekend before Terry decided not to be in the car," DeHart said. "We're going to test it in Bristol. I thing it's a good thing. Hell, I don't think, I know it's a good thing. Anything you can do with safety to keep the driver from getting hurt is a good thing."

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