Its Not Just The HANS

A quote attributed to driver Lake Speed concentrates the essence of the past few days in Winston Cup racing: “The circus is no fun if all the animals are dead.”

One would think that for a capitalist model like NASCAR, keeping drivers alive to produce income would come in priority just after ensuring race attendees are alive to spend theirs.

An alarmist knows a single data point does not indicate a trend, but four NASCAR driver deaths attributed to similar neck injuries certainly must indicate a common safety-related problem – and it’s not local to one type of oval track.

Racing will never be 100 percent safe, but we can certainly improve the odds for stock-car drivers by managing the risks. There aren’t too many problems that can’t be solved with enough time and money, and it’s time to apply both in extraordinary amounts.

Otherwise, we should just get used to seeing network televised deaths during NASCAR races, because it’s going to happen again.

In the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona there has been plenty of hyperventilated talk about improving driver survivability, but what safety responses would be useful and timely to accomplish this?

We’ll overview some of them here. There is no single, instant magic safety response that will improve driver survivability, but an aggressive effort on many fronts is required to change the odds in favor of the drivers.

HANS Device
Available since 1991, the Head And Neck Support unit has been making the rounds on all the media outlets the past few days as something that may have saved Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps. Note that after Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin’s deaths at New Hampshire International Speedway last year, Tom Gideon, the manager of safety for GM Racing, was strongly advocating its use. It was reported he said if he were racing at the second Cup race at New Hampshire, he would be wearing one.

"There’s a sprinkling of drivers who are looking at it seriously and some have bought it," he said. "I think that’s the next big benefit that we need to get guys used to and talk to them about, because it’s the most important thing they can do today.

"If you had to do just one thing tomorrow, it would be the HANS device, no question."

Gideon based his endorsement on the fact that impact-sled test data from Wayne State University in Detroit, showed the unit’s effectiveness in reducing loads on the neck. Indeed, GM and Ford showed their drivers crash-test video at this year’s Daytona testing sessions that vividly illustrated these forces.

But a knee-jerk declaration by NASCAR that all drivers have to be wearing HANS devices at Rockingham would be ineffective. It’s essentially a custom-fit piece that has to be attached to a driver’s helmet and fitted so it doesn’t interfere with current seats.

Some drivers have noted its bulk makes them worried about getting out of their car quickly in case of fire. But the risk of being severely scorched has been reduced by the rapid-response fire fighting teams at major tracks and the improved fuel-delivery management on the cars.

For instance, this year the cast housing of the mechanical fuel pumps used on Cup engines are being replaced by machined billet aluminum housings for increased strength in case of impacts. (Why NASCAR engines are still using engine-block mechanical fuel pumps that are vulnerable to chassis tubing during a crash is another issue.)

Clearly, random hacking at current seats to make a HANS fit would be foolhardy, and the device’s manufacturers are working with teams to tailor it to stock-car use. But weighing its current benefits versus how it might slow an exit down in case of fire seems one-sided in favor of the benefits. How many drivers have been severely burned in Cup cars of late?

One tactic to speed up a driver’s exit from a stock car with a HANS in place is to enlarge the greenhouse and increase the driver’s-side window opening. They have been minimized in the past few years in the interest of aerodynamic advantage.

Although this isn’t a quick or inexpensive fix, it’s a smart bet that chassis manufacturers and teams would absorb the cost if it meant their driver was more likely wear a HANS and survive.

The ASA, CART, and F1 racing series have made the HANS mandatory. It remains to be seen if NASCAR will do the same.

"Soft" Walls
Soft walls look promising at first glance, but they too have limitations.

If you can count on most stock-car accidents to be straight-on, then a movement to installing soft walls makes sense in managing the monumental energy loads that have to be absorbed from that type of collision.

The crash of Busch Series racer Jimmie Johnson last year head-on into a foam block barrier at the Watkins Glen road course illustrated the merits of a soft wall (although it was reinforced by a very unforgiving guardrail). The substantial impact forces were dissipated relatively slowly and he survived.

The car can’t be slowed down too fast. But a car instantly planted or snagged in a soft wall on an oval track could be a ready target for oncoming traffic, so a driver may just be trading one survivable collision for one that isn’t.

Concrete walls have safety merit if a car hits it at a shallow-angle of impact. A shallow-angle hit to a hard wall allows the car to slide along it (dissipating energy) and you don’t take too much energy out of the car in the first impact. Unfortunately, Earnhardt’s impact was not at a shallow-angle into a hard wall.

For instance, the actual speed into the wall is the sine of the impact angle times the speed going down the track. If Earnhardt were going 180 mph and had hit the wall at a 15-degree angle (sine = 0.258), then the actual speed into the wall calculates to 0.258 X 180 mph = 46.6 mph.

Not insignificant, but also not 180 mph. But from the crash video, he looks to be hitting it at say a 60-degree angle (sine = 0.866) or greater, and hasn’t scrubbed off much speed. The impact speed increases dramatically at a deeper angle of impact.

In this second case it’s 0.866 X 180 mph = 155 mph. Again, not 180 mph, but now much increased from the first case.

Crushable Cars
The ASA and GM Racing displayed a stock-car "safety car" prototype at an SAE engineering show last year in Detroit, and one of its innovations was applying foam blocks to various areas of the interior of the car to absorb impact energy.

One complaint against soft walls at a track is the clean-up time after an impact. Installing the energy-absorbing material in the cars would seem to be a reasonable safety aid.

This ASA/GM Racing stock car also moved the driver more toward the center of the car and away from the left side to increase the crushable area available on that portion of the car. This too would seem to be a relatively easy modification to do.

Encapsulating Seats and Six-Point Harnesses
The manufacturers have been working with Randy LaJoie (GM) and Jeff Burton (Ford) to improve upon the current seat design used in stock cars. Basically the move is to make the seat have more shoulder support instead of rib-cage support.

Geoffrey Bodine was one of the first to move the typical rib-cage tabs on a seat to the outside of his shoulders a few years ago.

LaJoie’s seat has an ovoid bottom instead of the usual square-like one – it acts like an aluminum cup for increased strength. He’s manufacturing it and it’s available right now.

The typical safety belt harness usually has four-points for tethering the driver, but six-point harnesses increase these by two and help secure the driver in the cocoon of the seat. This would seem to be an easy device to install, too.

Data Acquisition
This is key to the future of driver safety in NASCAR.

Safety improvements can be incrementally achieved by observing an on-track crash and trying to analyze it after-the-fact. But one can rapidly increase the database of safety and impact knowledge with data acquisition.

Indeed, all of the safety devices discussed above shouldn’t be deployed until they have been tested and data collected on them. Decisions will then be based on repeatable experiments instead of emotion or anecdote.

That’s why Gideon is so enthusiastic about the HANS, he has seen test data to support its effectiveness. That’s also another reason why other major sanctioning bodies have adopted it.

GM’s Delphi group (the primary sponsor on Jerry Nadeu’s No. 25) has off the shelf "black box" datalogging technology available right now that could be installed in every major division of NASCAR within a short time.

The impact knowledge pool would increase each race, and by the end of the year there would be a matrix of data to review and act (or not act) upon.

For example, open-wheeled racing series have been datalogging impacts for years and building a pool of knowledge on crashes.

Melling Racing has signed in 2001 an associative sponsor Autoliv, a Swedish company that is one of the world’s leading developers of safety equipment for production automotive use.

They have already tested some Melling cast-off chassis/cars on their high-G-force test sled.

It costs about $15,000 (plus the car) to set up a single Winston Cup car and drag it into a barrier at 60 - 65 mph. The typical production car crash test on this sled is done at 30 - 35 mph. It takes five or six hours from impact to final analysis, and one test generates 45 pages of data.

Autoliv expects to continue their crash testing and then make their info available to NASCAR this year.

The point is, there are resources available to examine the effectiveness of various safety devices and they can be applied to NASCAR racing to judge their merits.

Yes, eventually, the NASCAR stock car will evolve into a safer unit – a species evolves or it dies, and those that don’t evolve quickly die sooner than the ones that do.

Unless this evolutionary safety process is speeded up via data acquisition and its management by a single point of contact in the organization (NASCAR has a person in charge of TV broadcasting, why don’t they have one in charge of safety?), the price the current drivers will pay will be supreme.

Death doesn’t care what your last name is.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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