13 years after Earnhardt’s death, head restraints not universally required

NASCAR has required safety devices since 2001, but most US race tracks don't — and many drivers still die each year

A driver adjusts the HANS (head and neck safety) device, which many believe can save drivers' lives.
Donald Miralle/Allsport

David Richardson’s HANS (head and neck support) device lay in the back of his truck, unused, like an exercise machine bought with good intentions, only to become part of a garage’s dusty clutter. The HANS, which is a head restraint, was discarded amid the sundry tools in his truck after he tried to wear it and found it too cumbersome. After a while, the HANS probably became a nuisance for Richardson — a nag, a technology that did not fit with his style.

Perhaps he was thinking that one of these days, he would try again to use it in his race car and get comfortable wearing it.

Or not.

On May 25, 2013, another race car barreled into Richardson’s dwarf car at the Reno Fernley Raceway in western Nevada, and his neck was fractured in two places. He was 63 years old when he died. When they took him away from the dirt track, his wife Kari Richardson said the HANS was where he always left it, which was in the back of that truck, still in its case.

Kari Richardson rings the alarm as loud as she can whenever she is asked about the lesson that came from the tragedy. It is the familiar refrain of many racing widows. It came in a stream of thought, as if she repeats it to herself every day.

“He should have been wearing the HANS,” she said. “It would have made a difference. He just didn’t like it. It made him feel confined. He wouldn’t wear it.”

Sunday marks 13 years since legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt crashed into a wall at the Daytona 500 and died. David Richardson was Earnhardt, and Earnhardt was Richardson. According to ESPN racing reporter Ed Hinton, Earnhardt once referred to the HANS as a “noose” and the man considered the most popular U.S. driver of all time led a fierce resistance to the device, which many people feel would have saved his life.

Austin Dillon will start on the pole in the Daytona 500 in the iconic black No. 3 car. It’s the first time the No. 3 has been driven in the NASCAR Cup Series since Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

The good news is NASCAR is one of the most proactive racing sanctioning bodies in the world, and it used Earnhardt’s death to mandate the use of the HANS among drivers in its top circuit. NASCAR publicized the benefits of the HANS and rang the same alarm bell that Kari Richardson did.

The bad news is many drivers like David Richardson were not sufficiently influenced by NASCAR or Earnhardt.

In 2013 at least 21 drivers died in racing accidents worldwide, including nine in the U.S. It is not certain how many drivers died from a basilar skull fracture or a broken neck, like Earnhardt and Richardson, respectively, but Chuck Davies, chief executive officer of Simpson Performance Products, which manufactures the HANS and the Hybrid Pro head restraint, bets some could have been saved by the device.

Davies estimates there are 400,000 professional drivers and weekend warriors in the U.S., those race car drivers who race for a paycheck or race for fun on Friday and Saturday nights on small-town ovals or drag strips or road courses. Simpson said there are another 400,000 drivers in Europe and 200,000 more racers scattered throughout other continents.

He estimates just 25 percent of drivers worldwide use the HANS. A HANS model for weekend warriors can cost $595, and another model, made with lighter carbon-fiber material that the majority of pro racers use, costs $995.

Tragic necessity

The inventor is Robert Hubbard, a biomechanical engineer and professor at Michigan State University. He is the brother-in-law of Jim Downing, a five-time International Motor Sports Association champion, who saw a fellow racer die in a 1981 track accident. They started collaborating on a safety device, and Downing first wore the head restraint first model in October 1986 at the Daytona infield race course, which drew cackles from other drivers. Unable to find a company willing to partner for its manufacture, Hubbard and Downing created their own company and made the HANS out of a warehouse in northeastern Atlanta.

Earnhardt shunned Hubbard in a NASCAR garage in 2000 when Hubbard was making the case for the HANS to other, less stubborn drivers. But it wasn’t just Earnhardt who turned a nose up at the science of a sudden stop. There were plenty of other drivers who considered the HANS a foolish endeavor.

The science of the sudden stop is that a deceleration from at least 42 mph in an instant is enough to fracture a neck. Drivers ignore the science because they feel surrounded by the armor of their car. Some drivers, like Earnhardt, feel it robs them of their toughness quotient. Earnhardt infamously spoke once about drivers who talked too much about safety, saying, in part: “Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won’t climb up and eat that candy ass.”

Drivers protect their freedom inside the domain of their race car cockpit with intense ferocity. The HANS, for many, erodes their toughness, their sense of invincibility, not to mention their comfort level when they have two hands gripping the wheel in a 120-mph traffic jam while wearing a collared device that is held in place by seat belts and connected to the head by tethers. There are still many tracks in the U.S. that do not mandate that racers use the HANS.

“It’s close between ‘it cost too much,’ ‘not comfortable’ or ‘just don’t think I need it,’” Davies said when asked what excuses drivers give Simpson salespeople for not wearing the HANS. 

‘Simply the expense’

Nancy and Bob Hanneman could not stop racing, no matter the expense. They courted on a bridge near a racetrack in 1971 and then were married. They scraped for pennies for engine repairs and bypassed traditional vacations at the beach for entry fees to races. They did not have children. They had each other. They had racing, and she was his pit crew.

They considered the cost of the HANS device too onerous. When you add up entry fees, gasoline to drive to races, gas for the race car, hotel and food, a racing weekend can cost $2,000. The HANS was $595, but it was another $1,000 or so to get it modified for his particular car, she said.

Bob Hanneman, 71, died June 16, 2013, in a Formula V race car at Blackhawk Farms Raceway in South Beloit, Iowa. He was not wearing a HANS, but Nancy said an emergency room doctor told her the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head from a front tire that flew off the car and struck him.

Still, the Hannemans’ story is indicative of the debate around HANS or at least part of the debate. Racing is expensive.

“We’re retired,” said Nancy Hanneman, who lives in Burnsville, Minn. “It was simply the expense. He wanted to do three to four races a year, and we just didn’t have the money. It wasn’t that he was uncomfortable.

“I always thought it was something he needed, but we had to be careful with money. He had just refreshed the engine the year before, and that was $8,000 out of pocket.”

The Hannemans’ devotion to racing is what makes it the great American pastime. Saturday-night crowds pack small dirt ovals or drag strips from coast to coast for the thrills of the race for the checkered flag. Families latch onto their favorite drivers, guys like Bob Hanneman, and race right along with him. Calamity can spoil everything.

There are approximately 839 short tracks in the U.S., according to the National Speedway Directory. Most do not require the HANS device for drivers. One of the reasons is that raceway owners, who depend on a full field of cars to attract crowds, feel racers will go to tracks that do not require the HANS and shun the tracks that do not require it.

Davies said one of the other hurdles for getting a HANS device around the head, neck and shoulders of all drivers is their age. He said older drivers, who raced without the HANS for years, are more resistant than younger drivers. It is not within the culture of manliness they grew up with.

“You have to hark back to seat belts,” Davies said, referring to the resistance a generation ago to a piece of equipment that is now standard and mandatory in every car, in and out of racing. “Usage is increasing. It makes it easier if it is mandatory. Of course, it’s viewed as self-serving when we say something about using the HANS, and it is self-serving. We’re selling safety. But I believe you can’t sell too much safety.”

‘What if?’

Kari Richardson sold the HANS device that her husband ignored. She sold his car too. She sold all the racing gear. Their 12-year-old daughter sold her car, too. Her father was killed on the last lap of that race, and her daughter, who’d taken the sport up at a young age, does not want to race ever again.

“He had never, ever, ever been in an accident.” Kari Richardson said. “He was always able to avoid them. We felt the car was really safe. We had never seen any bad, bad accidents.

“I had just left the track. My daughter raced her car before David. Thank God we left or we would have had to witness the whole thing. I didn’t want my daughter to see that.”

The dismay in her voice is clear, especially when she has to deal, again, with the haunting question of “What if?” It is a question fundamental to so many racing tragedies. What if?

“Everyone else involved in the accident with my husband and his friend on the track that night was wearing a HANS, and they lived,” said Kari Richardson, who was married for 32 years to David. “My husband would have lived too.”

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