Home » FEATURE STORY, NASCAR - Sprint Cup Series

Flat Spot On: Melvin Was A Cockpit Safety Guru

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 24 2014

John Melvin, right, was in the business of saving lives. (Photo courtesy of Stand 21)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

For a long time established professionals were not welcome in U.S. motor racing. Lawyers were despised due to racing’s vulnerability to the issues of liability and doctors were often feared – if a driver met one in the line of work it probably wasn’t a good thing. Engineers such as John Melvin who talked about safety initially fell into a similar category of not exactly welcome.

Before Melvin began his engineering research, racers depended on their own ideas, often wrong, when it came to individual safety equipment. They sometimes relied on self-appointed safety experts who also happened to be in the business of selling equipment.

Melvin, who died of a heart attack last week, succeeded because he kept diligently building on his own carefully constructed body of work and quietly sharing it behind the scenes even if his advice wasn’t always acted on or well received. Eventually, when the going got tough and sanctioning bodies recognized a need for the right answers, Melvin’s diligent work paid off and his research helped form the fundamental gospel of cockpit safety in all forms of motor racing. Not surprisingly, his death brought tributes from not only the U.S. but the international racing community as well.

For a journalist, Melvin, who held a doctorate in engineering, was not only a credible source, he was readily available. When the storm erupted over the broken lap belt found in Dale Earnhardt’s car after his fatal accident in 2001, my first call went to Melvin following NASCAR’s announcement about the belt. The same forces that broke the belt simultaneously resulted in a basal skull fracture, said Melvin. In other words, the broken seat belt didn’t make any difference. How did he know? Without prompting, Melvin explained that long before Earnhardt’s accident he had intentionally frayed a belt in sled testing and learned that it broke at the same time the dummy’s neck tension registered enough force to result in a basal skull fracture.

It had been quite a few years since Melvin and I had talked when I met with him last fall for lunch at a restaurant near his home in Ann Arbor. I was with HANS Device inventor Dr. Robert Hubbard and doing research for an upcoming book on the HANS and its role in racing safety. Our discussions were a reminder of Melvin’s involvement in so many safety initiatives over the years.

My first contact with Melvin in the early 1990’s concerned the HANS, which was being worn by IMSA race car driver Jim Downing, Hubbard’s brother-in-law and the man who prompted its invention.  Inevitably, during our lunch meeting the subject of Earnhardt’s death at Daytona came up. Melvin had a role in safety before and after that fatal crash, which in many ways sums up his career path.

It was Melvin who was hired by manufacturers to present information on the HANS Device to drivers during winter testing at Daytona in 2001 following three NASCAR driver deaths due to head injuries the previous year.

“At the testing in January I gave my lectures to the NASCAR guys,” recalled Melvin. “Mr. Earnhardt was too busy to come. But Dale Jarrett was wearing a HANS in the race as a result of my talks.” Others such as Bill Elliott tried the HANS Device and couldn’t get comfortable wearing it. Most, like Earnhardt, decided not to bother with a head restraint.

Then there was the crash on the last lap. “When the press started calling, I gave what I thought was an honest evaluation,” recalled Melvin. “I didn’t know the details, but I thought the HANS would have helped Earnhardt. So I was the enemy. NASCAR hated that. I was on their enemies list I believe. But that got turned around, because I had been working with Steve Peterson at NASCAR for several years on the side there. So it got turned around. By that summer they invited me down to Daytona to meet with (NASCAR CEO) Bill France. I did. Then they hired me as a consultant. And I worked with Steve after that.”

In that meeting, NASCAR’s crusty chief executive and owner sized up Melvin and asked him just one question – if he thought the HANS Device would have saved Earnhardt? As usual, the engineer gave an honest answer, which was yes. By then, August of 2001, NASCAR was looking for an independent opinion from a source other than its appointed experts on the Official Accident Report panel, who had come to a similar conclusion. Melvin was subsequently hired to help implement cockpit safety solutions.

Other similar situations involving Melvin had already taken place in various forms of motor racing.

When the Indy Racing League needed special padding for its cockpit surrounds in its new cars after the horrid neck injury to Davy Jones in 1997, it was Melvin who was in the forefront of the discussion with padding he had tested at GM. When Formula 1 began its post-Senna accident research, Melvin was one of those pushing for higher cockpit surrounds and padding, which was an immediate solution to better protection for drivers. The sled testing by Melvin on the HANS Device and scientific papers were fundamental to Formula 1 eventually adopting it. By that time, CART had already mandated the HANS in 2000 for ovals on the basis of the data recorder program and sled testing done by Melvin in conjunction with Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell.

When NASCAR team owners began looking into better seats, it was talks given by Melvin to Ford teams that eventually resulted in the current carbon fiber seats used in the Sprint Cup. The first seats that began appearing on short tracks with shoulder supports and head surrounds arrived on the heels of recommendations by Melvin.

Melvin began his research on motor racing safety as the first director of the GM Motor Racing Safety Program when it was established in 1992 as a result of the terrible accident at Watkins Glen that injured Tommy Kendall’s feet and ankles. By that time, Melvin already had two decades of highway safety research to call on. When Melvin began looking into the harmful effects of using a five-point safety harness, for example, he had already done hundreds of tests using this type of system – on child safety seats. His conclusion was that the five-point belts in race cars sometimes resulted in broken sternums and as a result sanctioning bodies began requiring six-point belts.

The work list goes on and on. Quite frankly, it’s not a list many racing journalists are too familiar with. In this past week, many have mentioned Melvin in connection with the SAFER Barrier, which is a bit like giving credit to Ulysses S. Grant for winning the battle of Waterloo. Melvin may have been involved, but was not fundamental to its success since the SAFER Barrier project resulted from the funding of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George and was spearheaded by Dr. Dean Sicking and Indy Racing League officials.

Where Melvin excelled was in cockpit safety. It has long since been acknowledged by safety experts, including Sicking and Dr. James Raddin – who authored the Official Accident Report – that cockpit restraints comprise 60 percent of driver safety in a crash. The structure of the car is responsible for another 20 percent and proper barriers are also 20 percent of the equation. So do the math on why drivers walk away from heavy crashes when SAFER Barriers are involved. Or why drivers like Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon have survived head-on collisions with unprotected barriers at very high speeds. Or Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica.

In other words, NASCAR and Formula 1 each have improvements in cockpit restraints to thank for their current record of avoiding driver fatalities since losing their biggest stars. As importantly, the vast majority of racers around the world compete where the SAFER Barrier will never be used, but where all of the improvements in seats, harnesses, padding and head restraints can be applied.

While Melvin was certainly proud of his contributions, he remained a racing enthusiast who wanted to see the sport improve. Despite steady consulting income in addition to his GM career, Melvin maintained his residence in the same modest home on a tree-lined street near the University of Michigan football stadium. In the standard two-car garage could be found one of his few indulgences: a 1992 Porsche 911, which he drove in SCCA events. It had a retro-fitted supercharger and a specially installed IROC Porsche front bumper among other tricks. Not surprisingly, the cockpit had a proper seat, harness and retro-fitted head surrounds plus room for a HANS Device.

In younger days, Melvin was like so many racing enthusiasts. He drove a Porsche at high rates of speed on back roads – along with friend Hubbard, a fellow research engineer in the early 1970’s. “John and I shared an interest in sports cars and racing,” recalled Hubbard while reminiscing in the days following Melvin’s death. “We both had 911’s and chased around the back roads of Michigan and had a couple scary moments that we did not talk to our wives about. Over the years, John started driving his Porsche in track events and was a driving instructor at many of these events.  He practiced what he preached.”

During our get together, Melvin talked about his first impressions of the HANS when Hubbard, then a professor of engineering at Michigan State, first showed him the concept in the early 1980s. Melvin’s comments underscored his modesty about being a researcher and respect for others in the process. “The HANS was such an elegant design,” he said. “It focused on one problem and one problem alone. It was very obvious that Bob had the right concept of how to stop the head. How to achieve that was really Bob’s genius.”

Melvin, too, focused primarily on one problem. His genius was found in making race car cockpit safety his life’s work. He devised ways to test any potential improvement, put the results into verifiable scientific papers and then stuck with his conclusions. As a result, he helped prevent hundreds of serious and fatal injuries in racing and will help prevent many more in the future.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 24 2014


  • Dean Sicking says:

    I have had the great fortune of counting Dr. Melvin as a friend for almost 30 years. I learned more about the biomechanics of impact from Dr. Melvin and his research publications than any other source. He always made time to talk to me and give me sage advice. He will be sorely missed.

  • Jim Downing says:

    That’s the best and honest eulogy for John Melvin that could be written.
    Thanks Jonathan