Flat Spot On: Bob Hubbard and the HANS—A Life’s Work

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 8 2021

SAFER barrier, a strong car and the HANS helped save Sebastien Bourdais at Indy in 2017. (AP Photo/RJP Books)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

To say all the participants in NASCAR, INDYCAR, IMSA and the FIA’s major championships owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Hubbard is an understatement. The man saved major league professional racing from a plague of fatal crashes that erupted in the 1990s.

Hubbard passed away two years ago. To mark the occasion, I recently posted a photo of Hubbard peering into the cockpit of a Kudzu prototype on the pit road of the Daytona International Speedway. I was also aware of the “two worlds collide” scenario in that it’s been 20 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona on the last lap of the 500. Even though both CART and F1 had mandated the HANS the previous summer, Earnhardt’s crash finally focused the world’s attention on basal skull fractures and the HANS device invented by Hubbard that could prevent them.

A PhD and professor of biomechanical engineering, Hubbard was necessarily different from drivers who spoke up about safety such as Jackie Stewart and from a safety guru like Bill Simpson—who spoke up on just about any subject! Bob’s lowkey approach, by contrast, was more similar to brother-in-law Jim Downing. Following a bad crash in an FIA/IMSA event at Mosport in 1980, where he was lucky to walk away from the remains of his Mazda RX-7, it was Downing who asked the significant question after suffering a concussion. “Why can’t something be done about head injuries in racing?” he said. It was Hubbard who came up with an answer.  

It was my good fortune to work for a period of six years with Bob while doing the research, interviews and writing the book “CRASH!” Tracing the trail of both racing safety history throughout the 20th Century and the development of the HANS generated another scenario of worlds colliding. The facts led to the book’s subtitle, “How the HANS Helped Save Racing.”

The book was like my doctoral thesis (forgive me academia and friend Robin Miller…) on what I had learned in racing and as a journalist from the time I began covering the sport in 1976. And Bob was like my advisor. He never suggested how I should approach the story of racing safety and the efforts by him and Jim. Rather, he carefully read the ongoing manuscript as a proofreader and more importantly as a man interested in documented facts that led to conclusions. We were both Duke graduates and I think Bob tended to respect the fact I had a degree in history as well as my racing experience. Above all, Bob was a gifted educator with lots of teaching experience at Michigan St. That he gave me so much leeway to pursue my own vision for the book is a point of both pride and grief at his passing.

As a recent story by colleague Al Pearce at Autoweek.com notes, I miss Earnhardt every February, too. I am reminded of the broken promise of a seven-time Cup champion racing a Corvette at Le Mans each time I show up for the Rolex 24, or the lost potential for his DEI NASCAR team. Earnhardt’s leadership led to a DEI victory in the same Daytona 500 where he lost his life.

Hubbard, left, worked on sled testing with longtime colleague and collaborator John Melvin. (Tom Gideon Photo)

Bob was careful to never criticize NASCAR for not mandating the HANS Device before that 500, nor afterward. That was his way. He knew from a person he was close to in the hierarchy that NASCAR’s legal department opposed mandating anything that could be used in court against the sanctioning body in case it failed. Guess what? That also applied to helmets and fire suits, which were not required in the rulebook for the Cup Series in 2001 (a situation that changed the following year). In that light, Bob knew the leadership at NASCAR would have to come to its own decision to mandate head restraints, which finally arrived after Earnhardt’s death, the fourth from a basal skull fracture in NASCAR’s major traveling series in less than a year. 

Although CART and F1 announced the mandating of the HANS Device in the summer of 2000, the question comes up whether Bob and his brother-in-law could have made things happen sooner in a sport where basal skull fractures were all too commonplace.

Since the racing shops of Downing/Atlanta are in Atlanta where I live, I was among the first to write about the HANS and head injuries in On Track magazine and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the early 1990s. When I crossed paths with the two safety advocates at events, I confirmed they were having discussions with sanctioning body officials. I also knew little, if anything, changed about attitudes toward head restraints with drivers or sanctioning bodies as a result of those meetings. At least IMSA allowed Jim and others to wear the HANS. In addition, NASCAR had no objections when Kyle Petty wore the relatively bulky Model I at Rockingham for neck support in the early 1990s. 

Bob and Jim were successful in their main endeavors, the former as a professor and inventor in the arena of chairs and seating, the latter as a race team owner, car constructor and driver. Jim had what he wanted in terms of his own safety with the wrap-around Model 1—as well as an adjustable support for his neck during endurance races. For his part, Bob knew invention was a long road and even developed a popular engineering course at Michigan St. about introducing a product. But he never lost his faith or persistence in championing what he knew was a needed piece of safety equipment. He decided it was a moral obligation.

In 1989, for one example of Bob’s other endeavors, Paul Newman borrowed a Model 1 to wear at Watkins Glen while driving a Spice-Olds prototype, because he wanted the neck support for the high g-loads in the high-speed corners. Bob helped him get comfortable with the device prior to the race. When Newman offered to pay him for the device, Bob replied that in the absence of any formal company structure at that stage, he really couldn’t price a HANS or sell one. He and Newman came to an agreement and the famous actor privately donated $10,000 to Hubbard’s engineering development company, which he used to complete a wheelchair invention that helped paraplegics hold their heads up.  

Bob Hubbard examines the cockpit of Jim Downing’s Kudzu-Mazda DLM at Daytona in 1997. (Michael J. Fuller Photo)

During the 1990s, Downing sold about 285 of the Model 1. It did not fit in all cockpits, but the bulky size had the advantage of fitting universally on a driver’s shoulders. He made enough money to keep HANS Performance Products (HPP), launched in 1990, afloat. Bob, meanwhile, followed and surveyed the guys using it. Part of his scientific method was to confirm it worked under actual racing conditions and not just in sled tests. Meanwhile, sled testing at GM’s racing safety technology program in conjunction with Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammel of CART also provided important data on crashes in reclining cockpits, facilitating independent tests using anatomical test dummies based on real numbers from Indy car crashes.

 Although Downing sometimes got discouraged, their process after forming HANS Performance Products reinforced their belief the HANS would work. Sadly, deaths throughout the 1990s in F1, at Indy, in CART and in NASCAR from basal skull fractures reinforced the fact it was needed. Eventually, F1 got involved with developing the Model II in no small part due to Bob’s surveys and the fact the Model I had been successful without legal challenge in the marketplace for several years. 

There’s much, much more to the story, including the fact Ayrton Senna’s death from an errant suspension piece at Imola in 1994 resulted in a safety revolution in F1 that eventually led to the development of the smaller Model II HANS that fit in reclining cockpits as well as upright seats. The FIA discovered during research done by Mercedes, which eventually funded the HANS Model II development in conjunction with HPP, that airbags wouldn’t work when it came to basal skull fractures—which had killed Roland Ratzenberger the day before Senna died and nearly killed future two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen a year and a half later.

What I appreciate about working with Bob, above all, was his patience. Just as he and Jim had other endeavors, I had another book contract already in place in addition to obligations to report on racing. To conduct interviews for the book, I decided to learn more background information than the persons I was interviewing in order to fill in gaps and confirm that what I was learning was accurate with follow-up questions. In each case, whether it was conversations with Drs. Olvey and Trammell or John Melvin, who ran GM’s racing safety research, or the engineer at Mercedes, Hubert Gramling, there was tons of preparation before I felt comfortable about asking for their time. Afterward, I sent complete transcripts for review and further discussion.

Over the course of time, I learned a lot about Bob, too, some applicable to the HANS story and other things that shed light on him as a person beyond his infinite patience with my process. Bob was deeply committed to his church in East Lansing and to living the values he believed in. He and wife JoAnn, the sister of Jim Downing, hosted as many as 40 foster children after raising a daughter and son, fraternal twins who each became accomplished musicians. Ever the observant man, Bob eventually came up with this advice on parenting. “Say yes more often than you say no.”

When I visited Bob in East Lansing in late 2013, the ravages of Parkinson’s were only beginning and he could still drive. He talked about the road ahead when it came to his disease and confessed that, at times, he became depressed. A vigorous and strong person who ran hurdles in college, the prospect of gradual decline was indeed daunting. But over time, right up until the manuscript was completed in 2019, Bob bravely fought the disease that gradually took his speaking ability and mobility, bolstered by his religious faith and family. He passed away Feb. 6 in 2019.

In so many ways, brilliance is the ability to take complicated scenarios and express simple, or perhaps better stated, elegant solutions. In its own way, the Model II HANS has become a work of art as well as the most important safety invention in racing since the seat belt, to borrow a line from Car and Driver. Bob and Jim succeeded due to their character and commitment as much as bright thinking. In the divided world we now live in, there’s an opportunity to realize a sense of grace looking back on a life like that of Bob Hubbard, where his human values were the hallmark of his brilliance.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the new motivational memoir from Pegasus Books titled “Winning in Reverse.”  Ingram’s current book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of the fatality-marred decade from 1992 until 2001 in major league racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.) 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 8 2021
One Comment

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  • Nick Jordan says:

    Great write up. Jim Downing a very real lovely gentleman. Good racer. Very privelaged to meet him during the eighties. Jim bought a Jm16 ARGO prototype from us here in the UK. I remember seeing the prototype HANS device on my visit to his workshop in Atlanta. It was a real pleasure to know Jim and his team.
    Good memories. Great success and solid contribution towards Motorsport Safety is a legacy of the effort put in by Bob and Jim in the early days.