ATLANTA (AP) — There are sports activities heroes who roll off the tongue. Michael Jordan. Babe Ruth. Tiger Woods. Tom Brady.…
ATLANTA (AP) — There are sports activities heroes who roll off the tongue.
Michael Jordan. Babe Ruth. Tiger Woods. Tom Brady.
Then there are those that aren’t fairly as apparent, regardless of their monumental affect.
Tucked beneath a towering freeway overpass in northeast Atlanta is a nondescript brick warehouse.
That’s the place you’ll discover Jim Downing, the person who helped save auto racing.
An extended-time sports activities automobile racer, he bought uninterested in so lots of his buddies and rivals dying on the monitor. For that matter, Downing had been spooked by his personal violent wreck on the Canada’s Mosport street course in 1979.
“I used to be fortunate,” Downing conceded.
So, he studied up on the difficulty, very similar to you’d count on from his bespectacled, professor-like look. Lots of the deaths, he discovered, had been brought on by basilar cranium fractures — primarily the top snapping ahead violently in a high-impact wreck, whereas the remainder of the physique was tethered to the seat by belts and harnesses.
In a lucky coincidence, Downing’s brother-in-law, Bob Hubbard, taught biomechanical engineering at Michigan State College, labored with Common Motors and in addition had a eager curiosity in racing.
Downing took his concepts to Hubbard, who got here up with a easy, U-shaped contraption that goes across the neck and tethers to the helmet, protecting the top secure in high-speed crashes.
The Head And Neck Assist gadget, they known as it.
HANS, for brief.
Since its widespread introduction twenty years in the past, sparked by the gorgeous loss of life of seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt on the ultimate lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the HANS has turn out to be a regular piece of security tools in just about all types of racing.
“I really feel prefer it modified racing internationally,” says Chase Elliott, the reigning NASCAR Cup champion.
Certainly, the HANS was on the forefront of a exceptional period of improved security in all types of racing, together with softer partitions, extra protecting seats and halo-like gadgets that guard open-cockpit drivers from flying projectiles.
Earnhardt was the final driver in any of NASCAR’s high sequence to die in a crash. Formulation One has misplaced just one driver within the final 27 years (Jules Bianchi, in a freak accident when his automobile slid off a rain-soaked monitor and slammed right into a tractor that was amassing one other wrecked machine). 4 IndyCar drivers have died within the final twenty years, however the toll certainly would have been larger with out the HANS and different security enhancements.
At age 79, Downing nonetheless races sometimes and spends the remainder of his time tinkering on a powerful assortment of high-powered machines at a store that doubles as a de facto museum, displaying all the things from a futuristic, Nineteen Fifties Lotus to the unique signal that stood exterior Highway Atlanta after its opening in 1970.
“I often work six days every week,” Downing stated, stepping out from the workshop that is still a cacophony of drilling and sanding and welding. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been.”
However anytime he watches a race, Downing nonetheless finds himself being attentive to crashes that might’ve been a lot worse with out the HANS.
“All of us say, ‘Ohhh, that’s a HANS accident,’” he stated. “If somebody hits completely sideways, the HANS doesn’t actually apply a lot. However something that’s ahead to 30 to 40 levels left or proper is a HANS accident. So we take note of these.”
So do many others. Earlier than Downing and Hubbard discovered a solution to scale back the physique rely, auto racing’s very existence was being questioned
In NASCAR alone, 4 drivers within the high three sequence had been killed in a grotesque nine-month stretch masking 2000 and early 2001, culminating with the loss of life of the game’s greatest star in its greatest race.
Earnhardt and the others — Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr, and Tony Roper — all died from basilar cranium fractures.
In an particularly tragic twist, Downing and Hubbard had developed a workable HANS by the mid-Eighties, however they had been to date forward of their time that the majority racers scoffed on the mere suggestion of sporting such a strange-looking gadget.
“No person was ,” Downing says with a chuckle, placing a present-day spin on what he was up in opposition to. “I heard each argument on this planet why ‘I don’t need to put on one.’ It’s virtually like vaccines. There’s a lot illogic out on this planet that it astounds you.”
The resistance started to melt after Formulation One’s greatest star, Ayrton Senna, and one other driver, Roland Ratzenberger, had been each killed on the identical weekend on the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Indy Automobile bought after budding star Gonzalo Rodriguez died from a basilar cranium fracture when he slammed right into a wall at Laguna Seca in 1999. Michael Andretti helped with a lot of the testing.
However there was hardly a rush to embrace the gadget — particularly in NASCAR, the most well-liked racing sequence in america.
“We began providing them on the market in 1991. For the subsequent 10 years, we bought 250, which is to say we misplaced cash on each single one,” Downing stated. “However we believed in it.”
Then Earnhardt was killed.
And all the things modified.
“That, immediately, put us in enterprise,” Downing stated. “The following week, I took orders for 250. And I had three on the shelf.”
Downing ramped up manufacturing at his racing and composite facility, the constructing he nonetheless occupies immediately. He employed further employees and swiftly cleared out area within the again to arrange an meeting line to make the HANS, however demand far outweighed manufacturing for some time.
“I had individuals mad at me for a yr as a result of we couldn’t provide them quick sufficient,” Downing stated.
There was nonetheless a smattering of resistance from drivers who thought the HANS was cumbersome, uncomfortable and restricted their visual view. NASCAR held out for a number of months after Earnhardt’s loss of life earlier than the HANS lastly turned necessary.
Kevin Harvick, who took over Earnhardt’s automobile after his loss of life, was additionally reluctant to put on the HANS. He initially went with one other permitted head-and-neck system, the Hutchens, as a result of he discovered it much less restrictive.
“At that individual time, none of us needed to make use of any of it,” Harvick recalled. “They had been forcing us to alter, thank God.”
The Hutchens gadget was ultimately banned by NASCAR, which stated it didn’t present the identical degree of security because the HANS.
Now, nobody has a second considered strapping that U-shaped gadget round their neck.
“I don’t know that I might ever get in automobile with out one,” Elliott stated. “That’s an absolute must-have.”
Downing ultimately purchased out Hubbard, then bought off rights to the HANS in 2012 to motorsports elements big Simpson, which was significantly better positioned to supply the gadget in giant numbers.
Hubbard died a few years in the past, and the patent to their groundbreaking gadget has since expired, although Downing nonetheless maintains an area HANS dealership that sells to Atlanta-area racers.
He shrugs off any try and bathe him with reward for the numerous lives saved by his co-creation.
“It’s simply progress via the years,” he stated nonchalantly.
No, it’s way more than that.
Jim Downing is a real sports activities hero.
Proper up there with these names we all know so effectively.
Paul Newberry is a sports activities columnist for The Related Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and take a look at his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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