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Wells leads push for safety device

The Winston Cup and CART team owner requires both his NASCAR drivers to use the HANS.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cal Wells wasn't shocked or dismayed.

He simply saw room for improvement when he started a NASCAR team last season after owning a CART team for several years.

Now a leader in the push for safer stock cars, Wells requires both his Winston Cup drivers to wear the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, a restraint system many think might have helped prevent the injury that has killed four NASCAR drivers in nine months.

"I'm certainly focused on the health of the industry from a saving lives point of view," Wells said. "It's not good business to have your athletes getting killed. It doesn't make any sense."

Wells was on the CART committee that voted last year to require its drivers to use the HANS on oval tracks this season. He hopes every Winston Cup driver will wear the device by November.

But, he cautioned, drivers should not rush into buying one in the wake of the accident that killed Dale Earnhardt in Sunday's Daytona 500. Earnhardt died from a basal skull fracture, the injured that killed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper last year.

"I think they need to be applied when they can be fit properly," Wells said Tuesday. "You could do more damage than you can good if you're not careful enough."

Six drivers wore the device in the Daytona 500.

Hubbard/Downing Inc., the company that developed and makes the HANS, received 35 orders the next day.

Seven Ford drivers -- Robert Pressley, Mike Wallace, Elliott Sadler, Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Hut Stricklin and Jimmy Spencer -- ordered or planned on ordering one by Tuesday. Some of them might wear the HANS in Sunday's Dura-Lube 400 at Rockingham.

But it might take up to five weeks for a HANS to be custom built for a driver.

HANS co-developer Robert Hubbard, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State, believes the device designed to stabilize the head in a hard crash is well worth the wait.

"I think that one of the things that has to happen for people to accept the HANS device is to realize that there is a problem," Hubbard said.

"I think that Dale Earnhardt's death is a problem."

Dr. Charles Branch Jr., a neurosurgeon who had treated Earnhardt, said the racer didn't use the HANS or a closed-face helmet because "he felt trapped.

"He felt like it restricted him in the car," Branch told the Associated Press. "He enjoyed being able to look around and sense his environment."

Said Wells: "Had a HANS and a full-face helmet been mandated, I don't know if Dale Earnhardt would have gotten in the car." Formula One and CART mandated the HANS this year. NASCAR, which is building a research and development center in Hickory, has not.

"NASCAR has recommended it to all the teams," said Jim Hunter, Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR media liaison. "The reason NASCAR only recommends the HANS device is you cannot compare these stock cars to Formula One or CART or any of those other racing divisions because our drivers sit up in their seats. It's totally different."

Another issue surrounding the HANS is that drivers have to unhook their helmets from two straps. The concern is that it could slow a driver's escape from a burning car. "We worked real hard on that with CART before they made it mandatory," Hubbard said.

From air bags to crash data recorders, the HANS is one possible safety option being tested and developed. Sterling Marlin wears a strap across his shoulders developed by Bill Simpson that he said, "Ninety-five percent of the drivers wear."

"Within a year we've lost three drivers," Marlin said. "We went along forever and nobody hardly broke a fingernail. All of the sudden, things are happening.

"Whether it's the HANS device or air bags in the car or something, we've got to figure out something to make it better."

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