Four NASCAR drivers have been killed on the track since May 2000 -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt Sr. All of these drivers were killed when their vehicles slammed head-on into a retaining wall, causing a fracture to the base of the skull. Some believe this type of injury is due to the driver's head being left unsecured in the car while his body is strapped securely to his seat.
The risk of severe injury, and possibly death, prompted six NASCAR drivers to try out a new device called the Head And Neck Support (HANS) system at the 2001 Daytona 500. This device was co-developed by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a professor of engineering at Michigan State University, and his brother-in-law, former IMSA car driver Jim Downing. The HANS device is designed to reduce the chance of injury caused by unrestrained movement of the head during crashes.
The HANS device is a semi-hard collar made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, and it is held onto the upper body by a harness worn by the driver. Two flexible tethers on the collar are attached to the helmet to prevent the head from snapping forward or to the side during a wreck. The device weighs approximately 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg).
Doctors have said that it is unclear if the HANS device could have saved Earnhardt, but it is believed that the device saved the life of a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) driver in January 2001. While practicing for an upcoming race, Bruno Junqueira spun out of control and slammed into a concrete wall at 200 mph (322 kph). Junqueira, who was wearing the HANS device, walked away from the crash without injury.
NASCAR officials have said that NASCAR race cars are different from CART cars, and they are unsure if the device would be as effective for NASCAR drivers. Drivers, including Earnhardt, have complained that the device is too bulky, would restrict movements and would make it difficult for drivers to exit the car in emergencies. Hubbard/Downing Inc. said it was producing only three to four of these helmets per day just weeks before the 2001 Daytona 500, but received nearly three-dozen orders within hours after Earnhardt's crash. Ford has offered to pay for a HANS device for any driver who wants to wear one.
In October 2001, NASCAR officials mandated the use of an approved head-and-neck-restraint system for all drivers racing in the Winston Cup Series, Nascar Busch Series or Nascar Craftsman Truck Series.