Jim Downing, a sports hero who should never be forgotten

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ATLANTA (AP) – There are sports heroes sticking out the tongue.

Michael Jordan. Baby Ruth. Tiger Woods. Tom Brady.

Then there are those that are not so obvious, despite their huge impact.

Nestled under a towering freeway overpass in northeast Atlanta is an indescribable brick warehouse.

This is where you’ll find Jim Downing, the man who helped save auto racing.

A longtime sports car driver, he grew weary of the deaths of so many of his friends and competitors on the track. In fact, Downing had been frightened by his own violent wreckage on the Mosport Canadian Highway in 1979.

“I was lucky,” Downing conceded.

So, he studied the matter, much as one would expect from his appearance as a bespectacled professor. Most of the deaths, he found, were caused by basilar skull fractures – essentially the head crashing violently forward in a high-impact wreckage, while the rest of the body was strapped to the seat. by belts and harnesses.

Luckily, Downing’s brother-in-law Bob Hubbard taught biomechanical engineering at Michigan State University, worked with General Motors, and was interested in auto racing as well.

Downing passed his ideas on to Hubbard, who came up with a simple U-shaped contraption that goes around the neck and attaches to the helmet, keeping the head steady in high-speed collisions.

The head and neck support device, they called it.

HANS, for short.

Since its widespread introduction two decades ago, sparked by the astonishing death of seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt in the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the HANS became standard safety equipment in almost all forms of racing.

“I feel like it changed racing around the world,” said Chase Elliott, the defending NASCAR Cup champion.

Indeed, the HANS was at the forefront of a remarkable era of improved safety in all forms of racing, with softer walls, more protective seats and halo-like devices that protect riders. with open cockpit flying projectiles.

Earnhardt was the last driver in one of NASCAR’s best series to die in a crash. Formula 1 has lost only one driver in the past 27 years (Jules Bianchi, in a freak accident when his car slipped off a wet track and hit a tractor picking up another wrecked machine). Four IndyCar drivers have died in the past two decades, but the toll surely would have been higher without the HANS and other safety improvements.

At 79, Downing still runs occasionally and spends the rest of his time tinkering with an impressive collection of high-powered machines in a store that doubles as a de facto museum, displaying everything from a futuristic 1950s Lotus to the original sign that stood outside Road Atlanta after it opened in 1970.

“I usually work six days a week,” said Downing, coming out of the shop which remains in a cacophony of drilling, sanding and welding. “We are busier than ever. “

But every time he watches a race, Downing finds himself noting crashes that would have been much worse without the HANS.

“We all say, ‘Ohhh, this is a HANS accident,’” he said. “If someone hits totally sideways, the HANS doesn’t really apply. But anything that is advanced 30 to 40 degrees to the left or right is a HANS accident. So we pay attention to it. “

So do many more. Before Downing and Hubbard found a way to reduce the body count, the very existence of motor racing was in question

In NASCAR alone, four drivers from the first three series were killed in a horrific nine-month span spanning 2000 and early 2001, culminating with the death of the sport’s biggest star in his biggest race.

Earnhardt and the others – Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr, and Tony Roper – all died of basilar skull fractures.

In a particularly tragic turn, Downing and Hubbard had developed a working HANS in the mid-1980s, but they were so ahead of their time that most runners scoffed at the mere suggestion of wearing such an odd device.

“No one was interested,” Downing said with a chuckle, giving what he was up against a current twist. “I’ve heard every argument in the world as to why ‘I don’t want to wear one’. It’s almost like vaccines. There is so much illogicality in the world that it amazes you.

Resistance began to ease after Formula 1’s biggest star Ayrton Senna and fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger were both killed the same weekend at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Indy Car became interested after aspiring star Gonzalo Rodriguez died of a basal skull fracture when he slammed into a Laguna Seca wall in 1999. Michael Andretti was involved in much of the testing.

But there was little rush to adopt the device – especially in NASCAR, the most popular racing series in the United States.

“We started offering them for sale in 1991. Over the next 10 years, we sold 250, meaning we lost money on each one,” said Downing. “But we believed in it. “

Then Earnhardt was killed.

And everything has changed.

“It suddenly got us in business,” Downing said. “The next week I took orders for 250. And I had three on the shelf.”

Downing ramped up production at its racing and composite plant, the building it still occupies today. He hired additional workers and was quick to free up space in the back to set up an assembly line to manufacture the HANS, but demand far outstripped production for a while.

“I had people mad at me for a year because we couldn’t deliver them fast enough,” Downing said.

There was still a little resistance from drivers who felt the HANS was bulky, uncomfortable and limited their field of vision. NASCAR resisted several months after Earnhardt’s death before HANS finally became mandatory.

Kevin Harvick, who took over Earnhardt’s car after his death, was also reluctant to wear the HANS. He initially opted for another approved head-neck system, the Hutchens, because he found it less restrictive.

“At that point, neither of us wanted to use it,” recalls Harvick. “They were forcing us to change, thank goodness. “

The Hutchens device was ultimately banned by NASCAR, which said it did not offer the same level of security as HANS.

Now no one has hesitated to tie this U-shaped device around their neck.

“I don’t know if I would get in a car without one,” Elliott said. “It’s an absolute must.”

Downing eventually bought out Hubbard, then sold the rights to HANS in 2012 to motorsport giant Simpson, which was in a much better position to produce the device in large numbers.

Hubbard passed away a few years ago and the patent for their revolutionary device has since expired, although Downing still has a local HANS dealer that sells to runners in the Atlanta area.

He rejects any attempt to shower him with praise for the countless lives saved by his co-creation.

“It’s just progress over the years,” he said casually.

No, it’s much more than that.

Jim Downing is a true sports hero.

Right up there with these names that we know so well.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry (at) ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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More AP auto races: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports



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