Gridlock Guy: Atlanta-made HANS device has saved many racers’ lives

A brick building under a Chamblee overpass is the home of a motorsports-altering invention.

A nondescript, modest brick building sits just north of the Clairmont Road bridge over Peachtree Road in Chamblee. An awning in a brown hue arches over the front entrance and reads “Downing Atlanta.” As many new condo, apartment, and mixed-use complexes shoot up like beanstalks all around, Jim Downing’s race shop and showroom still sits. Downing Atlanta unassuming home of a giant safety invention that has saved likely dozens of race car drivers’ lives.

The Hans (Head and Neck Support) device is standard in many racing series worldwide and Downing and his employees made, refined, and sold them from the Chamblee shop for nearly 25 years.

Downing isn’t the average business owner. He’s raced for over five decades, winning prestigious sports car races and championships nationwide. Downing is the son of an auto dealer, whose job between races was owning and operating different dealerships and mechanic shops in the Atlanta area. Downing drove largely for Mazda and ran a Mazda repair shop for many years.

Business acumen is one differentiator between Downing and other racers and so is his engineering degree. The Georgia Tech grad applied his know-how to making race cars go faster and also to safety after a grim moment 40 years ago.

Friend and Renault Racing director Patrick Jacquemart missed Turn 7 and hit a sand trap at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The abrupt stop caused a basal skull fracture and killed Jacquemart.

Downing saw an issue then in 1981 far earlier than many in the motorsports community. was Seat belts and seats held drivers’ torsos in place, while heavy, helmeted heads would whip in an impact. That snapping motion can crack bones at the bottom of the skull, which can pierce arteries and cause a driver to bleed to death.

Downing reached out to brother-in-law Dr. Bob Hubbard, a biomechanical crash engineer at General Motors, with the problem. Hubbard engineered a solution on the popular crash test dummies he also helped invent. The stabilizing Hans device would collar the neck up to the skull and then horseshoe over the collarbone to the pectoral muscles. Then multiple harness points would strap the driver’s helmet to the Hans and the Hans to the seat, much as the belts do to the chest and waist.

While practical, the Hans device did not spread like wildfire through racing paddocks.

“I was wearing the first one in 1985,” Downing told the AJC and 95.5 WSB from his shop office. A famous fellow sports car driver became an early adapter, “Paul Newman was the second person to get a Hans device.” Outside of his legendary acting career, the late Newman drove for and owned race teams for several decades.

Downing and Hubbard’s brilliant invention had a famous endorser in Newman and many drivers tried out the Hans. The duo needed 10 years to perfect the restraint for sale, doing just that in 1991. Downing said they sold so few in the next decade that they lost money.

20 years passed between Downing’s inspiration for the Hans and a continuum-altering tragedy in 2001.

NASCAR lost three drivers to basal skull fractures in 2000: Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper, and Adam Petty, the four-generation rising star of NASCAR royalty. But NASCAR was slow to mandate the Hans or devices like it, largely because drivers complained of the lack of mobility in their heads. Downing met with NASCAR officials in their trailer at a racetrack on one weekend of that fateful year, pitching the benefits of the Hans. Then “The Intimidator”, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Dale Earnhardt, entered the hauler.

“He sat there - I think it was on this desk of some sort - and he just sat there with this big smile on his face. And we were quickly ushered out,” Downing recalled with a chuckle, noting that neither Earnhardt or NASCAR was impolite. Multiple drivers had tried the Hans and thought it practical, but not enough so to risk wearing it. They just didn’t want the hindrance and didn’t want to feel disadvantaged to other drivers that didn’t wear it.

Earnhardt, wearing an open-face helmet, crashed his iconic black No. 3 Chevy on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The nearly head-on angle into the Turn 4 wall, just one o’clock to the right off the nose, was the fateful degree that whipped his helmet forward, to the right of the steering wheel and back. A bloody basal skull fracture killed NASCAR’s seemingly immortal hero.

Though NASCAR would still lag behind some others in mandating the Hans, Downing said his phones immediately rang off the hooks. “The week after Earnahrdt was killed, we took orders for 250,” Downing said. Downing Atlanta got as many Hans orders in one week as it had received since 1991.

They had to form an assembly line in the back of the shop to try and meet demand. “We scrambled - it was a little bit of a nightmare for the next year.” Downing took phone calls from several self-important racing luminaries, demanding he fill their order. They had to be patient.

NASCAR soon mandated the Hans and has not seen a driver lose a life since Earnhardt, though drivers have and still experience concussions. Formula 1, IndyCar, and countless other series also require the Hans, which has now shrunk to nearly half its original size.

Downing and Hubbard tried to market the Hans to civilian drivers who had experienced serious neck injuries, but that never caught on. The same held true for their attempts to sell the Hans to fighter pilots, who sometimes experience head and neck injuries ejecting from planes.

Downing sold the business to Simpson Racing Products in 2012, but his shop still proudly displays numerous awards and a trophy case of different Hans models over the years.

Suwanee resident Bill Lester, who competed in NASCAR for the first time since 2007 this past weekend at AMS, stopped by Downing Atlanta to get his Hans recertified. The Afircan American driver and longtime friend of Downing’s raced on the 15th anniversary of his historic Cup Series debut in 2006.

While the Downing Atlanta race team contended at Road Atlanta in Braselton for SCCA events, NASCAR tackled the high banks of Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt’s replacement in a rebranded white No. 29 Chevy, spectacularly won at Atlanta in just his third-career start in 2001.

So Atlanta is home to part of NASCAR’s Earnhardt catharsis and to the shop that helped pull the sport from a deadly tailspin. The Hans device is now legendary, after a humble two-decade toil. Thanks to Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Jim Downing for his ingenuity and patience.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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