Dr. Robert Hubbard, co-inventor of the life-saving Head And Neck Safety device that revolutionized motorsports safety, has died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 75.
Hubbard's entire career revolved around automotive safety. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where he studied the physical and mechanical properties of the human skull at the school's Highway Safety Research Institute. He went on to specialize in biomechanical engineering at General Motors, studying crash-related injury and engineering early crash-test dummies beginning in the 1970s.
Dr. Hubbard partnered with IMSA legend Jim Downing following a fatal IMSA crash in 1981. Together, they began to develop what became known as the HANS unit in an effort to prevent fatalities caused by basal skull fractures.
With Downing serving as the test pilot, the comically large, first-generation HANS went through numerous iterations as the Georgia native raced throughout the country. Fitting the HANS inside the cockpit of his championship-winning IMSA GTP-Lights entry was a challenge at first due to the height of the pillars that tethered Downing’s helmet to the shoulder-mounted device. Despite its bulky footprint, the value of having a new piece of safety equipment that slowed and restricted forward head and neck movement in a head-on crash was clear.
Continuous efforts to downsize the HANS eventually resulted in a product that, after considerable time and money invested by Hubbard and Downing, became the global standard for protecting amateur and professional drivers. Formula 1, IndyCar, IMSA, NASCAR, and most sanctioning bodies—including the SCCA and NASA—require drivers to use a HANS device, or one of its copycat derivatives, at all times behind the wheel.
“Bobby used to crew for me; he was a mechanical guy, and he would come to the races to work on our team,” Downing told Road & Track. “Sadly, when Patrick Jacquemart got killed [in 1981], I posed the question to him, what could we do about this? It was obvious that this basal skull fracture situation was happening, and it opened not just our eyes, but a lot of folks' eyes that you could get hurt stopping quick, even though you had all the shoulder belts, and seat belts, and crotch straps to hold your torso in position.
“And so he bowed his head down and came up with something. We worked on it here in Georgia at our composite shop and built many versions of it, and finally settled on the one that went up for sale,” he said. “And it worked quite well. Paul Newman was one of our first customers. Apparently, he had some serious neck problems, and was a smart guy, and recognized that he should have some protection. As did IndyCar. Some of the IndyCar folks were required by Dr. Terry Trammel to wear it. And when nobody really wanted to do that, he said, ‘you've got to get clearance from me to run the race, you're going to wear this thing.'"
Given a task that would eventually revolutionize driver safety, Downing recalls Dr. Hubbard taking delight in seeing the HANS device become as ubiquitous as fire suits and gloves among drivers.
Downing hopes his friend is remembered for the creativity and persistence he put into designing a device that has saved countless drivers from severe injuries, if not outright fatalities, since the HANS hit the market in the 1990s.
“He was very proud of that device that he came up with and it really rounded his life out very nicely,” Downing said. “He's one of these guys that thought about it and thought about it and thought about it until he had this idea. We were all lucky to have somebody that had the background to see the nuances of how the head and neck work, how they get hurt, and what happens in accidents."
Downing emphasized how driven Dr. Hubbard was. "His best friend was work," he said.
“The world is saying very nice things about him today, and they all appreciated him. That's really a great deal. It's just impressive the number of people that appreciate him and the history of this what he’s contributed to racing," he said.