What Next Season’s (Safest) Drivers are Wearing

I finally got to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last week. It was a lot of fun, especially since I was there on a Monday morning and it wasn’t all that crowded. The next day they had the Chase drivers there for interviews, so I sort of lucked out having a lot of time to look at things without holding up anyone else.

I especially liked the exhibits that showed how much things have changed over time. Your first impression is to look at the lap belts and t-shirt/jeans that most drivers used back in the day and shake your head. But they didn’t know everything we know now about safety. You might think at this point we know everything we need to know about safety, but the field is constantly evolving.

Racing safety research presents unique challenges because the audience (the people who will benefit from it) is small — which means the money available is small. I’ve talked about it before for catchfences. Count up how many tracks there are in the U.S. that have high-kinetic-energy motorsports (top level, Indy, NASCAR, F1) where cars launching into fences is possible. You might make a bit when you sell the first generation, but after that…? Maybe you can make some money off maintaining the fences, but they’re not something you replace frequently. It’s not a big market. So there’s a limit as to how much money a company can put into researching something that ultimately won’t make them a huge profit.

You might argue it’s different for driver personal protection equipment because you’re talking not only the few big-name drivers, but the slew of drivers in lower level professional and even the Saturday night racing circuit. Lower-level racers aren’t going to spend top-dollar for a safer helmet. The requirements at most small tracks in terms of safety are pretty minimal and if you give a driver a chance of putting money into making the car faster or making the car safer… You know what they’re going to do.

Helmets

The head is one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. The first function of a racing helmet was protecting against skull injuries. NASCAR was founded in 1947, just two years after the end of WWII. So it’s probably not surprising that many of the first racing helmets were actually repurposed military helmets. In the 1950’s, drivers switched from military to motorcycle helmets. (Take a look at the great photos at The Driver Suit Blog.) The purpose of these helmets was to form a protective shield around the head so that if you did bump your head, it wasn’t hard enough to crack it open. The National Geographic video below shows how motorcycle helmets are tested.

The helmets evolved to include a foam liner to cushion any blows. But even a well-padded open-face helmet (like the one on the left, below) leave plenty of room for injury. There’s no face protection. Many drivers wore goggles to keep dirt out of their eyes, but there was a compromise between safety and the ability of the driver to move and see what was around him or her.

Contrast the open-face helmet with the helmet on the right, which is a Bell HP7 carbon-fiber helmet that is favored by F1 drivers because it is light and aerodynamic (the latter being something closed-cockpit drivers don’t have to worry about.) It costs around $3,500. A good quality NASCAR certified helmet is around $700-$1,000, although drivers increasingly look to other series for anything that will provide an advantage. Today’s helmets have electronics for communication, custom fitted padding around the face and inlets for cooling hoses.

NASCAR didn’t mandate closed-face helmets until after Dale Earnhardt’s passing in 2001. The argument was that the decrease in visibility could actually cause more accidents. But NASCAR quickly realized that accidents were going to happen, including the occasional ‘freak accident’ and their responsibility to the driver was to protect him or her in the worst-case accident.

Today’s helmets are remarkable and do an outstanding job of protecting drivers against blunt force trauma, cuts and such. But the more we learn about concussions and how seemingly insignificant impacts can have a very serious cumulative effect, the more we realized that helmets need to protect against not only skill injuries, but brain injuries as well.

I was at the University of Southern Mississippi earlier this week and learned that NASCAR drivers (as well as NFL players) may soon benefit from technology being developed for the U.S. Army. The military has the same problem as NASCAR (and the NFL), but on a much more serious scale. Fewer soldiers die on the battlefield, but more soldiers return from deployments with traumatic brain injuries. USM researchers have a $5M grant to study how to improve the military helmet to guard not only against blunt force injuries, but also against concussions.

Rawlings, a major manufacturer of helmets for professional and college football, are using one of their advances, which combines foam with pneumatic cushioning made of pressurized air bladders. This gives multiple levels of cushioning and protects both low-velocity and high-velocity impacts. Research geared at bringing home soldiers safely may also help NASCAR drivers extend their careers.

Harnesses

The first Strictly Stock race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949 didn’t require the racers to have roll bars or seat belts. That may sound nuts to the young people, but remember that many people didn’t use seat belts and it wasn’t even a requirement that car manufacturers put seat belts in their cars.

In fact, the first seat belt law was a Title 49 of the United States Code, which took effect on January 1, 1968 and required all vehicles to have seat belts installed. Although the progressive state of Wisconsin required seat belts in the front passenger seat in 1961.

Seat belts save lives. There’s no debating that. Anyone who tells you that they survived an accident because they were thrown clear of the car is either totally wrong or extremely, extremely lucky. More people die needlessly in auto accidents because they aren’t wearing their seat belt.

I’m going on about this to toss in a gratuitous graph for Moody. Here’s the seat belt usage by state for 2013. Please note that I started the lower axis at 65% in order to make the differences more pronounced . I’m not surprised that Oregon is first. Oregonians like to be rebellious without being stupid. That’s a great state trait.

If you’re old like me, you remember when all we had in cars were lap belts. They’re called two-point harnesses because they are anchored to the car in two places. The three-point harness is now the passenger car standard and it’s called that because (duh) the belt attaches to the car in three places.

You’re beginning to see the trend, right?

OK, so if one is good and two are better… No, actually, the issue here is that the shoulder belt allows for rotational movement, especially if you’re hit on the side. So the next step is a four-point system, but the goal here is uniform retention of the body. Instead of a shoulder belt, you’ve got one belt for each shoulder.

Additionally, the place where the belts come together is now centralized on the body. It’s more easily accessible to the driver since it’s right up front. No need to twist or turn or fumble.

Here’s the problem with all three of these systems: Submarining. The video below (and this one) show you how, in some types of crashes, you can actually be pulled under the belt. The reason they tell you to pull your airplane seat belt “low and tight across your lap” is because a poorly fitted seat belt is especially subject to submarining.

So someone came up with an idea and it’s a familiar idea for anyone who has ever had to put a young child in a car seat.

The 5-point restraint system.

I wanted to use the mounting instruction diagram from a race supplier to show you how specific they are about how the belts are mounted. That’s because of everything we’ve learned about safety, down to the angle at which the belts are installed making a difference in how well the driver is restrained.

The strap in the middle is called the anti-submarine (or anti-sub) belt. It’s there to keep you from sliding out under the lap and shoulder belts in a collision. But there was a bit of a problem with this configuration. Some drivers (predominantly those with the Y chromosomes) found this belt uncomfortable when tightened to the correct tension. Even worse, when there was an accident and the anti-sub belt did it’s job, the driver might find himself talking in a slightly higher octave for awhile.

So, no surprise here, right?

The Six-Point and Seven-Point Restraints

The anti-sub belt is replaced by two new belts, each of which secures one of the legs. This helps hold the driver in the seat and prevent anti-submarining. These are sometimes called “Negative-G belts”. The seven-point restraint is just the six-point with the anti-sub put back, so you have three lower belts: one around each leg and one down the middle. 2015 was the first year NASCAR required a seven-point restraint for all drivers. Since 2007, NASCAR had only required six-point harnesses.

Predictably, the move to seven prompted a lot of grumping about by the drivers, but there is a method to this. In most cases, the two leg straps will stop the driver before any tension gets into the third belt. But the third belt really helps keep the driver locked into the seat and becomes important when the car goes upside down. Austin Dillon credits the harness for allowing him to walk away from that horrible crash in Daytona last July.

So now you think you’ve got it down, right? You know what’s coming next. The eight-point harness?

No. There is no eight-point harness.

Why a nine-point harness? The answer is in yet another piece of safety equipment: The HANS device. HANS is a head-and-neck restraint system that prevents the driver’s head from jerking forward and his neck snapping.

The HANS was designed to work with the existing restraint system, which at the time featured 2" webbing in the shoulder belts. The shoulder belts go over the HANS device, holding it onto the driver’s shoulders. Remember — the driver has to be able to get out of the car in a really big hurry if necessary. There may not be time to undo or un-attach anything, so the helmet and HANS device have to be of a size that it can fit through the window.

Here’s the issue. The wider a belt, the more it spreads the force out on the body. If you had a piece of wire and stopped, you’d be sliced in half. So the standard in NASCAR in the mid-2000s was three-inch belts everywhere; however, a 2-inch belt works really well on the lap and the legs. A 3-inch belt sits on your Iliac Crest (the bone that sticks out at the front of your hip.) If you use a 2" belt, then the belt sits below the crest and transfer force to the pelvis, not the crest.

That means you can get a 2" lap belt tighter than a 3" lap belt because it just fits into the space better.

A 2-inch belt also works better with the HANS device — but, because of the geometry of your upper body, it’s a lot more comfortable to use a 3-inch belt and spread the force out over more of your chest.

The first attempt to work this out was a belt that was 3" where it went over the chest and 2" where it went over the HANS device. I’ve shown an example of this belt (in a 6-point restraint). See how the upper belts go from wider to narrower? That was the compromise. You can do this on four-, five- six- or seven-point restraint harnesses.

But more is better, right?

The Nine-Point Harness

The nine-point restraint system has two sets of shoulder belts. One of the sets (two belts) is 3 inches wide. Those belts sit under the HANS and against the drivers’ chest and shoulders. They are strictly to hold the driver into the seat.

The second set of belts are only 2 inches wide. They are the ones that go over the HANS device and hold it in place. So you’ve got separate protection for the driver’s and the HANS system that protects the driver’s neck and head.

I looked all over for a picture showing a nine-point harness and didn’t find one. I do know for sure that Logano uses one, and that many of the other drivers have switched to nine-point harnesses. The 2016 rules package sticks with the 7-point harness as mandatory and recommends the 9-point harness. All systems must meet safety specification (SFI 16.6). A set of belts costs about $1200 — and they must be replaced anytime the car is in an accident.

So to sum up harnesses:

Could you do an 8-point harness? You could. You’d leave off the anti-sub strap. But as far as I could tell, there’s no one making or marketing those.

So there’s your summary of where we stand on driver protection. Enjoy the races this weekend!