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March 6, 2014

MSU inventor of racecar safety device honored

Robert Hubbard, a retired Michigan State University professor who developed a safety device that is credited with saving the lives of countless racecar drivers, has been inducted into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame.

Hubbard and Jim Downing, a driver himself and Hubbard’s brother-in-law, developed what’s known as the Head and Neck Support device, or HANS, in the mid-1980s, following the death of a racer friend who died as a result of a skull fracture.

Hubbard and Downing recognized that racers were being killed because their torsos were restrained but their heads were not. Although unknown at the time, this has been the mechanism of basilar skull fractures, the most common cause of racers' deaths.

With a research background in skull bone strength, head injury and crash dummy development, Hubbard conceived of the HANS device, which restrains the helmet and head relative to the shoulders and effectively reduces the head motions and neck tensions that injure racers.

It wasn’t, however, just the development by Hubbard, an MSU professor of materials science and mechanics, and Downing. The two were instrumental in convincing a slow-to-adapt motor sports industry that the HANS was a valuable piece of equipment.

Since 1990, more than 200,000 HANS devices have been put into use by drivers.

“It’s extremely gratifying to know that something I’ve worked on for almost 20 years has become truly beneficial,” said Hubbard, who retired from MSU in 2006.

Hubbard will be inducted into the Topeka, Kan.-based hall of fame Saturday.

Formed in 1944, the Sports Car Club of America works to promote the sport of auto racing. For information visit


By: Tom Oswald