As historic racing participants we often go to great lengths—and spend a great deal of time—attempting to recreate racing history. We spend countless hours researching our cars’ histories; we spend thousands of dollars restoring our cars to period-correct configuration and—with those who are more zealous—we even go so far as to buy period transporters and crew clothing. Sure, some would say we are a bit obsessive, but this is, in my mind anyway, half the fun of historic racing. In many respects this phenomenon is what is known as a “creative anachronism,” in the same way that recreating Civil War battles or medieval festivals are. But like any…ahmm, obsession…there does come a point where one has to ask where one draws the line.
While few of us would bat an eyelash over period jumpsuits or spending a small fortune on an original ’50s transporter, start talking about safety and the crowd begins to separate. How far should the “period correctness” go, when it comes to safety? This is a question I’ve been asking myself since I heard that one or two American historic racing clubs were beginning to require head restraints at the beginning of the year.
If you are even remotely cognizant of what is going on in professional motorsport these days, then you are probably well aware that most professional racing organizations are now mandating that drivers wear some sort of head restraint system similar to the now famous HANS device. This obviously makes perfect sense in professional motorsport because it has been designed for use in modern racecars and has been shown to save lives in high–G-force impacts. However, the question for us, in our little corner of the automotive world, is whether it makes sense for historic racing, as well.
Obviously, safety has to be a number one priority in our sport, if not for philosophical reasons then legal ones. In order for the sport to continue and prosper it is vitally important that our events be first and foremost safe, both for our own well-being as participants and to maintain our ability to run and insure events into the future. With this said, it really surprises me that I have mixed emotions about the thought of head restraints being made mandatory.
Perhaps my hesitancy harks back to what I was saying earlier about the fun of totally recreating a period in history. When you see a Bugatti Type 35 racing around the track during the Monaco Historique, do you expect to see a roll bar? No, in fact for many that would be the automotive equivalent of straightening Mona Lisa’s smile with a crayon. In a similar vein, will the presence of HANS devices somehow diminish the enjoyment of watching or driving a D-Type or a Lola Formula Junior? Intellectually, I know the answer is clear, but emotionally I have had a hard time coming to grips with the notion.
However, much to my surprise, my attitude has changed since I talked with veteran racer and HANS device cocreator Jim Downing. Recently, I asked Downing a battery of questions regarding the HANS’ applicability to everything from early sports cars to Can-Am and Formula One machines. Downing provided a host of information and data to demonstrate that the HANS is, in fact, effective for any historic racecar provided that it has shoulder belts. He also went on to clarify that the HANS is only effective, however, if the seat belts are installed properly, and went to great lengths to point out that many early racecars (and some later ones!) have seat belt mounting points that simply aren’t safe and should be moved—whether you use the HANS or not.
By the end of our conversation I was certainly convinced of the merits of the HANS for historic racing, but I had to confess to Downing my feeling that it somehow just didn’t feel right, at least in a historical context. Jim laughed and said, “Yeah, I know. I’ve been racing a long time and I can remember when they mandated driver suits and how we complained about having to dip our arms in Borax solution and how stiff and itchy it felt. As racers and people we always tend to resist change, especially when it comes to things like safety. But let’s face it, it’s not the drivers that are important in historic racing, it’s those fabulous cars. And the only way that we will be able to continue to do what we enjoy doing is if we are able to put on safe races where people aren’t injured, or worse, killed. I think most historic racers understand this, and with time, will accept it, in the same way that they did driver suits and seat belts.”
Ironically, Jim made me realize that, in many ways, resisting safety changes is perhaps one of those creative anachronisms that we can probably do without. Now the only question is whether I can use a HANS device with a “pudding bowl” helmet.