Friday the 13th of July could be a lucky day for NASCAR drivers. That's when a new and recently approved head and neck restraint system can begin being used in competition.
The Hutchens Hybrid joins the HANS Device as the only head and neck restraint systems allowed by NASCAR for use by drivers in all its touring series. Both restraint systems meet SFI 38.1 certification, the only standard currently recognized by NASCAR to measure head load and rapid egress requirements.
Trevor Ashline, designer of the original Hutchens device and president of Safety Solutions, said his new Hybrid easily passed the rigorous SFI 38.1 testing process, with impressive angular impact numbers, and exceeded the stringent NASCAR head and neck restraint criteria.
"While our R3 and Hutchens II devices meet all SFI 38.1 safety criteria and enjoy widespread use within other national sanctions like NHRA, IHRA, ARCA, SCCA, IMCA, APBA, HSR, Porsche Club and USAC, the Hybrid represents the next evolution of safety technology in head and neck restraint systems," Ashline said. "We're thrilled with NASCAR's approval of the Hybrid, which will now allow drivers at all levels of racing access to the very best head and neck restraint systems on the market."
The Hybrid uses multiple load paths to redirect the head loads, and a combination of carbon fiber and straps to make it secure. One of its unique features is that the driver wears it like a vest.
"A restraint needs to work in multiple impacts, and the only real way that I see to do that is to strap the thing to you," Ashline said. "I found a real benefit in using both: carbon fiber to take load and direct it other places, and then using straps to direct the load where you want it from the carbon fiber. The straps also keep it sturdy on the driver.
"That's one of the big things that people who are already using it are finding. It's very secure and they feel very good in it."
To secure the system to the driver, the restraint uses a combination of a chest strap and a front buckle strap that hooks into the top of the seat belt buckle system as opposed to coming up between the legs. This arrangement produces a more comfortable and stable restraint that excels in angular and multiple impact situations, Ashline said.
"We have three distinct load paths," he said. "There's a small pad on top of the shoulders. That's kind of like the sweet spot for a HANS. That's basically all you need to have on a HANS. But you can't just have that and have it work because of the forces that you're going to get, because it'll actually turn it over. So you have to control that rotation, and the way we do that is with our straps.
"We have a chest strap and a buckle strap that goes to the side of the buckle, and what that does is stabilizes it in angular and straight-frontal impacts. The device actually gets better numbers in angular impacts than it does in straight frontals, which is a real difference from what you had in the past with any of these devices."
That's a critical safety factor, Ashline said, because it is the angular impact that is deadliest in racing.
"We've found out in the years since we put the black boxes on the NASCAR Cup car that straight frontals are not your major problem," he said. "The major problem is that most impacts are in the 30-degree angular range and in the left rear impacts. So to design a device that works best in straight frontals -- that's not really hitting the mark as far as having the best protection for the driver. So we've made a device that works fantastic in straight frontals, but it actually gets better in the angular because of the straps on the device."
Ashline said the Hybrid also makes it easier for a driver to get out of the car quickly in case of a dreaded fire.
"That's a huge issue for us," he said. "In SFI 38.1, there's a rule that says you have to have a single-point release. We have always been on top of that, making sure that we're not going to basically trap a driver in a car. This year, we've gone with all short tops.
"If you look at our Hybrid versus even our older models and the HANS, the HANS has what's called a tall top on the back of it. We found that that hooks the bars and the headrest and all that sort of thing getting in and out of the car, so we've lowered the top below the headrest. We've actually gained an advantage in sled testing by having the tether that low. It's a huge advantage which fuses the helmet back into the headrest in a rear impact.
"The second part of that is the devices that I've designed don't float because of the use of the straps. They're very secure to the driver so that getting in and out of the car, wherever he directs his shoulders is where the device goes. So it makes it much easier to get in and out of the car because it's much more predictable where the parts are going."
Although NASCAR has taken its time in granting approval for the Hybrid device, Ashline said he understands where the sanctioning body is coming from.
"NASCAR has done a very good job of being careful in studying new products and letting them get out in the field in other places and proving their worth not only in the test lab, but in the field," he said. "And I think that's the approach they've decided to take over the past few years.
"The other thing is you have to be sure that the product that you're putting out there and you're approving not only works in the intended use, but also you don't want to have something that will cause an injury, perhaps in a multiple impact or a rollover. We've been able to use our devices in road racing, boat racing, sprint cars -- all these different venues, to really gain experience with them, especially in multiple impacts and that sort of thing, and show that, 'hey, look, guys, the theories that some people may have had in initially looking at a particular device are not coming true.' We've worked in all the major places where the doctors of the world that study this stuff congregate and talk about it to make sure that what we're doing is the right path, and that they believe in our products."