Fourteen years after the tragic passing of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt — an event that many consider a defining moment of evolution in auto racing safety — it’s almost hard to imagine the motorsports world without head and neck restraint devices. That incident in 2001 sparked a wave of change across the vast spectrum of motorsports, with significant research and development and rule changes put into curtailing a growing number of life-changing neck and spinal injuries and even deaths from basilar skull fractures.
Today, head and neck restraint devices are nearly as common as the simple neck collar was two decades ago. In many disciplines of racing, they’re an outright requirement, and for many racers, they’re a piece of equipment they wouldn’t leave home without—mandated or not. As such, an entire market has come to exist of such devices, all offering varying levels of fit, comfort, and features. Among them is the Accel front head restraint, manufactured by Impact Racing.
The Accel from Impact is one of the newest front head restraint devices on the market, offering what Impact describes as unparalleled comfort and the ultimate in protection. We recently got our hands on one of these slick, new devices that we’ll be pressing into drag racing duty with one of our upcoming heads-up project vehicles. We don’t want anything to happen to our Editorial Director, so safety is paramount.
Frontal Head Restraint Devices At A Glance
A frontal head restraint like the Accel works to counteract the forces of inertia in an accident, where the head follows the direction of impact, while the rest of the body remains restrained in the seat. This movement, in the right circumstance, can and has presented devastating injuries and death, and after decades of such occurrences, the motorsports world had enough and did something about it.
More than a decade before Earnhardt’s accident at the Daytona 500, Jim Downing and his brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Hubbard, a professor of Biomechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, had collaborated on, and invented, a device designed to prevent basilar skull fractures. Downing was distraught over the recent passing of a friend in an auto racing crash from just such an injury, and used that as his motivation to enact change. The technology, however, didn’t gain traction until the early-2000s after a series of fatal accidents around the racing world.
The device, while perhaps complicated upon first glance, is quite simple in its operation; a harness, typically made of composite, rests on the shoulders and is held firmly in place with the shoulder belts. A pair of tethers attached to the harness then connect to the helmet, which limits the forward extension of the head. The harness itself, at the same time, serves a ‘base’ behind the head, preventing the head from overextending backward in the event of a collision from behind.
From stock cars to sprint cars, race boats to rally cars, frontal head restraint devices have become as important to drivers as the helmet itself, and their usage becomes more widespread each year. Drag racers, specifically, will find that the National Hot Rod Association requires an SFI 38.1 head and neck restraint device in any and all vehicles that exceed 200 mph or run quicker than 7.49-seconds in the 1/4-mile and 4.49 seconds in the 1/8-mile. The International Hot Rod Association has similar requirements of vehicles exceeding 200 mph in selected categories, while the Professional Drag Racers Association also requires them in their Pro Extreme, Pro Nitrous, and Pro Boost eliminators.
In some cases, local and state officials have even stepped in on the use of frontal head restraints. In August of 2014, 21-year old Amanda Gambacorto was killed in a three-quarter midget crash at the Green Flag Driving Experience at the Wall Stadium Speedway, which was later determined to have have been the result of a basilar skull fracture. The investigating detective determined that “a head and neck restraint may have played a role in a different outcome … we believe it would have reduced the probability of this type of injury.”
New Jersey now requires all drag racers to follow NHRA guidelines as it pertains to head and neck restraint devices. Performance Driving Schools, road racers, and oval track racers are required, as of January 1, 2015, to wear a head and neck restraint device. Only quarter-midgets are void of the ruling.
The Accel From Impact
Impact Racing, one of the leading manufacturers in the motorsports safety industry, set out to develop its very own frontal head restraint, with an intent on delivering a product that went above and beyond other devices on the market in regards to comfort and ease-of-use.
…it not only improves driver safety, it also offers radically improved comfort, which increases the chances that drivers will actually use the available safety equipment. – Kelli Willmore, Impact Racing
A frontal head restraint was, at the time, the last remaining safety product that Impact lacked on its resume. Willmore says they knew they could “build a better mousetrap” and improve racer safety. As she says, many of the devices on the market had gone unchanged since their initial introduction in the 1990s, and they saw fit to evolve the product in their own way.
“The initial design of previous devices did an excellent job of mitigating forces, however, they sacrificed racer comfort, and an increase in clavicle (collar bone) injuries and fractures have been noted,” she says.
The design of the Accel is intended to drastically reduce the potential for such injuries. The Accel features body-forming shoulder pads that are meant to minimize pressure points on the collarbones. That, Impact believes, is key to driver comfort. They’ve also utilized a lightweight yet durable carbon composite developed in conjunction with DuPont, to produce a device that flexes in unison with the body and therefore limits overall driver fatigue.
SFI Requirements And Testing
If you’re interested in learning more about the requirements of manufacturers for head and neck restraint devices, and the critical testing that they go through to receive SFI approval, you can read about the process in great detail on the SFI Foundation’s website here.
Impact worked extensively with engineers at DuPont to formulate the carbon composite material for the Accel, in an effort to develop a product that could handle the rigors of high-speed racing, yet remain comfortable to wear. Impact computer modeled the device and simulated stress-tested it to validate before moving to actual sled testing. The device was eventually tested in an SFI-approved laboratory, and passed the intense SFI 38.1 standard with flying colors.
“It’s difficult to comprehend how brutal and insanely violent the sled testing is for the SFI 38.1 standard is if you haven’t actually witnessed it in person,” Willmore says. “The extreme violence of the sled impact simply does not translate in videos – it is a completely different experience to witness the test in person and understand what the devices have to endure to pass the testing.”
Another benefit to the Accel design is that it is a one-size fits all, which not only eliminates the need for measuring and sizing, but increases the likelihood that distributors will have the product in-stock when you need it.
Should You Wear A Frontal Restraint?
The Accel, in prototype form, endured one of its first real-world tests in February 2013, when Top Fuel racer Antron Brown rode out a 300 mph crash at the Winternationals in Pomona, California and escaped without injury.
“It was very rewarding to have Antron walk into the Impact offices in Indianapolis a few days later and thank us. His Impact belts and Accel frontal head restraint worked flawlessly that day,” Willmore says. Today, six of the seven Don Schumacher Racing drivers all wear the Accel device.
The Accel (and devices like it) has proven itself at the upper echelons of racing confirms that it can also serve a weekend warrior bracket racer quite well. And Willmore believes that at $599, there’s simply no reason for any racer to skimp on their own safety. “A frontal head restraint could possibly save a racer and their family time off from work due to injury, as well as medical bills – or worse,” she says. “The worst can, and sometimes does, happen even if the crash isn’t all that bad.”
As Willmore says in closing, “The first hurdle to getting a driver in safety gear is the perception that it is uncomfortable or that it will impair the driver’s movement or visibility. By making the Accel device more comfortable, we are able to get drivers to actually embrace the product – even when the device is not required for their series.”