Titles with the word miracle practically wrote each other. Racing fans around the world celebrated what felt like a mixture of luck and blessing. But for the quiet nerds who typically operate behind the scenes – chemists, engineers, and injury biomechanists like myself – Grosjean’s survival was far more exciting than blind luck.
From his hospital room after the wreckage, Grosjean attributed his relative lack of injury to the recently implemented Halo device, a ring placed above the driver’s compartment that is designed to absorb the impact of the collision. It is a sturdy, molded carbon fiber structure that resembles a circle above the driver’s “survival cell,” an area that is believed to be the most impervious to trauma. The Halo was certainly a factor; this prevented Grosjean’s head from hitting the jagged barrier by the side of the road. (Grosjean himself was once skeptical of the relatively new security device, but says he’s now a convert.) But there have been at least three other brilliant scientific advancements that together have kept him alive: his head and neck support system, racing harness, and high-tech logo-covered suit.
We’re desensitized by the cinematic images of grimy heroes clad in tank tops slowly walking away from burning car blasts. But an actual human being, made up of easily roasted meat, climbing out of the center of an orange-red hell is nothing short of astonishing. What most fans and viewers don’t know is that the credit for Grosjean’s survival goes to a hundred years of automotive science.
Back in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was doing over 150 km / h in the NASCAR Daytona 500 when his car hit a barrier, causing it to drop from 43 miles per hour in 0.08 seconds. His gear change alone was not noticeable, but since the crash happened over such a short period of time, the acceleration levels – or in this case the deceleration – were around 25 Gs, that’s 25 times the acceleration caused by gravity. This means that the impact on his body was the same as if the pilot of a fighter plane traveling at the speed of sound had come to a complete stop in less than 1.5 seconds.
Earnhardt’s body was properly restrained and it remained in place. His head, however, was not. And it didn’t. Earnhardt’s tragic accident was when it became clear that racing cars needed headbands and necks.
Earnhardt’s head, made even heavier by the weight of a racing helmet, was thrown forward. The internal structures of his neck were unable to absorb force, which placed extraordinary strain on the base of his skull. The skull cracked in response. Suddenly freed by the now broken bone infrastructure that normally supports our most malleable parts, the soft tissues in his brain, neck, vascular system and spine suffered fatal damage.
This type of injury, known as a basilar skull fracture, was very common in racing, and it often happened in the decades of racing history before Earnhardt’s death. Since drivers need to be able to look around to be functional, restraint systems have focused on keeping the body inside the car, but historically ignored the head and neck.
Until Robert Hubbard arrived in the 1980s. PhD in biomedical engineering and an expert in auto crash testing, Hubbard sometimes teamed up as a member of the race stand for his pals on weekends. One day in 1981, Hubbard found himself with a new, sadly personal perspective on basilar skull fractures. That day, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his friend, driver Patrick Jacquemart, died of a. Hubbard and his brother-in-law, also Jacquemart’s friend, got to work.
The racing industry is a culture that is sometimes reluctant to accept new safety standards. Drivers metaphorically sniff octane for breakfast and prioritize speed over the safety provided by quieter sports, so protective gear can sometimes feel like an added burden and inconvenience. But after the death of Earnhardt – a legend in the sport and a man known for his courage and courage – the industry was bludgeoned with the harsh reality that grit and courage are irrelevant in determining the strength of the spine.