Overnight Sensation: Success No Race to Finish Line for Alumnus
By Tim Turner
TLANTA — Jim Goodroe's mission is to save lives, and you might say NASCAR's 23 U.S. speedways and thousands of smaller race tracks around the world are his mission field.
The first 10 years, virtually no one was interested in what the Columbus State graduate was preaching about as sales manager of a company distributing a racecar driver's "head and neck support" system — HANS for short.
All that changed with the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on Feb. 18, 2001. Despite being harnessed securely, experts believe the impact of his car hitting a wall whipped Earnhardt's head violently forward, separating it from the spine, causing a fatal basilar skull fracture. The prevailing post-crash analysis was that, if Earnhardt had worn the HANS device, he would have survived.
"It was just incredible the interest suddenly in our product," said Goodroe, who graduated with a business administration degree from then-Columbus College in 1972. "We were a 10-year overnight sensation."
From 1991, when he joined Downing Atlanta, Inc., the HANS manufacturer sold only about 25 devices a year. HANS Performance Products now sells about 10,000 devices annually in 14 countries as it's a compulsory safety item in many racing associations.
Of course, no one — not even Goodroe, the primary early evangelist for the HANS device — was happy that it took Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 to persuade the racing world that such devices deserved some of the precious space in a driver's crowded racecar.
"For 10 years, we couldn't get anybody to listen to us," Goodroe said. "And in truth, the original HANS device was this big, clunky thing. We called it the Darth Vader model."
Part of that device's harness extended down the chest, it had a "clunky" attachment system and was not very user-friendly, Goodroe concedes.
"So there was a lot of resistance," he said. "There's no chance Dale Earnhardt would have ever used one. He didn't even wear a closed-faced helmet. He was the last of the macho guys."
Goodroe is now proud to call Earnhardt's racing heir, Dale Jr., a "strong proponent" of a vastly improved, redesigned HANS device.
Before that fateful 2001 Daytona, for reasons ranging from machismo to misplaced priorities, the HANS device left racecar drivers cold. Since then, the industry's change of mind has been profound.
"(We) went from having a product nobody knew anything about, or cared anything about, to having a product that everybody wanted and had to have," Goodroe said. "I could remember coming in some mornings and there would be satellite trucks parked on our front yard. I'd walk out to the shop and Jim Downing (company owner and co-inventor of the HANS device) being interviewed by some international journalist."
Downing is credited as being the first to identify problems associated with a restrained torso and an unrestrained head in sudden impacts after the 1981 death of a driver friend, Patrick Jacquemart, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Downing knew there had to be a way to stop those injuries, so he took his idea to Bob Hubbard, his brother-in-law and a biomechanical crash engineer for General Motors. Together, they designed the HANS system.
The HANS device is worn around the neck, placed under the shoulder straps that go over the driver’s shoulders. On each side of the HANS’ collar is a tether that attaches to post anchors on either side of the driver’s helmet. This restrains the head from violently pitching forward and downward after the body, which is well restrained by the harness device, quits moving. With the restrained body going only so far, the HANS device helps prevent potentially lethal hyperextension of the neck.
Goodroe was well prepared for his company’s sudden success. After graduating from Columbus College in June 1972 and marrying in September, he moved to Atlanta to work for an oil company. He was also taking law school night classes, eventually deciding that "hanging around jails trying to get criminal clients" held no appeal for him.
He knew he loved auto racing, so Goodroe changed career course and moved into auto parts. That's how he got to Downing, where he's now worked 22 years.
"I did well in my classes at Columbus College," Goodroe said. "I was already a pretty good writer. In law school that was very important, so I didn't have to take remedial training on how to write. (At Columbus College) they placed me in advanced English. That has helped me a lot in my career."
Goodroe said he now finds his work especially uplifting because of testimonials he's received about the HANS device.
"I can't tell you how many letters we've received from ...," Goodroe said, pausing to gather himself, eyes moistening. "Sometimes I get emotional because I read them from mothers and wives and sons and daughters. 'Thank you for developing this. You saved my father's life, or my husband's life.'
"People have actually experienced impacts while using the device and have gotten out of the car and walked away," he said. "It's just so very gratifying to see that."
# # #