At 71, Jim Downing Still Loves To Race
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — There was never a long-term plan for Jim Downing. Instead, his plan was quite simple: just make the next race. For 51 years, he’s made race after race after race.
Ultimately he won races, then he won championships. It all started with a $60 fee.
Downing returned to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs over the weekend at Road America after missing last year’s race. He returned in grand fashion, helping the SCCA celebrate 50 years of competition.
Fifty years ago, Downing was on the pole for the first event, now known as the Runoffs, back in 1964, competing in the Formula Vee class. He finished 10th that year.
This year, Downing competed in his 10th Runoffs and seventh in the C-Sports Racing class. He finished 10th in Saturday’s race. In 2011, he finished third, equaling his best career finish in the event (2008).
“That’s my only claim to fame in the Runoffs,” Downing said. “I was there at the first race, the first Runoffs and on the pole.”
This year was the last year, at least for now, the Runoffs will be at Road America. The famed 4-mile road course has hosted the event since 2009. Next year, it’ll head west to Laguna Seca in California, then Daytona in 2015 and Mid-Ohio in 2016, which hasn’t hosted it since 2005.
To be at Road America was also a mini-homecoming for Downing as his mom was from Racine, which is about 90 minutes south of Road America. Downing was born and raised in Atlanta.
“I have a little Northern Viking blood in me,” he joked.
Downing’s biggest and easily most important contribution to auto racing was when he and is brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Hubbard, got together and created the HANS device (head-and-neck support system).
Every checkered flag and every championship can’t compare to that invention.
In 1981, Patrick Jacquemart was killed in a crash while running a GTU class car for IMSA at Mid-Ohio. He suffered a fracture at the base of his skull, a basilar skull fracture, and died on the way to the hospital. Jacquemart was a friend of Downing’s. The accident came two years after a scary crash that almost killed Downing.
“There wasn’t a mark on his body,” Downing recalled. “(Basilar skull fracture) was as common as dirt and nobody was really recognizing it.”
Hubbard was a bio mechanical crash engineer for General Motors when Downing turned to him seeking his help. Downing knew the problem needed to be addressed. A few years later, Downing introduced the device and was one the first wear of the safety device in 1986 at Daytona.
However, it took some time for it to become an acceptable part of a driver’s racing outfit. For most of the early years after its introduction, drivers complained it was too restrictive and could hinder their ability to get out of the car in case of an emergency, such as fire. So many continued to avoid wearing it, while Downing didn’t.
In the years that followed, some of the sports greatest drivers died of the injury. Drivers like Roland Ratzenberger, Ayrton Senna, Scott Brayton, Tony Bettenhausen, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Neil Bonnett and Greg Moore all died of the injury before and after the creation of the device. Still, no movement was made to mandate Downing’s and Hubbard’s creation.
Then Dale Earnhardt Sr. died.
Finally, the awareness of the HANS device surged into the public limelight and it didn’t take long for the racing world to say, “enough was enough.”
By 2003, it was mandated across racing.
“Earnhardt was the key,” Downing said.
Since then, deaths on the race track have diminished, especially in Formula 1. Since Senna’s death in 1994, no driver has been killed in a Formula One car.
“We had sold about 250 of them in 10 years, which is nothing,” Downing said.
“I had orders for 250 in one week,” Downing said.
Today, a HANS device is as common as seat belts in a race car.
“We thought it would happen in about 1988,” Downing said, adding drivers still today don’t like wearing it, but do because it’s required.
Growing up, Downing raced anything he could until he was legal to race at the higher levels. He raced in soapbox derbies when he was 11, then won a downhill slalom event when he was 16. He also raced auto-cross. When he finally turned 21 in January 1963, he made the moves to race at higher levels. By the next month, he got his wish, racing sports cars for about a decade. In addition to the inaugural Runoffs, Downing competed in the 1971 and 1972 Runoffs at Road Atlanta, competing in the American Sedan class. He finished fifth in 1971 and 10th in 1972.
As for sports car racing, he took some time off and ultimately pursued professional racing.