BUSCH: Carbon monoxide poses new risks

Auto racing competition comes with its own set of risks. But new research proposes that the levels of heat and carbon monoxide present in cars during events, may be a greater risk than a high speed accident, and just as deadly. Timothy Ackland...

Auto racing competition comes with its own set of risks. But new research proposes that the levels of heat and carbon monoxide present in cars during events, may be a greater risk than a high speed accident, and just as deadly.

Timothy Ackland at the University of Western Australia's Department of Human Movement and Exercise Science in Nedlands and his colleagues came to this conclusion while running tests on actual NASCAR drivers.

"NASCAR crew chiefs have reported their drivers being unresponsive to directions," said Ackland. "Showing erratic skill and even blacking out at the end of races. Some drivers fail to realize they have finished the course."

Ackland and his colleagues ran a test with eight drivers in a simulator that recreates a typical stock car race. The Journal of Science reported, "They increased the ambient temperature and introduced controlled amounts of carbon monoxide. They found that heat and carbon monoxide made the drivers' performance significantly worse, in particular when driving around corners."

It is thought that perhaps an oval racetrack may contribute to the problem. Ovals produce kicks of air that create swirls, which inhibits carbon monoxide and exhaust gases from exiting the vehicle. The study also found that the fire retardant suits could be worsening the problem. Ackland commented, "The driver is hampered in his ability to dump heat because of the mandatory fire-retardant suit, gloves, boots and helmet that trap a layer of moisture next to the body."

In addition, at tracks where cars "draft" each other, the risks increase exponentially. The vents in the car, which are there to create cooling, instead draw in carbon monoxide fumes.

This past weekend, NASCAR was once again reminded of the problems drivers have with carbon monoxide. Points leader Tony Stewart had a severe headache during the event at Martinsville due to excessive carbon monoxide getting into the cockpit. Before he left the track, he had to be given oxygen and consult with a track physician.

Second place in points, Jimmie Johnson, has also experienced the negative effects of carbon monoxide. "I've had it one or two times - once in ASA, when I had some contact with someone and knocked the crush panels out of the car, and (I felt it) once at Bristol in the Busch Series. As the race is going on, you start to feel nauseous and sick. You possibly even get sick in the car while you're driving. You don't know why or what it is - I didn't, the first time it happened to me.

"I'm sure that Tony (Stewart) knew what it was with his experience with it and all. It's just breathing the fumes from the race car. It's not good. People die from it throughout the year in different cases. I had a friend die from it in Wisconsin. It was in the garage and he died from carbon monoxide poisoning, unfortunately, with the car running in there. It's a risk that all of us are around. Once your body gets carbon monoxide in it, you are more susceptible to it in the future. It sounds like that's what's happening to Tony."

Stewart and Johnson are not the only drivers to have had a first hand experience with this issue. At last years Martinsville event Jeremy Mayfield was also sickened by fumes.

"If you get carbon monoxide bad enough, you will feel it for days," said Mayfield. "It takes a long time to get out of your system. It might be two or three days before you start feeling right again. That stuff gets in your bloodstream and just about refuses to ever leave. I got out quick enough at Martinsville that it didn't last as long as it might have. Plus, the doctors there gave me oxygen and a fluid IV, so that got me back on my feet a lot quicker than maybe normally I would have. What causes it? In this case, the crush panels on my car got torn a little bit. You do a whole lot of slamming and banging at Martinsville. At little over half a mile, it's just the nature of the place."

Johnson concurs with Mayfield's assessment of cause, "It just depends on the extent of the damage to the paneling and where your exhaust pipes are located. If you run right side exhaust pipes and you knock the right side crush panel out, it's going to come right inside the race car. If you run right side pipes and knock the left side crush panel out, it's not going to get to you. It all depends on the circumstances. It all depends on if there's a panel bent and where the exhaust is."

Currently veteran driver, Rick Mast has complained of feeling 'deathly ill' by symptoms exacerbated after the May race in Richmond. He is suffering from dramatic weight loss, headaches and nausea. Mast underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic as to the cause, and doctors have not been able to rule out long-term carbon monoxide poisoning as the culprit of Mast's maladies.

Carbon monoxide is the next safety issue for NASCAR to embrace in the Winston Cup series. Drivers have commented to NASCAR that the cars have become so air tight to facilitate better aerodynamics that the carbon monoxide levels have climbed to dangerous levels. NASCAR has been urged to install carbon monoxide measuring devices in some cars or allow doctors to do post-race blood tests to determine the levels of carbon monoxide in drivers' bodies.

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About this article
Series Automotive , NASCAR Cup , NASCAR XFINITY , NASCAR Truck
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Rick Mast