Winston Cup Scene
Deb Williams won the prestigious Russ Catlin Award for Excellence in Motorsports Journalism for her work on this story. She was only the second woman to take home the coveted prize, and after also winning it the following year, became the first person to receive the award twice in a row.
By Deb Williams, Managing Editor
For several years NASCAR Winston Cup drivers have complained of headaches and nausea, to varying degrees, after an event and into the following day.
Three years ago Charlotte Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler challenged Hickory, N.C., sports medicine specialist Dr. Alfred Moretz and some of his colleagues to find the reason. They began their study and soon discovered that drivers who completed more than half a race often had high carbon monoxide levels in their systems. The eight-person research team immediately began developing a carbon monoxide filtration system for the competitors.
Seven-time driving champion Richard Petty was the first to try the system about 1 1/2 years ago. Today, others involved in the project include Dale Jarrett, Rob Moroso, Brett Bodine, Tommy Houston and Michael Waltrip. Jarrett plans to use the system in the majority of the Winston Cup races he competes in this season. Other competitors make a decision on whether to use the system on a race-to-race basis. But if there’s one thing they admit when they use it, it’s they feel better after a long, hot, grueling event.
“I felt great when I got out of the car (after the April 8 Valleydale Meats 500),” said Jarrett, who substituted for Neil Bonnett in the Wood Brothers/Citgo Ford in his first Winston Cup race this season. “I wasn’t physically beat. I had no headaches or nausea. I got into the van and drove home.
“Bristol (Tenn.) is one of the worst places we go because the air gets stagnant. I wanted to use the system and the Woods were good enough to put the equipment in the car.”
Houston was impressed with the system when he used it in his Roses Buick in the March 3 Busch Series Goodwrench 200 at Rockingham, N.C.
“I ran hard all day long but I had a little tire problem and the car was ill handling,” Houston said. “After the race, as we were going to Monroe (N.C.), I noticed I didn’t feel like I’d been in a race because usually about an hour after a race I get headaches. I felt like I’d just been out playing golf or tennis. I was relaxed, refreshed and ready to go. Most of the time at the end of the race after you get settled down, your adrenaline gets settled and you relax, you’ll have headaches because of the fumes and carbon monoxide.
“I feel like the system should be used in the same way that we use the cool suits. If you’re using clean, filtered cool air, it’s got to be better for you physically and mentally.”
The three- to five-pound system was designed to blow carbon monoxide filtered air into a driver’s breathing environment. It consists of a fan, mounted inside the car, which forces air through or directly to some flexible tubing and into a foot long filter canister. The canister, which is six to eight inches wide and three inches deep, is either mounted to the car’s floor or on one of the roll bars.
After the race, as we were going to Monroe (N.C.), I noticed I didn’t feel like I’d been in a race because usually about an hour after a race I get headaches. I felt like I’d just been out playing golf or tennis. I was relaxed, refreshed and ready to go. Most of the time at the end of the race after you get settled down, your adrenaline gets settled and you relax, you’ll have headaches because of the fumes and carbon monoxide. -- Tommy Houston
Jack Wysong, an engineer on the project who graduated from North Carolina State University, said the system’s primary function was to remove carbon monoxide from the air being breathed by the driver. It also filters out dirt, trash and smoke.
“Once when Richard blew his engine on the backside of the track, he drove halfway around the track. He said there was so much smoke in the car he couldn’t see out the window but he could stay in the car and drive it because he was breathing that fresh, clean air," Wysong said.
The canister, he says, allows two options for channeling the clean air. In cool weather, the filtered air may be taken through the tubing, directly to the face mask. In warm weather, one may take the air from the canister to an insulated container where the air is chilled. It then is transported to the face mask.
Wysong said it doesn’t take more than an hour to install the system, test it and have_it working.
“Obviously, a lot shorter time is required to take it out of the car," Wysong commented.
The Hickory resident noted the drivers wanted something that wouldn’t complicate things for them.
“That’s been the biggest hurdle to get over," Wysong said, “to make something that’s easy to get in and out of the car; that’s easy for them to use. Their primary task is driving the car and if everything gets so complicated that it makes their task more difficult, they won’t do it.”
Moretz noted several drivers haven’t wanted to be bothered with the system during its development stages. However, he believes once the system reaches the point where there are no glitches, then other drivers should be interested in it. Moretz expects any problems with the system to be solved by this summer.
Dr. Jim Parker, a pathologist who interprets the laboratory data obtained in the field, said studies conducted with various drivers over the last three years showed the carbon monoxide contained in each competitor’s system increased with the amount of time he spent in a race. Also a factor was whether or not the driver had a header break on his car during an event or was in an accident where panels that prevented fumes from getting into the car were damaged.
Normally, people who don’t smoke have less than one percent of their hemoglobin, the blood’s oxygen carrying segment, replaced by carbon monoxide, Parker said. Anytime the percentage is below 10, he says, no one shows any measurable effects. But if the percentage is increased to around 15 percent for several hours, then a person might suffer a headache.
“You start to get symptoms (of too much carbon monoxide) around 20 percent. The symptoms occur because there is a lack of oxygen,” Parker said. “A person may have visual disturbances where their eyes don’t focus or their vision is not as sharp as usual. A person may feel fatigued, tired, a weakness. They can’t come up to strength. The person may develop a pounding headache.
“When the percentage goes on up to 30 percent, these symptoms get more accentuated. When they get to toxic levels you border on consciousness. You may become unconscious.
“It’s hard to evaluate in a race car how much of the headaches and fatigue are caused by the natural environment found
in a race car because the symptoms are rather subtle,” Parker continued. “If you’re tolerating 20 percent with a headache and on top of that you had physical exertion and a hot race day, then the symptoms become more significant and the lack of oxygen more important.”
Parker noted the researchers developed a chart using data obtained from drivers who fell out early or midway of a race as well as from those who completed an event. Those who left an event within the first half hour showed no more carbon monoxide than eight to 12 percent. Those in a car for one to two hours, Parker said, were around 15 percent, and there have been some in a three- to four-hour event who have shown around 20 percent.
“Not all drivers are alike but the ones we have worked with we’re able to document that as a pattern," Parker said. “It could go higher than 20 (percent) if it’s extremely hot or something breaks in the car.
“We don’t know what the carbon monoxide levels are inside an intact race car. We don’t know what the environment is or how it fluctuates when a car is running under caution or at race speed.”
Since Houston has learned the symptoms caused by excessive amounts of carbon monoxide in one’s system, he believes it was a large dose of the gas that triggered Bobby Isaac’s fatal heart attack in 1977 after a 200-lap Sportsman race (now Busch Series) at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway.
“There were some holes in the front firewall and it was a hot and humid night, as well as I can remember,” Houston said. “Anytime you have this happen, you have an exhaust leak and it’s trapped under the hood of the car, it comes back inside and it’s hard to get fresh air into the car.
“When Bobby got out of the car it was a few laps from the end of the race. It was a 200-lap special event. He came into the pits and told Carlos Johnson he was having problems. He was having cramps. They helped him out of the car and he went back between some tow trucks where he passed out. They thought it was severe heat exhaustion. They revived him but decided to take him to the hospital to treat him for heat exhaustion. When they took him to the hospital, he wasn’t there very long before he had a massive heart attack.
“I think it was heat exhaustion along with carbon monoxide poisoning,” Houston said. “I’m sure there were other factors involved in it.”
Although no autopsy was performed on Isaac, Houston’s crew chief and son, Scott, agreed with his father because of data that has been gathered.
Bodine plans to use the filtration system for the first time at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the May 6 Winston 500. Initially, he planned to use it in the Valleydale Meats 500, but changed his mind, saying he didn’t want to get dependent on any equipment until it became hot.
Bodine decided to try the system, however, after reading articles in flying magazines which dealt with symptoms experienced by pilots in a non-pressurized cabin when they reached a certain altitude.
“It talked about a lack of peripheral vision and reflexes,” Bodine said about an article. “So, hopefully, this will help my performance.”
Bodine said he’d talked with Moretz about the system for quite some time but he wanted to wait until the packaging was smaller and it weighed very little before using it.
“You’re going to have nausea and basic aches and pains from being in a car,” Bodine said. “Of course, you’ll have exhaustion from the heat in the middle of the summer. Some days are worse than others. If you get the side of the car banged in and the blockoff panels to the engine are open, then you’re going to have more problems. It would be comparable to a person working in a body shop and not wearing a breathing apparatus while painting cars. He ends up with a headache and sickness. There’s quite a bit of carbon monoxide in the cars as well as the odor of the tires as they wear at certain tracks.”
I tried to slip around some last year at some of the superspeedways and not wear it but it didn’t work. When I didn’t use it I felt bad. Ol’ hard head has decided to wear it at every race. If it’s good one time, it’s good all the time. It’s a safety deal. -- Richard Petty
In September 1988 at Martinsville, Va., Petty became the first Winston Cup driver to test the filtration system. He decided to use the system after studies involving himself and five other drivers at two straight races in May and June 1988 showed he had the highest carbon monoxide level.
“The average driver was getting around 12 percent (of their hemoglobin replaced by carbon monoxide). I was getting around 18 to 20 percent, and I said that was too much,” Petty said. “We’ve brought it down to five and six percent.”
Designed by Delta Airlines pilot Tim McBrier, a Naval Academy graduate, the mask worn by Petty resembled those worn by pilots in fighter jets. Even though the system now used by Petty is basically the same as the one he first tried in 1988, other drivers have shunned the fighter pilot-like mask, calling it confining and claustrophobic.
“To me, if you’re going to do it, do it 100 percent,” Petty said in explaining why he preferred the mask. “If it’s good enough for those cats flying 40,000 to 50,000 feet, taking in oxygen, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve gotten used to it and it’s more comfortable than anything else I’ve tried.”
Moretz, who noted NASCAR was supportive of the research project this year, said the biggest complaint from the other drivers was the mask’s construction.
“But if you put it far away,” he said, “it’s not effective because of the diffusion of gases in the atmosphere.”
The drivers, Moretz said, usually contact his group after they’ve had problems with carbon monoxide, either passing out or getting sick after header problems or a quarter panel comes out during a wreck.
“We have discovered there are significant levels of carbon monoxide all around a track but if any particular car has a problem with its exhaust system leaking excessively and the driver’s compartment isn’t sealed properly, then they get very high doses in the car while other people on the track aren’t having a problem,” Wysong said.
“At a wide-open place like Daytona, you wouldn’t think carbon monoxide would be a problem. But if you have a problem, and the exhaust from your own car is getting into the driver’s compartment, you can still get levels that will make you feel bad.
“We tested the carbon monoxide in Michael Waltrip’s car at Richmond (Va., in February). He was running out in front of the pack and in the clear, yet he had twice as much carbon monoxide in his car as did Tommy Houston who was back in the pack. When we asked them about the difference, Michael said it was because his car wasn’t sealed as well and more of the exhaust entered his car.”
The drivers’ and crews’ attitudes about the project from last year to this season are the biggest change the research team has noticed.
“Up until this year, it’s been a situation where they weren’t telling us a whole lot,” Moretz said. “We would put a system in and all they would say afterwards was it didn’t work and they didn’t want it. Now, they’re telling us what they want.”
Wysong noted that because the researchers have been around for about three years, the competitors now realize they’re working on trying to help them.
“We haven’t sold anybody anything yet,” he commented. “We’re letting them use this equipment in exchange for them helping us develop it.”
Wysong said they now received suggestions from drivers on how to improve the system but noted the crews often make changes without consulting the research team.
“There’s been at least three crews that we know of who have made changes on their own that did not work,” Wysong said.
The changes have dealt with the way the air was channeled, the cooling box’s construction and the number of canisters and blowers used.
“With what we have now, it doesn’t have to touch their faces, so it’s not uncomfortable," Wysong said. “We have the ability to cool the air from 130 degrees down to 50 to 70 degrees. That’s going to make them much more comfortable and feel better.
“Sometimes they won’t see the benefit of carbon monoxide reduction until after the race or the next day. Near the end of the race is where they get the biggest benefit, but it’s hard to sell somebody a subtle benefit they won’t see until the end of the race or the next day.”
Houston said he didn’t like the system the research team had last year because it meant using a mask like the one worn by Petty.
“It had clips on the side of the helmet. It was bulky and came up over your nose,” Houston said. “The exhaust part of it would go up underneath my goggles when I exhaled. That didn’t suit me just right. I didn’t like it because it gave me a sense of not being able to breathe even though it was supplying me with fresh air.
“Al (Moretz) got a surgical type mask that sets out away from the mouth and keeps feeding you filtered air. When you breathe out, it goes away from your face. There’s nothing enclosed around your nose and mouth. It feeds air up underneath the bottom of the helmet and you pick it up with your mouth or nostrils.”
We have the ability to cool the air from 130 degrees down to 50 to 70 degrees. That’s going to make them much more comfortable and feel better. Sometimes they won’t see the benefit of carbon monoxide reduction until after the race or the next day. Near the end of the race is where they get the biggest benefit, but it’s hard to sell somebody a subtle benefit they won’t see until the end of the race or the next day. -- Jack Wysong
Moroso, who won last fall’s Busch Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the system, uses a full-face helmet, while Jarrett opts for an open-face.
Jarrett used this year’s revised system at Bristol with an open face helmet. A mask with Velcro on it and on his helmet was located in front of him. His microphone for his radio was inside it and he was able to unhook one side of it so he could get a drink of water.
Jarrett and Houston believe there’s sometimes more caution flags in a race’s second half because the drivers face a higher carbon monoxide level in their systems along with fatigue.
“The race track only gets worse as the day wears on,” Jarrett said. “It’s harder to keep control of the car. The carbon monoxide takes your mental faculties away.”
Houston echoed Jarrett’s sentiments that a driver wasn’t as sharp at the end of a race as at the beginning.
“You get lulled into a sense that the car does the same thing lap after lap,” Houston said. “The least little thing that happens, such as fluid dumped onto the track, you get in there and the first thing you know you’re turned around backwards.”
Petty doesn’t know if the mask has helped his performance, but he admits he feels better after a race and the following
“I tried to slip around some last year at some of the superspeedways and not wear it but it didn’t work. When I didn’t use it I felt bad,” Petty said. “Ol’ hard head has decided to wear it at every race. If it’s good one time, it’s good all the time. It’s a safety deal.”
Jarrett said despite the system’s benefits he knew some of the competitors would never wear it because of the way it looked.
“I’m not worried about what people think about how it looks,” he said. “I feel it makes me a better driver at the end of the race. If I do something about it now, while I’m in my 30s, I feel it will have less of an impact on me later on when I’m in
my 40s and 50s.”
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