The Heat Is On

Drivers endure sweltering temperatures in cockpit

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2001

ATLANTA -- Bobby Allison once locked three newspaper reporters in his passenger car and drove them around Birmingham on a hot July afternoon. After just five minutes, the heat inside his Buick seemed stifling, especially because the windows were rolled up. Ten minutes into the drive, everyone was drenched in sweat. Five minutes after that, everyone teetered on nausea.

Just when it couldn't get any worse, Allison turned on the radio and adjusted the control to maximum volume. That's when the passengers noticed something equally alarming: Allison also had the heater engaged at full blast. The headache that followed lasted three days.

''Now you know what it feels like inside a race car,'' he said. ''Imagine this for three or four hours every Sunday afternoon.''

Heat isn't an issue limited to athletes who run, throw and jump. With temperatures reaching 140 degrees and no air conditioning inside the cockpit, heat has been a problem for stock car drivers for years.

''It's tough to just sit there boiling,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

As cars become more streamlined, they become more uncomfortable. Air conditioning is too heavy and robs the engine of too much power. Air ducts create too much drag. Cars sit low to the pavement, limiting circulation under the car. And at most tracks, the passenger window keeps air from circulating inside the car.

Drivers often lose several pounds on race day, and many leave the car with blisters on their backs, rear ends and feet.

''We were at Indianapolis (testing) and we put a sensor inside the car right about waist-high in the seat, near the shifter,'' Earnhardt said. ''It was about 126 degrees constantly while I was on the track. And it was about 115 or 110 degrees just while the car was sitting in the garage. So it's pretty warm. It's not very comfortable. That's really when perspiration comes into play and you have to make sure you're not draining your body of fluids.''

Jeremy Mayfield said he starts drinking extra fluids at least three days before every race. And once the main event starts, he tries to drink water during every pit stop and stick bags of ice under his driving suit. And yet, he still lost five pounds during Sunday's Brickyard 400.

Each car is equipped with fire extinguishers that automatically deploy at 140 degrees. Some have been known to engage during a race. Kyle Petty once had one discharge as he sped along the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway.

Another source of heat is the oil tank mounted directly behind the driver's seat. It holds about 15 quarts and can heat up to more than 300 degrees during the race.

Some cars have padding made with aluminus silicate on the floorboard and behind the seat. It's the same material used on the space shuttle.

The newest trend is to pump cold air into the helmet and push the drivers to better tolerate the dangers.

''We know as drivers that if we're going to compete and do well, we've got to keep ourselves well hydrated, and that's something we face every week,'' Dale Jarrett said.

Cars are lower to the ground to gain traction and the passenger window is required on tracks bigger than a mile to keep the cars from becoming airborne in a crash. Those changes prohibit air from circulating in and around the car.

''You can go to places like Daytona or Talladega (Ala.), and actually see dust particles floating in the air in the cockpit of the car, and they're not moving around,'' Earnhardt said.

''There have been some races where you felt like your face is stuck to a frying pan on the stove, but it's never been so hot I wanted to get out of the car. If you're in there constantly, you get accustomed to it.''

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