ATLANTA -- Richard Petty is deaf.
The man with more NASCAR Winston Cup victories than any other driver found the roar of a race engine to be intoxicating. What he didn't know was that it was stealing a little more of his hearing with every lap.
Petty got away with not wearing goggles to protect his eyes and gloves to protect his hands. But he could not escape the damage done by his scream ing 800-horsepower race en gine and the 42 other screaming engines around him in the garage area and on the race track.
Eighty-five percent of Petty's hearing is permanently gone. He wears hearing aids in both ears.
''To me, part of racing is the noise,'' he recently told the Detroit News. ''I'm from the old school, you know what I mean? If I'm sitting in the grandstands and a bunch of cars take off around the race track, and I don't hear them, I'm not at the race. It's like watching a football game on TV and turning the noise off. You're not in it, and that's part of it.''
Noise might be part of the racing scene, but it comes at a high price. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, noise levels that surpass the 85-decibel level can cause damage to the ear. A race engine at full throttle measures 130 decibels only a step below the sound of a jet engine or space shuttle at takeoff.
Today's drivers have the benefit of knowledge. They wear fireproof suits, crash helmets, and head and neck restraint systems because they've watched drivers before them suffer horrific injuries without them.
The new generation of driver also seems committed to protecting its hearing. That, too, is the result of watching the suffering of others.
''Even during practice when I am out of the car, I usually keep earplugs taped in,'' said Jeremy Mayfield. ''That way, if somebody cranks an engine, I don't get all that noise.
''I haven't noticed any hearing loss, to be honest, at least not for me. That's not to say in 20 years I won't be feeling it or noticing it, but so far it hasn't been much of a problem. The Mobil 1 guys all wear ear plugs all the time they are in the garage, too, so that helps them out.''
Earplugs are the greatest weapons against damaging noise at the track. Every driver wears earplugs during the race, and most crewmen have them on pit road. Just as important, the majority of fans in the stands now wear either earplugs or a headset.
The noise level in the grandstands has been measured at 100 decibels, according to NIOSH.
''To me it looks like most fans are wearing earplugs, which is probably a good idea,'' driver Buckshot Jones said. ''I do a lot of hospitality for Georgia-Pacific on race mornings, and most of the people coming up to say hello or ask for an autograph usually have the good earplugs hanging from their necks.
''If you've ever had somebody crank and engine right beside you in the morning, you know how loud it can be.''
For now, the only weapon against the ear-shattering noise of a stock car race are earplugs. Another possible solution might be mufflers on the cars, but it's not something NASCAR is ready to consider.
Mufflers aren't used at any Winston Cup or Busch series event. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series requires a muffler at three races in California, but only to comply with local sound ordinances.
''If these cars didn't make the noise, you really couldn't appreciate the power involved,'' said Busch Series driver Elton Sawyer. ''Maybe we could cut it back some. But that's what a lot of it is. Engines cranking 750 or 800 horsepower are just supposed to be loud.
''To me, if everyone uses common sense and protects their ears, there isn't a problem.''
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