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DRIVER SAFETY NASCAR tries new game plan



Published: Tue, March 25, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Carbon monoxide fumes were a particular problem at Bristol, Tenn.

THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Carbon monoxide poisoning is something you're going to hear a lot about this weekend. What you aren't going to hear a lot about is the outstanding job NASCAR has done in recent months to try to eliminate an old problem.

Bristol Motor Speedway is the place where the potential for harm from the toxic gas is more acute than anywhere else NASCAR races. Kyle Petty once said, "Racing at Bristol is like flying a jet fighter in a gymnasium."

The half-mile oval in the Tennessee hills is surrounding by more than 140,000 seats, making Bristol a gigantic bowl to stir and hold the fumes of 43 racecars.

For years, drivers have climbed out of their cars after 500 laps at Bristol feeling nauseated and sometimes disoriented. They would have a headache the next day that made a bad hangover seem like a paper cut.

"I just thought that was the way it was supposed to be," said three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. "I would get out of the car and lie on the ground. My eyes were burning, and my head was pounding. It happened a lot. We just didn't know what it was back then."

Experiments

Drivers didn't know the extent of the problem, but many have realized for years that toxic fumes could cause them to feel sick at times.

Some drivers experimented with ways to prevent it. Near the end of his illustrious career, Richard Petty even used an oxygen mask, similar to what fighter pilots wear.

No one will wear masks in Sunday's race. Most teams use filtering systems to bring fresh air from outside the car and blow it through hoses into drivers' enclosed helmets.

NASCAR engineers recently discovered that filters aren't the answer. The carbon monoxide passes through the filter, just like air does. The solution appears to be a type of catalytic converter that transforms carbon monoxide into harmless carbon dioxide.

Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition, expects the converters to be in use on every car later this season. They still have a few kinks to work out, but a remedy is on the way.

What this proves is that NASCAR's new Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., is doing what it was designed to do. A safety problem was identified, and NASCAR engineers went to work to solve it.

Mast case

The carbon monoxide issue became center stage in January when veteran driver Rick Mast announced he was retiring because of physical problems he has as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mast was hospitalized last year and doctors were baffled at first by his symptoms of severe headaches and weight loss due to some type of toxicity. A clinic in Colorado finally diagnosed the problem as a chronic condition due to years of carbon monoxide exposure.

What happened to Mast is an extreme case, but it got NASCAR's attention long before Mast announced he was retiring. Nelson and his team at the R & amp;D Center have spent hundreds of hours over the past year to come up with a solution.

NASCAR also has tested drivers before and after races to check the carbon monoxide level in their blood. Five drivers were tested last month last Daytona, but large speedways with higher speeds lessen the problem. More air is circulating in and around the car, so more fumes are dissipated.

A place like Bristol is a much more confined space at slower speeds. The cars bang into each other like demolition derby, which also can increase the problem.

If the side of a car gets knocked in, it can damage the exhaust pipes and allow more carbon monoxide inside the car. So NASCAR has advised teams on how seal off the driver compartments and how to check for cracks in the exhaust system.

By the time NASCAR returns to Bristol in August, it's likely the cars will have the converters and a problem that had plagued drivers for decades will be a thing of the past.




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