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NASCAR: Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

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Rick Mast NASCAR

By: DJ DeSpain

During Speed Channel’s RaceDay broadcast prior to Indianapolis, a brief segment was shown regarding the safety improvements made by NASCAR to combat carbon monoxide poisoning. This was a relevant topic because Rick Mast, the first NASCAR pole winner at Indy in 1994, retired in May 2002 as a result of chronic carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mast made 364 starts over a 15-year Winston Cup career, but he had been around race cars since he was 4. Mast said the lifetime of exposure to car exhaust fumes is probably to blame for his condition.

“I was a grease monkey of sorts,” he said. “In the wintertime, we worked in the garage with the doors shut and the windows closed and all the cars running.”

The problem wasn’t new as the racing world had a term for it – “getting gassed.” Generally, drivers who suffered from it experienced light-headed conditions followed by bouts of nausea or weakness. In Mast’s case, he likened his overall condition to the “worst hangover of your life.” Towards the end of his career, Richard Petty took to wearing a fighter pilot’s mask to filter the air he was breathing during a race. After Mast’s condition became public knowledge, drivers such as Mark Martin began the practice of breathing pure oxygen for a period of time after a race to circulate out the carbon monoxide build-up.

Since Mast’s retirement, and with the introduction of the new car, NASCAR has incorporated safety features to minimize the drivers’ exposure to carbon monoxide. First and foremost is the “cool box,” which is an air-conditioning unit that supplies air from outside the car, cools the air, and then sends it through a hose connected to a driver’s helmet. The hose connection from the box to the helmet has a filter in place to clean the air as much as possible before making its way into the driver’s helmet. In addition, all the drivers wear closed-face helmets with skirts attached below the face rim that tuck into the drivers’ firesuit.  The intent is to protect the driver not only from fire exposure in the event of a wreck but to also prevent bad air from coming into the helmet.

Track garages are also more modernized as tracks constantly renovate their facilities. More air-circulation and filtration systems along with carbon monoxide detectors are evident today than were remembered from the past where the garages were just plain, sheet-metal sheds with nothing more than floor fans to move the air around.

All in all, “getting gassed” should now only refer to the kind of action performed at fuel stops.

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1 Comment

  1. Carl Myrick Velasquez

    February 22, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I think Danica will finish 12th place.

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