The race had been long and hard, but for defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and a number of other drivers, it was made tougher than it needed to be by the carbon monoxide taken into their bodies during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It's something that's pretty serious that no one elaborates on," Gordon said. "When that carbon monoxide gets in your system, it makes you do things a crazy person would do. It definitely changes you, and I know I don't drive the same when I get that stuff in my system. I was definitely off the chart at Charlotte."
Gordon is one of a handful of drivers working with Lori Jackson, an occupational health nurse. Her company, On Track Health Consultants, P.A., is studying levels of carbon monoxide in drivers before and after auto races and trying to help them find a remedy.
Much of the carbon monoxide comes from the exhaust they breathe in during a race -- usually from competitors' cars. Higher-than-normal levels of carbon monoxide can cause headaches, lack of concentration, changes in demeanor, nausea and fainting.
The buildup is usually worse at smaller, more enclosed tracks, but Jackson has seen dangerous numbers at larger tracks, too -- as did Dr. Alfred Moretz, who first began carbon monoxide testing in race drivers nearly 10 years ago.
Before the race at Charlotte, Gordon's level was within the acceptable range: from 0 to 2. After the race, a Breathalyzer test showed his carbon monoxide level at 56. Gordon was physically ill.
He wasn't the worst. Another driver Jackson now works with measured 61. He was nauseated, felt faint and needed assistance walking from his race car.
"He did finish the race," said Jackson, who declined to identify the driver. "But it was scary. Very scary and a very big concern to me."
It was a concern to Gordon, too. "Once you've been sick and see the difference in your readings, it makes you worry a little bit," he said. "It made me wake up."
Three weeks ago in Dover, Del., Gordon's crew installed a makeshift carbon monoxide filtering system. Though the day was warm and Dover's one-mile oval was demanding, Gordon won and said he felt surprisingly good afterward.
Now, he and his team are testing another system used by Dale Jarrett's team. This weekend at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon again will use one of the two systems.
"A lot of times we [drivers] get confused on the oxygen thing," Gordon said. "We get blamed because we're out of shape or the race wore us out. But most of the time it's the carbon monoxide getting in our system that wears us out. You'll have the worst headache you've ever had, and if it gets bad enough, it will put you out."
Nearly 10 years ago, Richard Petty knew he had an air flow problem and asked Moretz, a Hickory, N.C., physician, for help.
Moretz, who has since moved his practice to Cape Girardeau, Mo., was the first to document that drivers did indeed have a problem.
"Most of the carbon monoxide they're getting is coming from the other cars," said Moretz, who continues to work on designing a cost-effective filtering system. "The longer a race is run under green, the worse it gets and if they knock out a quarter-panel on their car, they can get gassed immediately."
Moretz and Jackson say no one knows what the long-term risk of exposure is because no one has done a long-term study.
Six drivers participated in Moretz's testing, and Petty wore the first enclosed helmet with the first air filter system on the Winston Cup circuit eight years ago.
But stock car drivers are notoriously resistant to change. They don't want it and they don't like it and until someone can prove to them that it makes a difference in their ability to win races, they usually shy away from it.
For instance, when Bobby Hillin started working out in a gym 12 years ago, believing a stronger body would build his endurance on race day, a lot of other drivers laughed.
It wasn't until Mark Martin adopted a workout routine and started challenging Dale Earnhardt for the Winston Cup Championship in 1990 that drivers accepted that working out could produce results on race day. Now, a number of teams have gyms in their race shops.
Still, in 1996, in a sport that thrives on technical innovation and is supported by multimillion-dollar companies, Winston Cup stock car drivers are just beginning to grapple seriously with their need for fresh air.
Much of what they're using is fabricated at home and the number of drivers willing to use it is small. Jackson is working with Hillin, Ricky Craven, Brett Bodine and Gordon and is getting help from her father in trying to fashion a serviceable filter unit.
The Robert Yates teams are the most advanced. Yates first installed a filtering system for Davey Allison in 1991.
"I don't think Davey ever got gassed," says Gary Beveridge, who was responsible for the driver's compartment on Allison's car and is responsible for those of Jarrett and Ernie Irvan. "But we realized the fresher we could keep the driver at the end of the race, the better he'd be."
Jarrett and Irvan use a simple system that includes a $50 filter canister (the same kind firefighters use), a 1 3/4 -inch hose that attaches the canister to the helmet, and the door post.
Irvan also uses a 12-volt air conditioning unit that costs about $5,500 to circulate more cool air inside the car. American space shuttle astronauts wear these units, which look like black lunch pails.
Jackson says cold air does help by slowing the absorption of carbon monoxide into the blood, but it doesn't prevent race-long buildup.
"A lot of guys are working on it and a lot of guys like Earnhardt don't use anything," said Gordon. "I think I've woke up, because I've been measuring the levels before and after the races. These guys can do a lot, but if I don't use the system they're wanting to do, then it's not going to help. I've got to want to do it myself. I've got to want to work with it."
Pub Date: 6/22/96