It's common knowledge that racing can be a dangerous sport if you don't properly prepare for the task at hand. While that does include the proper safety equipment (seat, belts, firesuit, head-and-neck restraint, and so on) complete preparation goes even further. Anyone who's raced in a long, caution-filled feature, or had to suffer through the feature before yours while in the staging lanes in the summer knows how oppressive the heat can be, especially in a car with little or no heat insulation for the driver. Just in our own research and testing, we've seen cockpit temperatures breaking the 140-degree mark. Prolonged exposure to this kind of heat can be extremely dangerous, and the harmful effect can go unrecognized, and escalate very quickly.
We are talking about heat exhaustion. Like minor concussions, heat exhaustion can easily be brushed off, but can also quickly progress into something much more serious if untreated. Prolonged exposure to high heat (above 90 degrees) and dehydration has serious side effects when untreated, and for racers, personal care often gets overlooked at the racetrack when work needs to be done to the car. Not taking five or 10 minutes to rest and have a cold drink (or two or three) can be the difference when on the verge of heat exhaustion.
There are two types of heat exhaustion—water depletion and salt depletion. Each is equally dangerous, but has different symptoms. The signs that you are suffering from water depletion include excessive thirst, weakness, headache, and loss of consciousness. The signs of salt depletion are nausea and vomiting, frequent muscle cramps, and dizziness. None of these symptoms are good while behind the wheel of a race car, and if symptoms go untreated, heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
- Dark-colored urine (a sign of dehydration)
- Muscle cramps
- Pale skin
- Profuse sweating
- Rapid heartbeat
If you or another racer have heat exhaustion, which may have progressed to heat stroke, it's extremely important to get the person out of the heat and start treatment immediately, as heat stroke can be fatal. Heat stroke (or sun stroke) causes damage to the brain and other vital organs. While it's most common in people over 50, young healthy athletic people can be affected also.
Although it is most common for signs of heat exhaustion or other heat related illnesses to show up first, heat stroke can come on suddenly. Heat stroke, like heat exhaustion, is a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures combined with dehydration. These conditions can lead to the body's inability to regulate temperature.
The predominant symptom of heat stroke is a core body temperature above 105 degrees. Exposure to body temperatures this high can cause central nervous system damage, brain damage, and internal organ damage. Other common symptoms include nausea, seizures, confusion, disorientation, and sometimes loss of consciousness or coma, but fainting may be the first sign.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
- Throbbing headache
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Lack of sweating despite the heat
- Red, hot, and dry skin
- Muscle weakness or cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Behavioral changes such as confusion, disorientation, or staggering
Regulating body temperature and staying hydrated is key to avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While the ambient outside temperature may not be hot enough to induce heat related illnesses, the temperature in your race car is most likely well above the threshold to cause heat exhaustion. Even without windows in the car, the airflow may not be enough to regulate body temperature when wearing a helmet and firesuit.
Luckily, the racing community is full of safety equipment designed specifically to control body temperature while in an extremely hot race car for long periods of time. Raceday Safety, which specializes in racing safety equipment, sent us one of Cool Shirt's Club Racer Systems to test. This simple system does a great job of bringing a racer's core body temperature down by pumping ice water into a matrix of tubing affixed to a shirt. In our test, the cold water pumping through the shirt brought the surface temp of the shirt down almost 30 degrees. One bag of ice is said to last about four hours, so two bags should be good for an entire day at the track. The system retails for $493.95 and easily installs in any vehicle that has room for a small cooler.
If $500 is more than you want to spend, there are other ways to stay cool. Many helmet companies now offer helmets with fresh air ports built into the shell. They allow for the use of an air pump with can circulate either cooled or non-cooled air into the helmet, cooling the driver's head. In many cases, grabbing fresh air from outside the car will be cool enough to keep you cool. If you race in the South where the summer months are brutal, Raceday Safety sells systems that pump air through an ice chest, giving you a blast of cold air directly into your helmet.
If a Cool Shirt and helmet blower isn't enough, or you need more than four hours of cooling, A/C systems like those from Artic Racing Air can keep you cool as long as you're in the car.
Outside of cooling devices, heat reflective and insulation material on the inside and outside of your car can make a huge different in cockpit temperature. Design Engineering, Inc. specializes in thermal barriers for all kinds of automobiles. They make everything from spray on thermal barriers to heat wrap for headers and exhaust, and insulation sheets for the floorboards and firewall. Products like these are great for reducing radiant heat without adding a lot of weight.
Besides staying cool, hydration is extremely important. It's recommended that drinking 24 ounces of fluid about two hours before exposure to the heat, and drinking an additional 8 ounces of water or sports drink right before hitting the track will give you a good starting point to stay hydrated. Over the course of day, you should roughly consume 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes, even if you don't feel thirsty. Also, drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol should be avoided, as these have a negative effect on fluid retention and can quicken the effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
So next time you hit the track on a hot summer night, think about the symptoms of heat exhaustion and have an extra bottle of water before getting in the car. Get out of the heat between heats and the feature, and stay as cool as possible. The heat is not something to play with, and heat exhaustion and heat stroke are things that can easily be avoided if you're properly prepared.
It’s not out of the ordinary to see temperatures inside a race to get close to 150 degrees
Companies like Raceday Safety and most racing warehouses sell systems like this from Cool
Cool Shirt’s Club Racer System is simply a cooler filled with ice and water, and a pump th
The tubing is pumped in and out of the shirt and circulates ice water around the driver’s
The quick-connect fittings allow you to get in and out of the car without spilling water.
We wanted to test the effectiveness of the Cool Shirt system so we put in our truck, wired
Fisher put the shirt on and let it warm up to his body temperature. After about 10 minutes
After about 10 minutes in the truck with the water flowing (and Fisher’s cheeks turning bl
Another great way to stay cool is with a fresh air system for your helmet. These systems p
Another way to beat the heat is with thermal barrier products like the Boom Mat from DEI s
Start by making templets for the complex areas, like firewalls and trans tunnels.
Transfer the template onto the sheet of Boom Mat, and cut it with a pair of sheers or good
The backing peels off the adhesive side and you’re ready to layer the floor of your car.
Be sure to thoroughly clean the area you’ll be applying the Boom Mat so it sticks properly
Once it’s in place, work it around any bends so it sits flush on the floor. This will crea
Another way to reduce heat is with header wrap. DEI’s Titanium Exhaust Wrap will help keep