For many of you the month of February means cold weather, snow and not much racing other than the famous race that takes place in the Sunshine State mid-month. So why talk about driver cooling systems in the middle of the winter? February is the perfect time to think about 100-plus-degree temperatures in your race car. If you are a smart racer you should be well on your way to getting that ride ready for the first race of the new season. This is the time to think about freshening up the engine, getting a new paint job, maybe even buying a new firesuit and installing a driver cooling system.

That’s right, a cooling system for the driver. Today, drivers not only wear a helmet, but a neck collar and in many cases a HANS or Hutchens device. Surprisingly enough, the issue of driver cooling systems can be classified as not just comfort equipment, but safety equipment as well. Many manufacturers of driver cooling systems believe that in the near future these systems will become mandatory for the well-being of drivers racing for long stretches at a time.

“You have to get that one guy who is smart enough to do it (run a cooling system) and then people will follow suit because that one guy has some sort of edge over them,” said Jill Swanson of Fresh Air Systems Technologies.

According to Rich Shafer of Shafer Enterprises, makers of both medical and motorsports cooling systems, studies of cooling systems started in 1962 with NASA astronauts conducting space walks. Astronauts wear a larger and bulkier version of a driver’s suit. While encapsulated in these suits the astronaut’s bodies were not allowed to breathe or release energy. “If the body does not release energy, it can burn to death,” said Shafer.

NASA found out that when the astronaut’s core temperatures went up as little as 1.5 degrees they made up to 80 unrecognized mistakes an hour. “Simply stated, when your core temperature goes up you make mistakes,” Shafer said. “A race car driver is sitting in a multiple-layer suit inside a race car that is anywhere from 100 to 130 degrees for a long period of time. These guys are athletes, they can handle it. But they are still going to make mistakes.”

This rapid weight loss is due to the excessive sweating. One easy way to replace fluids is by drinking plenty of water and other beverages with electrolytes, such as Gatorade. However, on a short track there is little time to take a drink. Rehydrating is important, but it may not be enough. This is where companies such as Shafer Enterprises, F. A. S. T., Pump Systems Corp. and Computech come into play.

“A lot of guys breathe cool air,” explained Shafer. “This is good. You’re getting cool air to the brain. However, the blood coming to the brain is still overheated, which means they could still be making mistakes. This is called ‘medical perceived cooling.’ We have done cooling with surgeons in the operating room for five or six years. There are a couple of words you don’t want to hear in the operating room—‘oops’ and ‘uh oh.’”

Shafer has gone to cool water as a source of cooling surgeons and now race car drivers. “Cool water transfers heat 28 times faster than cool air,” he explained.

In order to keep surgeons cool, Shafer Enterprises developed a vest with a length of small tubing sewn onto the front and back. Shafer took this innovation to motorsports and developed the 100-percent cotton T-shirt, which comes with 50 feet of small tubing sewn onto the front and back that is separated into four equal cooling zones for maximum comfort. The shirt can be worn under the driver’s Nomex underwear.

“You are still going to perspire,” Shafer said. “But, most of the time, your core temperature will not go up. Now it can get so hot in some cars that not even the cool suit will help. We cover more than 30 percent of the body with cool water and try to keep the core temperature normal. We came up with the T-shirt so that if the system shuts down you’re just wearing a T-shirt,” said Shafer.

The Chill Factor system is available in many configurations, depending on individual needs. For the racer who needs prolonged cooling, the Pro System Air and Water unit cools for four hours. It comes complete with a cooler, an internal heat exchanger with an attached box housing the water and air motors, eight-foot double-insulated water hose with auto shut-off quick disconnects at both ends, eight-foot reinforced air hose with one-inch i.d. connectors at both ends, a 10-foot electrical cord with plug and the water shirt. The complete unit weighs 10 pounds and needs 2.8 amps to cool the water and 2.7 amps to run the fan. Other systems include the Pro System Water, which features water only and weighs nine pounds. These systems run from $700 to $900.

For cooling needs around one hour, Shafer Enterprises has the Club System Water and the Circle Track System. Both feature the cooler with internal pump (the Circle Track System comes with a round cooler), eight-foot double-insulated water hose, 12-inch electrical wire hook-up and water shirt. These systems will cost the racer between $350 and $370. There is also the Kwik Kool System that sends ozone-safe freon through thetubing in the T-shirt. One can of freon is designed to last one to two hours. This is only a quick-cool system and must be activated every two to three minutes for effective heat relief.

Fresh Air Systems Technologies Inc. (F. A. S. T.) uses the T-shirt, eight-foot hose and 16-quart cooler from Shafer Enterprises and adds its own turbo blower and Fresh Air extrusion inserted into the cooler for helmet ventilation for its Fresh Air and Cool Suit System.

F. A. S. T. believes its advantage is in offering the driver filtered air. Due to strict aerodynamic needs, present-day stock cars cause the air to float over the car, not even allowing a little bit inside to cool the driver. This is where NACA ducts come in. A NACA duct is a plastic component usually fitted within the side windows of the car. The ducts allow some air to flow through the cockpit. F. A. S. T. has developed a blower system that allows the air channeled through the NACA duct to go to a filtered blower and then through to the driver’s helmet.

“These guys are running a NACA duct straight off the window of their car right to their helmet just to get air,” Swanson said. “None of that air is being filtered. They are getting all of the junk off the track right into their lungs. Just to get the driver away from taking that nasty air and garbage off the track into their lungs is enough of an advantage to using a cooling system. That is something that really needs to be addressed.”

F. A. S. T. also offers revisions to helmets to allow for the blower system. The drivers in the upper series, like the Winston Cup Series, use the Koolbox or Pump Systems Driver A/C units. “The helmet needs to be modified,” said Dan Dubrule of F. A. S. T. “The drivers don’t get enough air through the helmet where they want it.

“Some drivers do run our system, the cooler and blower, because they feel the larger electronic units draw too much current off the alternator and they can’t justify that,” said Dubrule. “For the lower-end system you can get started for a little over $125 for blower and hose. Even if it is not cooled, a bit of filtered air over your face helps. Without enough volume of air coming in the helmet you are also bringing in the dirty air around the car through the bottom. A lot of guys complain about the carbon monoxide, but that has to do with the placement of the hoses, leakage in the car or how bad the track is—like if it is a bowl. We have guys running just helmet-mounted pieces to full-mounted systems. It depends on the driver and how they set up their car around the equipment. If they fabricate the car at the time, they can work anything in they want.”

No doubt you are thinking that all of this is fine and great, but we go right back to that saying. “We don’t really need it, so why should we add the extra weight?” “The coolers and the hose and the shirt weigh two to three pounds,” said Shafer. “If you put eight pounds of ice in the cooler you have added 10 to 11 pounds to your car. With the air and water systems you are adding about 20 pounds to your car. Everybody is very conscious of what the car weighs. However, the comments of people who have this in their cars are they will not get in the car again without it. The weight compared to your ability to handle the car is phenomenal.”

Dubrule agrees that those who have tried their cooling systems are willing to sacrifice weight for their own stamina and comfort. “Most of them have to add weight anyway,” he said. “So they just jack the weight around accordingly and subtract what they need.”

As far as an ideal placement, most systems will go anywhere in the car. More important is where to put the system to disperse the weight. “Some guys prefer it to their left. For the oval-track guys, some like it behind them. Some guys want it toward the back of the car. Some guys don’t care, they just want it,” Dubrule explained.

Now say you have an extra $6,000 to spend and you want a driver cooling system. You go to Computech or Pump Systems Corp. for the high-tech stuff.

“Our unit looks like a little black shoe box, which houses all the same components as a regular air conditioner—just packaged very small,” said Pump Systems’ Stephen Zardus. “It operates just like any air conditioner. You turn it on and after about 30 seconds it starts pumping out conditioned air. The end result is that the product we make performs one function and that is to keep the driver cool by covering his face, neck and chest with cool air while he breathes it as well. Even though they are in a very hot car and their heels are burning and their hands are hot, the important thing is that their lungs are kept cool with dehumidified conditioned air. This cools their blood down and most importantly keeps their brain cooler.”

Through F. A. S. T. we have seen the technique of getting cooled air through a ventilation system in the helmet. How does the cool air get into the driver’s suit? “A few different techniques,” said Zardus. “Some people run a Y into the hose and run a secondary hose into their collar or a slit in the suit. Others run a helmet skirt. With the helmet skirt, just like rolling up the windows in your car, it traps the cold air in. That allows them to keep their neck collar unsnapped and their suit slightly unzipped.”

One of the top Winston Cup drivers runs a Pump Systems A/C unit and blows the conditioned air through a split seat. “The seat is actually separated into a top and bottom half, and they are taking a portion of the air and blowing it into the seat and eliminating some of the burning and blistering because the seat is so hot,” Zardus explained.

With the system weighing 16 pounds and knowing that Winston Cup teams are especially conscious of weight, we wondered if this was factored into the initial building of the chassis. “They are starting to now,” said Zardus. “For the past couple of years they have been putting it as low as possible, either behind the seat or to the left of the seat. A couple of new chassis these units have gone into have taken into account to actually have the unit even lower to keep the weight low. With creativity and planning, the teams have gotten around the few extra pounds.”

For Casey Atwood, Ward Burton and Matt Kenseth the Koolbox III by Computech is the way to go. The Koolbox is a thermal electric device that collects air from a NACA duct and takes it through a filter internal in the unit. A portion of that air then goes through cooling channels and is sent to the driver, while the rest of the air goes through heat sinks and draws heat away from the driver. The system is completely electric and does not require a compressor, freon or gas.

“The Koolbox is all electrical,” said Computech’s Lance Wheeler. “It doesn’t have a compressor like in your automobile. When you turn on the car’s air you feel it.”

Where does the Koolbox III stand on taking power from the wheels? “Some of them have gone to a slightly larger output on their alternator. Other than that there is no direct horsepower draw taken away from the car,” Wheeler explained.

From the basic T-shirt that keeps you cool to a mini air-conditioner in your race car, you have quite a few choices on cooling systems. The type of system you choose will be determined by how long you are in the car. “Anybody in a car for more than 30 minutes needs something to keep them comfortable,” said Shafer. The cost is also a determining factor. For the local grass-roots racer who spends most of his available cash on the engine, a basic blower can be had for just over $100. Think about it: the cost and weight is little compared to your safety in the long run.

Computech Mfg. Co. Inc.
N. Kansas City
MO  64116
Pump Systems Corp.
PA  17036
Fresh Air Systems Technologies, Inc.
Arlington Heights
IL  60005-2828
Shafer Enterprises