Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rookie Stripe: Treading Water -- The Dangers of Dehydration for NASCAR Drivers

Photo credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
By Logan Stewart Kureczka

Racing may seem like no sweat for NASCAR’s top drivers, but in the compact space of a race car cockpit, soaring temperatures can pose a threat unlike anything they encounter from competitors.

Drivers strapped in behind the wheel for hours on end face interior temperatures that can easily climb to 120 or 130 degrees (sometimes higher depending on conditions). Heat travels through the car’s interior and floorboards, and in order to preserve precious energy needed for speed, the cars are not air conditioned.

Even though a fire suit acts has fire retardant properties, its main job is to protect the user from fire, not to cool a human being. According to The Physics of NASCAR: The Science Behind the Speed, the body temperature of a driver is important beyond reasons of more than keeping the driver happy and comfortable. When temperatures soar into the triple digits it can pose a life-threatening situation. Heat can take an extreme toll on drivers, causing dehydration and worse. It can impact their mental state behind the wheel and ultimately how they perform, as well as their safety.

Keeping the driver cool and hydrated is much more than a comfort issue. Heat can cause mental and physical exhaustion and promote “irritability, anger and other emotional states that may result in rash or careless behavior,” according to a study done at the University of Western Australia. A driver who loses more than 3 percent of his body weight in fluids is at risk for fatigue-induced errors…a driver can sweat the equivalent of ten pounds of body weight during a race which is comparable to the fluid loss of football players and marathon runners. [1] 


In October 2017 Kyle Busch got so overheated at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he exited his vehicle, laid down on the grass and had to have ice and cold compresses applied to his body. He later said he felt nauseous and it was the hottest he had ever been inside a car. Jimmie Johnson had a similar experience at Richmond International Raceway in 2014 when he began to cramp and sat down on the pavement, and later went to the infield care center for a bag of fluids to help him recover.
Photo credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
Searing temperatures are nothing new to NASCAR drivers and teams, but figuring out how to fight them, especially when it comes to safety and performance, can be daunting. In modern day racing, teams have begun to put special emphasis on keeping dehydration at bay and focusing on the science behind fluid loss and human performance. Hotter tracks have more humidity, which can make the dehydration risk higher. These days, some drivers also compete back to back days in both the Xfinity and Monster Energy series, which elevates their level of dehydration risk even more.
Photo credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
The fight for hydration is real and sweat is unavoidable in NASCAR. As teams anxiously track the weather in the week leading up to each race, they experiment delicately with an ever-changing blend of science and strategy that hopefully in the end, keeps them safe and on top.

[1] Leslie-Pelecky, Diandra. The Physics of NASCAR: The Science Behind the Speed. February 2008.Print.

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