NASCAR drivers coping with 140-degree heat

Dale Earnhardt Jr. cools himself after winning the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. cools himself after winning the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The Car of Tomorrow is making life hotter for NASCAR's drivers today.

Heat-stricken drivers had just enough strength to rant about the topic earlier this month at the Pocono 500 and the conversation was a hot topic again last week at Michigan International Speedway.

"I heard someone make a comment, 'They're race-car drivers, making millions of dollars. They're hot. Who cares?'" Jeff Burton said. "I guess that's a good point, but at the same time it's to the point of being ridiculous.

NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson said the new cars can get about 10 degrees hotter -- up to 140 degrees -- than previous models because exhaust exits on the right side instead of both sides.

"You could certainly cook eggs on it to say the least," Jimmie Johnson said. "With all the radiant heat from the tubes and the steel around you over the course of the race, you just can't get away from the heat."

Peterson insisted there are measures some teams are taking to improve conditions for their drivers such as adding insulation and adjusting the routing of air ducts and vents.

"Some teams are having success by doing those things and some teams are reluctant to add weight or alter the aerodynamics," Peterson said. "The different way teams are attacking the heat leads to us seeing one guy driving with a floor pan at 140 degrees and another guy at 100 in the same race.

"It's a difficult area for NASCAR to regulate. Some drivers say it's not a problem and others say it's a serious one, so obviously we want to help those guys."

Brian Vickers is among those asking for assistance.

"We're killing ourselves," he said. "We're going to the infield-care center off the races, and that's ridiculous. NASCAR needs to step in and say we have to do something to cool these cars down and help us."

The Car of Tomorrow, a NASCAR-developed vehicle that spent seven years in development, was designed to improve safety, reduce team costs and improve competition. It makes several advancements in safety, with a larger driver's compartment, center-located seat and energy absorbing materials through the gut of the vehicle.

It also does something else.

"They are hotter than the old car -- by far," Denny Hamlin said.

Kasey Kahne credits the guys in the shop for coming up with ways to make things a little cooler, redirecting exhaust heat away from him and running hoses to blow air on his chest.

"I felt pretty good all day," he said at Pocono, the hottest race of the year.

NASCAR officials and drivers agree that if you try to beat the heat on the weekend, it's too late.

"I live every day like it's going to be Pocono tomorrow," said Mark Martin, whose 49-year-old body is so fit it would make most teenagers jealous. "In the old days, people thought you could have a bowl of pasta and a good night's sleep and you'd be ready. I never subscribed to that.

"It takes so long for your body to change. It takes a long-term commitment to get in top physical condition."

Martin said the new cars are hotter, but not significantly more than from the Cup cars he raced in the early 1980s.

Simply put, driving in extreme heat has always been an occupational hazard in NASCAR.

At Nashville in 1982, Darrell Waltrip's feet were so hot that his wife held cloth-covered ice packs against his burnt heels while he did interviews from his back. At Martinsville in 1998, Ricky Rudd had to be lifted out of his car because he was so stricken by the heat.

Technology, though, has helped drivers over the years by developing microfiber fabric that wicks away sweat and helmets that make hot air colder.

But cool suits have yet to win over NASCAR drivers.

"Cold water pumping around your body in tubes within another set of underwear sounds great," Peterson said. "But if the unit fails, you're adding eight to 18 pounds of weight to your body and the suit becomes a steam cooker."

Burton said what's daunting about beating the heat is it's only going to get hotter as NASCAR goes from coast to coast, down to Daytona and up to Indianapolis.

"The worst is yet to come," Burton said.