The Racing Capital
of the World
July 25, 2013 | By Matt Cleary
Driving a race car takes a lot of energy, and energy makes heat.
When you go out for a mid-summer jog, the last thing you would want to do is put on your ski pants, some gloves, a winter jacket and a nice wool cap. But every time a Rolex Sports Car Series driver straps into a Daytona Prototype with his helmet and triple-layer fireproof driver suit on, that is pretty much what they are doing.
When the Rolex Sports Car Series takes the green flag this Friday for the Brickyard Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there will be a fleet of Daytona Prototype drivers that all will look for one thing – a win.
That, and a nice cold bottle of water after the race.
In addition to the physical effort of driving the cars, one of the main challenges for the drivers is the design of the Daytona Prototype. With a closed cockpit, very little fresh air comes into the car. While having the engine behind the driver helps somewhat, the cooling system doesn’t.
The radiator on a DP is placed at the front of the car to get the freshest air possible. Fluids flow between the radiator and the engine to keep the engine running at the right temperature. Unfortunately, those lines – with all that heat – wind their way right by the cockpit, adding another element to the heat mix for the drivers. So the driver is surrounded by lots of heat, with little to no fresh air.
“We can and we did see temperatures exceeding 120 degrees in full 100-percent humidity,” said Velocity Worldwide driver Max “The Axe” Angelelli. “Remember that we also wear a helmet, fire suit and other things that make things even hotter. It is like going for a run in Miami on Aug. 15 at 1 p.m. wearing a full skiing setup and pretending to enjoy the ride.”
That is one reason why you can’t be surprised when you read about the fitness exploits of drivers like Spirit of Daytona Racing’s Richard Westbrook when he goes out and runs a marathon, or Michael Shank Racing driver Ozz Negri, who scores yet another medal in a triathlon. That kind of training is a great way to prepare for what the drivers experience inside the cars.
But besides being in good shape and accustomed to that kind of extreme heat, there are a number of other tricks that the teams and drivers use to make it at least tolerable.
One key option the drivers can use are “cool suits,” which are a series of straw-like veins of plastic tubes that sit close to the drivers torso, underneath the driver suit. A small motor pushes cold water (it is cold at the start of the driver’s stint, but then tends to warm up!) through the tubes to keep the drivers core temperature as low as possible.
Alas, running the cool suit is better for the driver but adds nearly 10 pounds to the weight of a car. So if a driver is able to run without the suit, he will be warmer but much more popular with the engineers, who love losing weight in the car.
Another key factor is hydration, as the drivers can sweat nearly half a gallon of water in a two-hour stint. Like riders competing in the Tour de France, the drivers are also able to take on water as they work, thanks to drink bottles that send water shooting right into their helmet. But like anything on a race car, these systems can have issues, as well, with drivers telling countless stories of getting near-boiling hot water shot into their mouths after something goes wrong and the water heats up inside the car.
The drink bottle system is also yet another factor in making a successful driver change.
“It happens more often than you think, especially during driver changes, if the driver exiting doesn't get his drink tube unplugged all the way and breaks the connectors,” said Ryan Dalziel, who races a DP in GRAND-AM as well as an air-conditioned GT entry in ALMS. “At Watkins Glen we had some bottle issues, but you can always grab a bottle during a pit stop.”
Mid-Ohio race winner Angelelli also has fallen afoul of overheating on occasion through the years, but only when one of the cooling elements let him down.
“In the past, my problems were due to some failure or another that occurred inside the car,” Angelelli said. “Cool box and other issues. We have done a lot inside the car, lately, to make the situation much better for the drivers. Now there are times I don't wear a cool suit at all to save some weight.”
Like driving in the rain or at night, some drivers barely notice the challenge, while others really have to prepare for it.
“It's always very difficult in the heat to keep yourself hydrated throughout the race,” Dalziel said. “We work very hard on cooling inside the DP car and try at all costs to avoid wearing cool suits. However, sometimes it's better to use them. I've been quite lucky. I've always been OK with the heat.”
While it might seem that “just add water” is a clear solution, there is more that goes into it than that.
“For a hot race, ideally, a driver must start hydrating two days in advance,” said Alex Gorne, director of fitness for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “With regard to recovery after sessions and preparation for the race, it's essential that a driver takes on the correct level of electrolytes to replace the fluids they have lost. As soon as dehydration starts to occur, muscles will not work as effectively, and concentration can lapse.”
So spare a thought for those racing drivers, cruising around in their mobile saunas.