When Sunday's Pocono 500 finished, drivers started collapsing like they'd been ear-punched by Kimbo Slice. The top finishers normally gripe about their mandatory visit to the infield media center, but Brian Vickers had to practically be dragged out of the relief of the AC to go home. Denny Hamlin had to be helped to his feet by crew members. Dale Junior's wet, red face made him look liked a boiled ham.
"It makes me feel a little better to know that I wasn't the only one having trouble," Vickers said sheepishly.
Soaring temperatures, brutal humidity and a glaring sun straight out of Lawrence of Arabia had drivers smoldering physically and emotionally. And the Car of Tomorrow revealed yet another potential design flaw.
"The sumbitch gets hot," Earnhardt said of the CoT after 600 miles of racing at Charlotte last month. "And this was at night. It's going to suck sitting in there during the summer."
Before you stick and ball fans roll your eyes, let's do a little explaining here. Junior's Chevy Impala is not the same ride you can go rent at Hertz this weekend. He can't turn the knob to the picture of the stick figure with the blue lines pointing to his face and feet and make everything okay.
He's sitting in an all-metal race seat bolted to an all-metal interior, separated from his 358 cubic inch engine by a not-so-thick sheet of steel. The right side of his body essentially straddles a drive shaft that gets too hot to touch, his left side sits directly above the exhaust pipe and his back rests up against an oil tank that's not exactly a bag of ice. Yes, the driver's side window is open to try and let in fresh air, but this is a slick, aerodynamic ride that is designed to keep outside air flowing around the car—not into it—and there is little or no relief to be had.
And that cool superhero-looking Nomex firesuit your favorite driver wears? Let's just say it's not made of breezy breathable cotton.
"It's like sitting inside an oven," Dale Jarrett told me in 2004. "And it forces you to have to be in good shape. As I've gotten older I started taking a bag of fluids before and after races when we knew it was going to hot and also taking oxygen on the flight home to bounce back better on Mondays."
In 2001, Gatorade did a hydration study using uber-fitness freak Mark Martin as a guinea pig. During a three-hour, 400-lap race at Richmond, the interior cockpit temperature soared to 115 degrees and Martin lost nearly five liters of sweat, 10 pounds in water weight. And that was a night race in September. Sunday's race at Pocono was held at lunchtime in June and lasted a full hour longer.
Over the years, teams have thrown everything they can come up with to cool things down. During a 1980's tour of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Bobby Allison was so intrigued by the heat shield blankets used to protect the space shuttle he ordered some to tape to the interior of his car. A ride with the Navy's Blue Angels inspired Richard Petty to pioneer use of an air-cooled helmet in the early 1990's. Since the 1950's drivers have carried fluids on board, from Thermos bottles stowed under the seat to the current Gatorade In-Race Drinking System (GIDS).
But for all of these beat-the-heat success stories, there's the tragic tale of Ricky Rudd, who, on a searing day in 1998, asked his team to stick a hose into his firesuit to cool him off during a pit stop. The hose had been sitting in the sun all day and the burst water literally boiled his back. He ended up winning the race, but went from victory lane straight to the hospital.
Pocono winner Kasey Kahne benefitted from a last minute adjustment by his team that directed hot exhaust away from his area of the cockpit, but many of the other drivers' new-fangled chilling devices failed to work. Air-cooled helmets ended up full of hot air. Extra fans that teams installed inside the cockpit did little more than blow around convection oven-like temps. Let's just say the drivers who had the heat turned up on them spent Monday morning at the race shop turning up the heat on their teams.
"It's brutal," Vickers added before collapsing back into his seat. "These cars, I don't know what they have to do as a sport, but they are …"
In other words, the sumbitch gets hot.