As often happens, solving one problem sometimes creates another. A full Nomex multi-layer driving suit, underwear, socks, and gloves may provide maximum fire protection, but they don’t keep a driver cool. Enter “cool suit” technology, developed in the 1960s to help regulate astronauts’ body temperatures in space. Although the designs used in racing have varied over the years, the basic concept involves some combination of vest, pants, and helmet liner all equipped with small tubes through which chilled water is circulated. According to published data, cool suits can eliminate as much as 40 to 60 percent of the heat affecting a driver.
Heat isn’t the only problem that affects stock car drivers. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas produced by internal combustion engines, can build up in the cockpit, sickening drivers. This problem gained widespread attention in 2003 when veteran NASCAR driver Rick Mast was forced to retire from the sport due to a medical condition known as chronic carbon monoxide poisoning. It took doctors months and countless medical tests to figure out that the dizziness, severe headaches, nausea, and disorientation he was experiencing were all caused by the air he was breathing every weekend, which was saturated with carbon monoxide.
Although not the first time a stock car driver had suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, Mast’s case was, by far, the most serious, ending his career and forcing NASCAR to find a solution. Around that time scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center were working with engineers at STC Catalysts (Hampton, VA) to develop a catalyst capable of converting the carbon monoxide generated by highly power-pulsed carbon dioxide lasers back into carbon dioxide. The catalyst was supposed to be part of a Laser Atmospheric Wind Sounder (LAWS) satellite that never got off the ground, but it proved to be just what NASCAR needed and once again, it was Roger Penske who made it happen. Working with STC Catalysts, Penske’s engineers designed a catalytic air filter that forced incoming air through an activated carbon filter and into a scrubbing catalyst, which consisted of a unique blend of platinum and tin oxide housed in a honeycomb structure. The reformulated air was then passed through a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter capable of removing 99.97 percent of all airborne particles as small as 0.3 micrometers in diameter before being cooled and pumped into the driver’s helmet.