David Gard, of Virginia Beach, Va., fills up his generator at the Earhart Campground near Bristol Motor Speedway recently. Photo by Erica Yoon.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Thanks to modern racing technology, race car drivers are now less likely to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning than the race fans who are camped around the racetrack.
There was a time when carbon monoxide poisoning was a serious, and potentially lethal, threat to racers. A fatal heart attack suffered by 1971 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Bobby Isaac during a race at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1977 was widely attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Center, said Tuesday that racers will still occasionally suffer from the effects of carbon monoxide during a race, usually if their car is damaged, allowing exhaust fumes into the cockpit. Gwaltney has treated racers at Bristol Motor Speedway’s infield care center for more than 20 years.
He noted, however, that in recent years fans camping around the speedway are more likely to be hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning than drivers, especially the week of the spring races when it’s colder at night.
“Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning things. It’s a gas, and it’s got a strong affinity for hemoglobin, which is the molecule that carries oxygen around in our blood,” Gwaltney said. “If you get in an environment high in carbon monoxide, it pushes the oxygen off of the hemoglobin, so you’re not able to carry oxygen in your blood. Most of the time carbon monoxide symptoms are things like headache and nausea, and then you can get a little sleepy, and at some point you become so sleepy that you become unconscious and die.
“Around race time, especially in the spring when it’s colder, we see a lot of people using various types of heaters in their campers and tents. If you’ve got an electric heater that’s safe, but if you’ve got a heater burning oil or kerosene or propane — any heater that uses combustion as its energy source, you’ve got to have good ventilation to let the carbon monoxide created by the heater escape.”
There haven’t been statistics kept on the number of camping fans treated for carbon-monoxide-related incidents during Bristol race week, but Gwaltney said it’s a serious problem every year.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless gas, and its victims often don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late.
The weather forecast through this race week is for high temperatures mostly in the 60s, and even reaching the 70s today. But the lows at night when fans are sleeping at the campgrounds are predicted mostly in the 40s with a low of 35 Sunday.
That means there will likely be a lot of heaters operating in the campgrounds at night all week long.
“When it’s cold you put your windows up and turn the heaters on — and then some folks might do a little drinking — and they get in trouble,” Gwaltney said. “We’ve had some fatalities because of that over the years. We don’t have any specific statistics, but I’ve been working with the racetrack for over 20 years, and I know there have been more than a handful of deaths.
“If you’ve got heart disease and you stop carrying around enough oxygen in your blood, which is what carbon monoxide does, you’re going to be more susceptible to a heart attack.”
Carbon monoxide victims with mild symptoms, whether they be campers or race car drivers, are generally treated with oxygen. Whereas drivers are treated at the infield care center, campers suffering carbon monoxide symptoms should contact paramedics or be taken to the hospital.
Education is the best weapon against this problem, Gwaltney said. To avoid carbon monoxide problems, campers simply need to make sure their inside space is well-ventilated while heaters are operating.