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Overcoming noise at NASCAR races

7/5/2012

Think of how your coffee maker sounds at the end of the brewing cycle, when the last of the water is suctioned into the filter. Then turn it up, Spinal Tap-style, past 11. That’s NASCAR. And that’s why, with 850-horsepower engines creating 140 decibels at an idle, the first thing you receive at a race, including the one at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, is a pair of earplugs.

Jeff Gordon says “loud engines and roaring fans” are the first things that come to mind when people talk about NASCAR, but cutting through the noise can be the difference between a clean, fast pit stop and a botched one. It’s so loud trackside that most pit crews use hand signals, like college basketball point guards, to let each other know what needs to be done. Because with many four-hour races decided by less than a car length, every quarter-second counts.

Inside the vehicle, drivers like Denny Hamlin listen to the high-pitched whirr of the compressed-air powered wrench on the fifth and last lug nut of the front driver’s side wheel as the cue to get moving. It’s a similar sound to your dentist’s drill -- only loud enough to jolt an artilleryman.

“When I hear that nut go on, I don’t wait for the jackman to make his move” Hamlin says, referring to the last crew member in contact with the vehicle. “I’m in gear, starting to pull off as the car is starting to come down.”

Kasey Kahne’s jackman, Jeff Kerr, knows loud. He used to play linebacker at East Carolina and says the loudest place he ever played, even louder than a NASCAR track, was the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium. Now, however, after years of being the first man over the barrier to lift the passenger side of the car, he’s so comfortable with the din that it’s a lack of noise that indicates a problem.

“When you’re listening to those guns, you can hear the pitch and you can hear if they’re missing when a lugnut is going on,” he says. “It makes a ratcheting sound. It’s a little different than the high-pitched squeal you normally hear.”

This year, for the first time, cars are fuel-injected and electronically controlled. The change has brought a slew of new challenges for pit-crew teams, but luckily, the cars sound the same when they’re running well. And when those sounds are in tune, the odds of a driver hearing the best sound in racing -- the cheer of the crowd in victory lane -- increase.