DAYTONA BEACH, Flordia: Richard Petty loved nothing better than the piercing sound of a race engine. For 35 years, the screaming sound helped propel him to a NASCAR record 200 victories and seven championships.
But with each of his 307,836 career laps his ears were suffering irreversible damage.
A man who used to race without goggles and gloves; a man who survived horrific, tumbling crashes; and, a man who, at 78, remains remarkably fit has one inescapable scar: He is deaf.
The roar of a 725-horsepower engine is exhilarating for many at the racetrack. But experts warn a good thing can be very bad for your ears.
“Every time you’re in that environment, it kills more and more,” said Dr. Carolyn Hall, Director of Audiology and North Florida Center for Hearing and Balance in Saint Augustine, Florida. “It makes the damage worse.”
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a decibel level of 85 sustained during an eight-hour period damages the ear. Since the levels can reach 130 on pit road and inside the car, NIOSH said that threshold of sound is broken “50 to 900” times a race.
“Sensory neural hearing loss is when the damage is in the inner ear,” Hall said. ”All of the conducting is going the way it should, but when it gets to the inner ear, the nerve cells have been damaged. We don’t get the nerve cells back.”
“Noise-induced hearing loss is most definitely sensory neural hearing loss,” she added.
The sound of 40 cars at full speed is louder – and more damaging – than a rock concert (115 decibels) or being 100 yards away from a jet on takeoff (125 decibels).
That’s why Petty wears hearing aids in both ears to discern the simplest of conversation.
“I’m from the old school, you know what I mean?,” Petty said. “The noise is part of racing.”
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Managing Director Elton Sawyer said it’s up to drivers, crews and fans to use common sense with their ears – and not distract from one of the popular elements of the sport.
“If these cars didn’t make the noise, you really couldn’t appreciate the power involved,” he said. “Engines cranking  horsepower are just supposed to be loud.
“To me, if everyone uses common sense and protects their ears, there isn’t a problem,” he added.
Earplugs, headsets not enough
While most now wear earplugs and headsets, Hall isn’t convinced it’s enough since properly installed foam ear plugs are designed to eliminate just 15 or 25 decibels.
“It really depends on what kind of noise protection you’re using,” she said. “If you’re going down from 114 db [decibels]to 100, you’re still getting a lot of noise exposure. Fans in the stands are getting roughly 96 dbs, from that study, which is why they go over the OSA recommendations in a couple hours and damage can happen. If you’re still getting 100, it may not happen as fast, but they’re there for a lot longer.”
Tom Gideon, NASCAR director of safety for research and development, uses both foam earplugs and a headset. He also said the noise levels at a race still don’t reach the levels of many music ear buds.
“I put the foam protectors in and use the headsets. Believe me, you can still hear [the headset]just fine,” he said.
There are no rules requiring quieter engines or ear protection, NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said.
David Ragan grew up in a racing family. His father, Ken, raced part-time for 10 years before retiring after the 1993 season. The son said his father won’t wear his prescribed hearing aids.
“Part of my father’s problems was the result of poor radio equipment,” David Ragan said. “We have better stuff now. You have to make a conscious effort to take care of your ears. It’s no coincidence the old guys can’t hear,” David Ragan said.
“If you want my father to hear you, you have to talk to him directly and talk loud,” he said.
David Ragan uses fitted earplugs that allow him to hear his crew during the race. His helmet also has noise-reducing couplers.
But it’s still loud.
“Sometimes my ears are still ringing long after the race,” he said.
“Ringing—you’ve been exposed to temporary threshold shift and you’ve done damage,” Hall said. “If you are down in the pits, one time could be enough to change your hearing permanently. Whether it affects you or not, or how much it affects you, is the luck of the draw of genetics.”
“And when it happens, they wind up seeing me,” the doctor said.