Feb 28, 2017
- Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer Close
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
On Monday morning the Sports Business Journal made public what many within the NASCAR world already knew, that the sanctioning body was shopping a stack of potential ideas for the future, all aimed at trying to jumpstart the slowing sport of stock car racing. For several months now 15-20 concepts have been kicked around garages, brainstorms ranging from shorter race weekends to scheduling midweek events to turning down the volume of the race cars.
That last idea — quieting the field of 40 legendarily loud 900-horsepower engines — triggered the loudest social media boom. "Have they not seen how angry Formula One fans still are?" one Twitter user wrote, referring to F1's move from V8 to slightly more hushed V6 powerplants in 2014. "If it's too loud, you're too old!" another typed, echoing a familiar refrain.
Well, race fans, I hear you, loud and clear. Actually, that's a lie. After years around the sport, I don't hear anything loud and clear.
Just ask my wife and daughter, who are constantly being asked to turn up the radio. Or the producers and directors of the TV shows I'm on trying to give me direction through an earpiece. Or the doctor who wrapped up my most recent physical by saying, "Start rolling your quarters now because one day we'll be putting a hearing aid in that right ear."
You see, no one loves the sound of a race engine more than I do. That's why I wanted the job that I have, why I've been receiving a paycheck to go to racetracks my entire adult life. I have stood beside the Christmas tree at NHRA dragstrips to feel the nitro rattle my ribcage. I've ridden in a SCORE Trophy Truck in the middle of the desert, shared a tiny room with an engine being run so hard on a dynamometer that its header pipes glowed orange, and stuck my head through a safety fence to let a McLaren-Mercedes blow the ball cap off my head. I once stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to watch the launching of the Navy's last A-6 Intruder attack jet.
I wore earplugs for none of it.
Why? Because I was 20-something years old and I was way too cool to have orange foam crammed into my cranium. I used to reason with myself, hey, Richard Petty isn't wearing earplugs and he's the coolest dude on the planet, so I'll be cool, too!
Now I am 40-something and I still think The King is the coolest dude on the planet. Joining Petty in that lead draft of cool are David "The Silver Fox" Pearson, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Uncle Bobby Unser; the list goes on and on. I've been fortunate enough to know them all. Everything they've said to me over that time has only added to their coolness.
And they've said it all to me very loudly, because they're all as deaf as a bag of doorknobs.
In 2010 ESPN The Magazine decided to publish a "Loud Issue", packed with tales of the most cacophonous corners of the sports world. I all but kicked the door down insisting that they let me write a motorsports piece.
For that story I interviewed renowned audiologist Brian Fligor. By day he was director of diagnostic audiology at the Children's Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard. By night he had become a legend in the music industry, working with the biggest bands in the world on acoustic design and artists' proper in-ear monitor balance. Rock stars are the ultimate in cool. As Fligor pointed out, they are also the ultimate in hearing loss. For every genetic freak like Keith Richards, who has somehow kept his aural abilities intact, there are far more rockers like AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson, who was forced into retirement last year for fear that the final wisp of his hearing ability might be pounded into oblivion.
Johnson is also a longtime race car driver. He won a sports car enduro at Daytona in November. He swears that his most critical hearing issues aren't rock related, but rather a burst eardrum suffered in his race car.
"The damage is done two different ways," Fligor explained to me in 2010. He first talked about NHRA drag racing, where I had tried to measure the sound of a Top Fuel car's launch and it had buried the meter at 140 decibels. By comparison, the loudest measurement taken at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2009 spiked at 109 and spent most the game in the low 90s. Like the Richter scale, decibels don't aren't recorded one-to-one in terms of intensity. No, every three decibel increase marks a 100 percent change in sound pressure. "So, there's the overwhelming explosion like that dragster, the burst that does instant damage. Then there is the constant, prolonged noise that doesn't have to be as loud, but does its damage like a steamroller. Rock concerts are usually in the 104-decibel range. From a seat 20 feet from the track, a NASCAR race averages 106 dbs over four hours. That person is at risk for acoustic trauma or an immediate loss of hearing. Some of it will return, but likely not all."
He was talking about one race. At that point in my career I had attended somewhere close to 250 — again, not once with earplugs. The following weekend I went to the Martinsville Speedway with plugs packed into both ear canals and both pockets filled with more, handing them out to everyone who would take them.
The wise words of the two Brians were ringing in my ears, even louder than my tinnitus.
"It doesn't take much at all," Fligor told me, repeating what he has told some of the greatest rockers to ever plug into an amp. "Bringing down the volume just a small percentage and giving yourself just the smallest additional percentage of protection can save you a lifetime of issues. And trust me, racetracks and rock concerts are still the coolest places on earth. A few percentage points aren't going to change that."
"Sorry, mate," Brian Johnson added when I'd reached him via telephone. "I can't understand a damn word you're saying to me. Perhaps I could have turned it down a time or two, eh?"
Yes, perhaps he could have. He certainly should have. And it might not be such a bad idea for NASCAR to do the same. Not a lot. No one — especially no one on the NASCAR payroll — wants anything to do with machines of silence. Chevy isn't replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr's SS with a Volt, and Toyota Racing Development didn't spend millions of dollars developing Kyle Busch's new Camry because they're going to swap it out with a Prius.
Every single person who makes a living in motorsports would gladly still cast a ballot for Car & Driver's perpetual presidential nominee Dan Gurney. The racer has always run on a staunch platform promise of establishing "at least one day a year when we can all drive the streets of America with the mufflers taken off of our cars."
I'm still all for that. Just as I'm still all for a full field of NASCAR Monster Energy Cup cars taking the green flag and shaking down enough thunder to bring a tear to your eye, just maybe not a tear to your eardrum. The noise of NASCAR is about the rumble, not the bite. Turning it down from 11 to 10 isn't going to hurt anyone. It'll actually do the opposite.
You hear me?