Racing and Its Noise

Robert Traynor
September 1, 2015

Racing has been around since footraces were all there was, after which we probably graduated to horse racing.  In Roman times there were chariots, made famous by Charlton Heston in the movie Ben Hur.  The chariots were heavy, ornate vehicles that were very beautiful and looked like racers.  Donnely (2013) states that, “It is unfortunate that the popular idea of the racing chariot has derived from the one driven by Ben Hur. There would havera been no more reason to enter such a heavy, elaborately decorated vehicle in a race than to put a ’58 Oldsmobile in a road rally.” 

As in today’s racing vehicles, the real chariots were nothing more than baskets with wheels.  Of course the less weight, the faster the chariot and better chance of winning. The sounds of those races were probably not the deafening noise that we equate with racing today.  While the use of chariots waned over the centuries, horse racing remains a major sport in most countries.  While the horse and the chariots made noise, it certainly was not to the degree that we experience today at the recreational or NASCAR tracks.  

Noises of vehicles began with the invention of the internal combustion engine the 1880s by Karl Benz in Germany and Charles and Frank Duryea in the US, soon after auto racing began.  While Henry Ford did not invent the automobile engine, he certainly popularized the idea of ra1cars at the race track.  Gross (1996) states that “Early automobile promotion took place largely on the racetrack, where manufacturers sought to prove roadworthiness by putting their cars on public view and pressing them to their very limits. In 1901, Henry Ford poured his expertise into a pair of big race cars, one of which he entered in a ten-mile match race against a car built by Alexander Winton, a leading automaker from Ohio. The race took place in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Ford’s car won. Because of the victory, the coal merchant Alexander Malcomson agreed to back Ford in a new business venture“, which became the Ford Motor Company. 

Not many people equate speed with the Model T and speed wasn’t one of its great attributes at 28 MPH. The Ford Model T was built to be a rugged automobile that could navigate the primitive roadways of the early 1900s. What’s very interesting is how the Model T also found a place in early automobile racing. Even in these early days of auto racing the noise levels were high, but certainly not as we see it today at the race track and in NASCAR events.

NASCAR racing is one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the United States with over 75 million televisionra3 viewers and more than 8 million spectators attending over 90 racing events each year. These events have an international following as well.  Today, racing is loud and part of the hype of race day and being at the track.   In fact, Kardous and Morata (2010) indicate that “efforts to reduce the noise in the 1970s by installing mufflers were quickly abandoned because the quiet cars were unpopular with racing teams and spectators alike”.   They further indicate that the problem is “that repeated exposure to noise comes with consequences, permanent and irreversible consequences like hearing loss and ringing in the ears (tinnitus)”.

Just How Much Noise is There?

Rose et al (2008) investigated the popular sport of stock car racing at a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) event. Their results were that “noise levels during the race ranged from 96.5 to 104 dB(A) at 46 meters ( approximately 150 feet) from the track and ra499 to 109 dB(A) at 6 meters ( approximately 20 feet) from the track. The peak sound pressure level at 6 meters was 109 dB(A)“. Although significantly less than that associated with an immediate permanent threshold shift, such an exposure could cause a temporary threshold shift.

Rose and colleagues recommended hearing protection for track employees and mechanics with longer periods of exposure.  They felt that racing fans with only occasional exposure to such noise levels were unlikely to develop a permanent noise-induced hearing loss.  To the contrary, further research at various race tracks was conducted by Kardous and Morata (2010), who determined ra5that spectators are likely to suffer from greater hearing impairment because they are exposed to louder noise than the driver, who is usually protected by using custom-molded earplugs. Their measurements conducted through NIOSH demonstrated that “spectators are surrounded by 96 decibels of noise during a race, which is two to 10 times higher than a person working a 40-hour week at the maximum allowable limit of 85 decibels. In the pits, noise can reach up to 130 decibels, a level often experienced as the human hearing threshold for ra1pain”. The researchers stressed that the hearing damage on those involved or watching the races is cumulative and irreversible. 

Epilog:  As some of you know I take my M-3 coupe to the track regularly during the summer. This is a shot taken at the Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado Springs, CO. Summertime driving at speeds up to 135 MPH keeps the blood boiling!   As a high performance driver, I wear my HPDs regularly at the track.  HPDs are a must-wear-yours when around all types of hazardous noise, including time at the track or as NASCAR spectators!




Donnelly, P., (2013). Some observations on Roman chariot racing.  Retrieved September 1, 2015. 

Kardous, C. & Morata, T. (2010). Higher speeds, higher decibels.  NIOSH Science Blog.  Retrieved September1, 2015.

Rose, A., Ebert, C. Prazma, J., Pillsbury, H. (2008).  Noise exposure levels in stock car auto racing. Ear Nose Throat J. Dec, 87(12):689-92.  Retrieved September 1, 2015: 


North Carolina History Project (2015).  Charlotte soars to become the nations 2nd largest financial center.  Retrieved September 1, 2015.

Rainey, D. (2012).  Avocare 500: NASCAR’S newest fan.  Butler: Party of Three.  Retrieved September 1, 2015.

Russum, J., (2015). What we wore at NASCAR.  Jen Russum. Retrieved September1, 2015.

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