From Amish life to a job in NASCAR: Crew member’s unusual journey

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Reuben Kauffman had seen his father cry only once.

Then came Feb. 20, 2012, when Kauffman walked into the kitchen of his family’s Wisconsin farm home. His father sat at the dining table he helped build, reading a well-used Bible. A kerosene lamp dangled from the ceiling. Kauffman’s mother prepared scrambled eggs and homemade granola.

The spartan kitchen was full of wonderful memories for Kauffman, one of nine children. The cinnamon rolls his mother made were treats that remain unmatched. The mashed potatoes and chicken were just as good.

But this would be a day of different memories.

Kauffman, then 17, approached his parents not knowing how to reveal his heartbreaking news.

So he told them that two Black Angus calves had been born in the barn. Then he apologized for socializing with friends the day before that his parents didn’t approve him being around.

There was nothing else to say — except what Kauffman had come in from the family’s cabinet shop to tell his parents at 6 a.m.

After he spoke, they looked at him slightly confused. Kauffman repeated himself. This time, his parents absorbed each painful word.

His mother began to cry.

So did his father.

FROM HORSE AND BUGGY TO RACE CARS

One of nearly 250 employees at Chip Ganassi Racing, Reuben Kauffman’s job as a fabricator is to help build fast cars for Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Brennan Poole and Tyler Reddick.

Kauffman, though, is unlike any of his co-workers.

Amish travel by horse-drawn buggy instead of cars, keeping with their beliefs. (Photo: Reuben Kauffman)

He attended a one-room school through eighth grade, lived 17 years in a home with no electricity and secretly listened to NASCAR races on the radio, breaking his community’s code on  such technology.

He grew up in an Amish enclave in Loganville, Wisconsin, located about 60 miles northwest of Madison. A career in NASCAR seemed remote for someone who traveled by bicycle or horse and buggy and had to learn basic life skills — such as ordering food at McDonald’s — after leaving.

Kauffman followed the path of a cousin, Marlin Yoder, who left the same Amish community four years earlier and later found work for a race team in North Carolina.

Kauffman, who gained his skills working in his family’s cabinet shop, earned his first job with a small race team by offering to work for free during a two-week tryout. Impressed by Kauffman’s work ethic, his boss told a friend at Chip Ganassi Racing about six months later that he had an employee the team should consider hiring.

“When I stop and think about it,’’ he said, “it’s mind-blowing how far you can get if you push yourself.’’

A ONE-WAY TRIP

Reuben Kauffman was uncertain of his future when he told his parents that February 2012 morning what he had contemplated for five years.

“I’m leaving,’’ he told them in their native Pennsylvania Dutch language.

“Leaving what?’’

“I’m leaving the Amish.’’

“You can’t do that.’’

Kauffman watched those outside the Amish community too long to remain. He envied their lifestyle. He saw a world powered by electricity move at a faster pace and enjoy more benefits, such as nearby children playing on four-wheelers and dirt bikes. Speed and machinery intrigued him. The Amish life did not.

Barn the family of Reuben Kauffman has on their Wisconsin farm. (Photo: Reuben Kauffman)

“There’s only so much you can do if you’re Amish,’’ Kauffman said. “I just saw more to life.”

He not only was leaving a lifestyle but his family. His older brothers and sisters were married and lived nearby. It was only he, his twin Rachel and younger brother Ferman living with his parents at the time.

Nothing his parents said in the kitchen that morning swayed Kauffman. He grabbed his gloves and walked out of the house.

Kauffman headed down the dirt driveway, past the cabinet shop, crossed the road and stopped at a shack that had a phone. His family and neighbors shared it for emergencies or special situations. Kauffman called Yoder to pick him up but Yoder couldn’t. One of Kauffman’s older brothers, Ivan, tried to persuade him to stay as Reuben was on the phone with Yoder.

Meanwhile, Kauffman’s parents gathered Rachel and Ferman and told them what was happening. For as much as Kauffman had wanted to tell Rachel of his plans beforehand, he couldn’t.

“I knew if I would, she would go to my parents and it would make it a lot harder because she wouldn’t have wanted me to leave,’’ Kauffman said. “That would have made everything more complicated.’’

Rachel and Ferman went to Kauffman as much to say goodbye as to urge him to stay. It was one thing to tell his parents he was leaving but to tell his twin sister?

Kauffman remained resolute.

He climbed on a bicycle. With no money and only the clothes he wore, he rode 30 miles in 20-degree weather to his cousin’s home and a new life.

EXPERIENCING NASCAR FROM AFAR

Although NASCAR races occurred at tracks they couldn’t imagine, with cars they couldn’t relate to and piloted by drivers they didn’t know, they kept listening.

What could be better?

As teens often do, they rebel. So when the rules include no radios, someone will have a radio.

Amish friends introduced a 15-year-old Reuben Kauffman to NASCAR, letting him listen to the races in their verboten sessions. This was not new. Yoder, who left the community March 9, 2008, also became acquainted with the sport this way and works in it as the car chief at MDM Motorsports for Harrison Burton’s K&N Pro Series East championship team.

The speed, drama and breathless calls by the announcers lured Kauffman even though he had no idea of “the difference from Daytona to Martinsville.’’

Enticed by those races and the music on other stations, Kauffman biked 10 miles to a Dollar General to buy a pocket radio. He went on a Sunday, knowing he likely would not encounter any other Amish because they would be at community gatherings. Still, Kauffman could feel his heart pound in the store, worried someone would see him and tell his father. Kauffman wasn’t hard to spot in his traditional Amish wear of black pants and a white shirt. The clanging of $5 worth of quarters announced his position with each step.

Kauffman hid the radio under his mattress or in the barn, but his parents caught him with it and took it. He later acquired another radio from someone who had left the Amish community.

Kauffman learned to be more cautious. He volunteered before hunting season to go into the woods and scout prime locations. Alone, he could listen to the NASCAR race on the radio without fear of being caught.

A TRYOUT

Unaccustomed to the nuances outside his Amish community, Reuben Kauffman had much to learn.

The first time he rode with his cousin through a McDonald’s drive-thru proved confusing. Kauffman was befuddled when his cousin stopped before getting to the building and gave his order.

“There was nobody standing there,’’ Kauffman says. “He was just talking to the board. That’s how much I knew.’’

A week after leaving home, Kauffman watched his first NASCAR race on TV — the Daytona 500.

“It was amazing,’’ he said. “I couldn’t believe the speeds they carried. Even after listening to it a couple of years (on the radio), it just came to life.’’

Spurred by his interest in the sport and his cousin’s journey, Kauffman found his way into NASCAR.

Reuben Kauffman helps make repairs to Jamie McMurray’s car at Darlington. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Yoder took two weeks from his work as a roofer to go to North Carolina looking to work for a race team. Kauffman, who also worked with Yoder as a roofer, accompanied him on the 2015 trip.

A few days before they returned to Wisconsin, Yoder got a job with a Super Late Model team.

The next year, Kauffman took a couple of weeks off in January to go to North Carolina to find work with a race team. He got a tryout with a part-time K&N team.

“Don’t worry about paying me,’’ Kauffman told the team. “I just want to show you what I know and my work ethic.’’

When it was time to return to Wisconsin, Kauffman was told to pack his bags at home and come back to North Carolina because he had a job.

Six months later, Kauffman’s boss told Matt McCall, crew chief for McMurray, about that work ethic.

A SPECIAL RIDE

The black Camaro sits parked most days outside where Reuben Kauffman lives with  Yoder.

Kauffman occasionally drives it to work but doesn’t use it every day to keep the car from running too many miles.

After leaving the Amish community, the Camaro was one thing he wanted the most.

“I’ve always liked them,’’ Kauffman said. “Sweet sports car.’’

Finding the right one wasn’t easy. He spent three months searching.

“When he finally found the Camaro, it was pretty big for him,’’ Yoder said. “It’s been many years he’s been talking about, ‘Man, I’m going to have me a Camaro one of these days. It’s going to be a black Camaro.’ ‘’

Where did Kauffman, who grew up in a home with no TV, no cell phones and no computers, find his dream car?

The internet.

WORKING AT THE TRACK

Five years after he shocked his parents and siblings and left his Amish community, Reuben Kauffman walked into a Cup track with the Ganassi team for the first time. It was March 31, 2017, a day that featured above-average temperatures that reached 70 degrees at Martinsville Speedway.

“It was almost too good to be true to be in the garage area with the Cup guys and working on the Cup car,’’ Kauffman said. “It’s amazing to be at that point in my life that I’m working on something like that.’’

Although there was work to do, Kauffman took time to admire a facility that has hosted NASCAR races annually since NASCAR’s inaugural strictly stock season in 1949.

Jamie McMurray talks to Reuben Kauffman (far right) and other crew members at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“Just being in the garage,’’ Kauffman said was so special. “Just being right there with everything. The smells, the sounds. There’s always noise at Martinsville, there’s always some cars on the track. Just being in the middle of that whole deal was amazing.’’

He later joined the team for the Coca-Cola 600 weekend at Charlotte, the Southern 500 weekend at Darlington and the opening playoff race at Chicagoland Speedway in September.

Then came a surprise. The team told him they wanted him on the road for the season’s final five races. He would get a NASCAR license.

Kauffman called Yoder shortly after leaving the shop that day to tell him the news.

“He was excited,’’ Yoder said. “He was so excited about it and kept going on and on.’’

While most people could call parents and family after such big news, Kauffman could not. No one manned the phone in that shack back near his home. None of his family members had a cell phone, abiding by the community’s belief against relying on modern technology. There was no way to reach his family immediately. 

To tell his parents, what he had accomplished, what meant so much to him and how excited he was, Kauffman returned to his former Amish ways.

He wrote them a letter.

 and on Facebook

 

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Clash at Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing

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Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.

He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing. 

Both Buescher and team owner Brad Keselowski failed to make last year’s feature, sending them home earlier than expected.

“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.

That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.

Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.

“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”

Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.

“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.

“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.

“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”

It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars. 

“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”

Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”

Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.

“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.

RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”

Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.

Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.

“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”

2. Why not more horsepower?

NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.

The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car. 

Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.

“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports. 

“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.

“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”

Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.

“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”

3. Crossing the line

The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.

But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect. 

For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.

“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings. 

So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?

“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”

Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.

“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’ 

“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”

4. On the same page

Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports this season as a teammate to Corey LaJoie.

Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.

Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.

“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

But he also said that management has workable goals.

“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).

“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.

“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”

Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.

“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.

5. Rule book changes 

NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race. 

NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.

Among those:

— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.

— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.

— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue. 

Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.