Long-term effects of carbon monoxide force Mast to quit

NASCAR days over

industry seeking ways to prevent poisoning

Auto Racing

January 23, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - For years, Winston Cup drivers have complained of post-race headaches and Monday hangovers from the bad air they breathe during Winston Cup races. Yesterday, veteran driver Rick Mast became the first driver to retire from NASCAR racing due to long-term carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mast, 45, stopped driving last season after a May race at Richmond International Raceway. During his 15-year Winston Cup career, he drove in 364 races. His best finish was second in Rockingham, N.C., in 1994. He had 36 Top 10 finishes and earned more than $9 million.

"The big thing was the sickness," said Mast, in an interview here as part of the annual preseason Winston Cup UAW-GM Motorsports Tour. "I was so deathly sick: on-the-ground, can't-get-out-of-bed sick. Imagine being as sick as you've ever been and then imagine trying to do your job. I did that for 5 1/2 or six weeks before I got out of the car."

It took months for a diagnosis. And testing is ongoing. Doctors and NASCAR are trying to determine if his is an isolated case, brought on by long-term exposure to carbon monoxide prior to his racing career. As a child, Mast hung out with his dad, who often worked on race cars with engines running in a closed garage.

"I'm not bitter," said Mast, who has problems with short-term memory and motor skills as a result of the illness. "I look at a lot of things like, this is the way life is. What's important and what's not? I've got twin 6-year-old girls and a son 19 and I've been able to be at home with them for an extended period of time. I haven't been able to do that in a long time."

Mast, who is 80 percent recovered, said the symptoms continue, but are on an upward curve. He said he has been without a bad day now for about 14 straight days. He does, however, have to be careful because exposure to the gas for even for a short time makes him ill.

For years, such drivers as Mark Martin and the late Alan Kulwicki spoke of feeling ill and having headaches after races. Several studies over the years showed carbon monoxide levels in drivers after races were high. Mast took part in tests two years ago and, when he received his results, began sucking pure oxygen regularly after races in an attempt to purge the poison.

"With my illness, what surprises everyone is the long-term ramifications, because carbon monoxide is just part of doing the job," said Mast. "We've all dealt with it for years."

Yesterday, NASCAR officials said they are looking for ways to solve the problem.

Gary Nelson, NASCAR's managing director of competition and the man in charge of the organization's new research and development center near here, decided to undertake a full study and assigned an engineer to the program.

"At Daytona during testing two weeks ago, we made everyone aware of the problem," Nelson said. "We told them not to be taken in by people selling filters. You can't filter carbon monoxide. We told them that there are catalysts that can be used to convert carbon monoxide to the harmless gas carbon dioxide.

"We encouraged them to take steps to make sure the engine compartment is sealed from the driver's compartment," Nelson continued. "We told them if they heard of anything or came up with anything themselves that would work in converting the carbon monoxide, that they should tell us or bring it to us and we would run tests on it.

"And we are continuing to work on finding the best way to solve the problem."

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