Indulge the Need for Speed, but Protect Your Hearing

For most fans who plan on attending a race at Texas Motor Speedway, the cars speeding down the straightaways and hugging the turns will be the order of the day—but doctors warn that the fun of the race should also include hearing protection.

And it’s something even the speedway recognizes on its race fan checklist.

Earplugs are suggested, “even for the tough guys.”

And that’s not hyperbole. A National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study found that the decibel level at your typical NASCAR track can reach 130 or higher in the pit area, 114 for the drivers, and 96 for the spectators.

“NIOSH measured noise levels at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, and the Kentucky Speedways,” the organization says about that report. “We found that noise levels at these racetracks often exceed those found in some of the loudest industrial settings.”

The agency says that 85 decibels is the recommended maximum exposure limit. The threshold of pain, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD), is 125 decibels. At 85 decibels, hearing damage begins to occur.

Watching auto racing without any hearing protection, says ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee, has definitely affected his ability to hear.

McGee wrote earlier last year that “After years around the sport, I don’t hear anything loud and clear.”

He says that he spent much of his career writing about racing all over the country, and wore hearing protection for just about 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,” he says, adding that now conversations at his physicals include a warning that he’s headed for hearing aids.

McGee says that one expert explained that in the stands, fans who didn’t protect their hearing were getting a sustained exposure of about 106 decibels.

“If you own a (race) scanner, buy a decent headset with at least a 20dB noise reduction rating,” recommends NASCAR writer Steve McCormick. “If you are still on the fence about whether or not you need a scanner, maybe this is reason enough to go for it.

“At an absolute minimum if you are going to a NASCAR race you need to use earplugs,” he added. “Even at the track, they can be had for just a few dollars per pair.”

Gary Gross, M.D., allergist/immunologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, agrees.

“The best head/ear protection would be to get a headset with a good noise reduction (20dB or more) and listen to the race through the headset with the volume down,” he says. “You need ear plugs—at a minimum—and those vary in quality, so the longer you are there the more protection you need.”

Gross says that when purchasing noise-canceling headsets, to look for the Noise Reduction Rating—the higher the better. And don’t forget that children will need their own headsets—adult headsets will not protect their hearing as well.

Without that ear protection, sustained exposure to the sounds of loud racing engines can result in noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL. According to the NIDOCD, this hearing loss can happen quickly. “The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL to happen,” the organization warns.

“Sitting in that environment for a prolonged time—even a couple of hours—could damage your ears and take hours of quiet to help normalize,” Gross says. “The longer you’re there, the more damage occurs without protection.”

Have concerns about your hearing? Find an ENT with our physician finder or by calling 1-877-THR-WELL.

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