Sound advice: Expert says NASCAR spectators should protect their hearing

When 40 stock car drivers hit the streets this weekend, their roaring V8s will be bellowing at levels that could hurt spectators’ hearing.

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NASCAR fans take pictures during NASCAR night Tuesday at the Aon Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier.

Fans pose with a NASCAR Cup Series car at the Aon Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier on Tuesday. Spectators are encourage to wear hearing protection, even though cars in the Chicago race will be equipped with mufflers.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

NASCAR fans this weekend can expect dangerous crashes at the Chicago Street Race course. NASCAR drivers crash more than 200 times a year.

But there’s also an unseen danger of excessively loud engine noise, which hearing experts say poses a serious risk to people’s hearing.

NASCAR spectators should wear ear protection to avoid hearing loss, hearing experts say.

“If you wear protection, you’re taking a very effective step to prevent harm to your ears,” said Mike Hefferly, director of Rush University Medical Center’s audiology clinic.

At most NASCAR races, spectators are exposed to at least 95 decibels of noise, studies show.

At that level, people could suffer hearing damage after 30 minutes, according to recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

NASCAR says it’s employing mufflers in Chicago that cut engine noise by up to 10 decibels. But there’s still a risk for hearing damage.

“We do have data that suggests spectators are at risk,” Hefferly said, “but there’s so many other variables, when you run this in an urban environment, that we really can’t account for.”

Spectators at NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race should use earplugs to protect themselves from hearing damage, experts say.

Spectators at NASCAR’s Chicago Street Race should use earplugs to protect themselves from hearing damage, experts say.

Some parts of the street course will be louder than others. Open areas in Grant Park will disperse the sound, but levels could be higher where sounds are reflected off tall buildings, such as along Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road, Hefferly said.

NASCAR officials says they are not sure how loud their cars will be in Chicago, so it’s unclear how far the sound will carry.

NASCAR recommends spectators use ear protection, especially children. Several vendors at the street race will be selling ear protection.

Tips from a hearing specialist:

  • Disposable foam earplugs are a cost-effective way to protect hearing, if used properly, Hefferly said. Noise-reduction headphones also work. Look for ear protection with a noise reduction rating of at least 21 to 25 decibels.
  • Noise-canceling headphones will not provide enough protection, Hefferly says.
  • Spectators can lower their risk of hearing damage by taking breaks from the race.
  • “If it sounds too loud, it probably is,” Hefferly said. “If you must shout to be heard by someone next to you, then it’s probably too loud.”

Children are not necessarily at greater risk of hearing damage than adults, but the consequences could be worse for children who rely on hearing for language development and learning, he said.

map NASCAR Chicago street race Grant Park.

A full map of the NASCAR layout in Grant Park.


How NASCAR is addressing noise

NASCAR said it would fit cars with mufflers for the second time in the racing franchise’s 75-year history in response to concerns about the potential for excessive noise.

Mufflers were used this year at NASCAR’s race at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

“We saw some reductions [in noise level] at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum,” NASCAR Chicago Street Course President Julie Giese said this month. “We’ll be obviously paying close attention to what that sounds like here.”

NASCAR said it’s taking an additional step to lower noise by limiting drivers’ time on the track to 10 hours over the whole race weekend. Practice time has been limited to one hour on Saturday before qualifying. Drivers have been practicing on simulators.

The CDC says people will damage their hearing when exposed to 100dB of sounds for 15 minutes.

The CDC says people will damage their hearing when exposed to 100 decibels of sounds for 15 minutes.


That’s a change from typical NASCAR races, where drivers are on the track “essentially as much as there’s daylight,” Giese said this month.

“We’re really trying to be mindful of the location,” she said. “That’s a product of us trying to be mindful and thoughtful around ... the fact that we are racing downtown.”

Neighbors’ concerns

Some residents who live near Grant Park are worried about the noise. The park regularly hosts music festivals, like Lollapalooza and Sueños, which have brought their share of noise complaints.

Jim Murray lives just west of the park, on Monroe Street. He said he usually leaves town during Lollapalooza to avoid the noise, but he’s staying for NASCAR.

He’s skeptical about race organizers’ assurances that mufflers will be enough.

“They say that the cars will have mufflers and will sound like a motorcycle,” Murray said. “But they are probably not talking about a Honda, more like a Harley with an illegally modified muffler.”

Nearby museums voiced concerns about excessive noise and vibrations after former Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced NASCAR would hold races in Chicago for three years.

The Art Institute of Chicago, which sits next to the track on Jackson Boulevard, consulted sound and vibration specialists before it determined the race wouldn’t affect its facility, a spokesperson told the Sun-Times.

Noise concerns at the Shedd Aquarium, just south of the course, were allayed after NASCAR vowed to use mufflers, saying in a statement it did not expect “negative noise or vibration impacts on our facility or to our animals.”

Hefferly specializes in treating patients with hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, who tend to be more sensitive to loud sounds.

“One strategy to keep them from being exposed to that, and causing distress, is to avoid situations,” he said. “So they don’t go to a NASCAR event for that reason. But now we’re bringing this NASCAR race to them.”

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