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Penske working with NASA on clean air solution

The Charlotte Observer

MOORESVILLE - What's next?

Race teams, the good ones at least, do more than just keep up with the pace of their sport - the day-to-day, week-to-week grind of getting cars and crews ready to go to the track for the next race.

Somewhere, in some room down some hallway fans never go down when they visit a NASCAR team's shop, there are always people who're working on something better.

It might be an improvement to shock absorbers or a better way to keep lug nuts from falling off the hub during a pit stop. It could be any of a thousand things that someday might provide just a little bit of an edge in a business where the smallest advantage can be significant.

It could be, for instance, a new take on removing carbon monoxide from the driver's cockpit. That's what engineer Paul Rochotte and a group from Penske Racing and NASA - yes, the rocket science people - have been toiling on for more than a year now.

The device weighs less than 3 pounds and looks like a large Thermos bottle.

The black carbon-fiber housing contains two filters. The first that uses carbon to take out nasty things like sulfur dioxide from race car emissions.

Carbon monoxide goes right through that, however, so the second filter contains a catalyst with a platinum base that was developed by NASA. That catalyst converts carbon monoxide, which is poisonous, into carbon dioxide, which is the natural by-product of breathing.

Brendan Gaughan gave the unit an on-track tryout May 5 at Richmond International Raceway during his team's test there. Gaughan and teammate Ryan Newman plan to use the unit in Saturday night's Chevy 400 at the .75-mile Richmond track.

Carbon monoxide poisoning became a major issue last year when driver Rick Mast announced that its effects had forced him to end his driving career.

Other competitors have complained about having severe headaches and other symptoms after races. Some drivers still take oxygen immediately after races to help clean the dangerous gas out of their system.

NASCAR has worked to develop a filtering system that would improve the quality of air being breathed by competitors. What the folks at Penske Racing have been doing is working on their own system in hopes of making something even better.

The team became focused on carbon monoxide after Newman took a big dose in a race in 2002. Rochotte joined the project last summer, and has worked with Matt Davis of a company called Smoke Mask and Dr. Frank Farmer, who has retired from NASA since the inception of the project.

The carbon monoxide unit is mounted just behind the driver's seat with a hose that takes in air from the area around the car's window net. Air is not forced into the unit, Rochotte said, because air must stay in the filter containing the platinum-based catalyst long enough for the conversion to carbon dioxide to occur.

The unit has a blower that then sends the clean air either directly into the driver's helmet or into a InterCooler, another Penske Racing-developed product that sends cooled air into a driver's helmet on the hotter days.

The carbon monoxide removal unit was tested for eight hours with carbon monoxide levels at 500 parts per million - more than 10 times the amount considered acceptable for any work environment - and removed more than 90 percent.

The net result is that Newman and Gaughan should have cleaner air to breathe inside their race cars. The long-term effect could be longer careers for both of them, with one less potential hazard for them to face over the course of those careers.

Paul Rochotte won't be in victory lane the next time Newman or Gaughan or any other driver whose team buys one of these new units from the Penske Racing folks goes there to celebrate a win.

But like hundreds of more just like him, people who go to work every day figuring out what's next, those drivers will be there in part because of him.

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