OSWEGO, N.Y. (AP) — When Shawn Muldoon slips behind the wheel of his 900-horsepower supermodified and goes racing, he never thinks about what could happen.
“You can’t worry about dying,” Muldoon said. “If you’re scared, you shouldn’t be in the car.”
Four years ago, on a Tuesday, he felt chest pains while on the job, ignored it for six hours, then went to the hospital and underwent a heart catheterization.
“They said I had a heart attack, and I said, ’I don’t think so,”’ said the 42-year-old Muldoon, a heavy equipment operator who regularly logs 40-60 hours on the job. “With a heart attack, you think you’re going to die. It was like heartburn, but it sucked. They spent a half hour on one of my valves, couldn’t get it open. Then they wanted me to take two months off. Can’t afford to do that when you race cars.”
And so, after Muldoon was released that Friday, he went back to work on his No. 1 Chevy. On Saturday night, he went racing again.
“My doctor didn’t know I was going to race,” Muldoon said. “I told him I’d give up racing when he gives up golf. He just laughed.”
“He didn’t want to lose any points,” Muldoon’s wife, Suzi, said with a shrug. “You’ve got to know Shawn. That’s how he is.”
In Muldoon’s mind, the decision to go back so soon and compete at speeds of up to 140 mph on what is billed as the fastest five-eighths of a mile track in the world was a no-brainer. And at season’s end it was justified, at least in his own mind. He was 2002 supermodified champion at Oswego Speedway, the proudest moment of his racing career.
“Winning the track championship my rookie year, it had never been done in 52 years,” said Muldoon, who also competed for several years on dirt.
Clearly, racers are a different breed, and they sure need a strong heart. No matter what level they compete at — from late models and supermodifieds to the IRL and Champ cars to Nextel Cup and Formula One — one of the most vital organs in the body gets a real workout behind the wheel.
Auto racing carries a combination of significant cardiorespiratory stress and underlying psychological demands. According to results of tests performed immediately before the 1999 and 2000 seasons in CART (now the Champ Car World Series), the average heart rate was between 143 and 157 beats per minute, oxygen consumption was equal to somebody running an 8-minute to 10-minute-mile, and energy expenditures on track were about 9-13 times of those at rest.
Current IRL star Helio Castroneves can identify with the research. He had his heart monitored in his first year of open-wheel racing.
“It went up to 222 beats at the start, went down to 120, then shot up to 188 when I spun,” Castroneves said. “I noticed a tremendous adrenaline rush. I knew I needed to start running a lot.”
Speed isn’t the sole cause of a rapid heart beat. Al Unser Jr. was monitored three years ago during a race, and his heart rate was “approximately 120 or 130, right in there” — until it was time to make a stop.
“You need to be able to relax in the car, but mine would actually go up to 170 beats in the pits,” Unser said. “Everybody had their own opinions as to why that was. Is it giving up control? On the racetrack, I’m in control of everything, but when I come in the pits I turn it over to my team.
“Do I get anxious because of that? Do I get anxious because I’ve been running 200 mph and now all of a sudden I’ve got to stop and wait, and I’m in anticipation of getting going again? I think it’s a little bit of everything — giving control over to the guys. And it’s all high anxiety — ’Get this right, get this right. Don’t make any mistakes.”’
There also is great risk of heat stress. Drivers sit in a hot cockpit and wear three-layer, fire-retardant driving suits, gloves, boots and helmets, plus fire-resistant underwear. That leaves little skin surface exposed to the environment, thus drastically reducing the body’s ability to dissipate heat.
“Racing on a really hot day with high track temperatures and high in-car temperatures puts stress on the body and increases metabolic demands,” said Steve Olvey, former medical director for CART and now chief medical officer for Grand Prix Masters, an international series for drivers over 45 who competed in Formula One for at least two years.
“Anything that does that is likely to increase heart rate. How high it goes depends on age and how good a shape you’re in. A driver who is more than 40 and out of shape and competing in a competitive series on a really hot day is at risk for some type of cardiovascular problem like a heart attack. I would expect them to have abnormally high heart rates as a result. It behooves all drivers to be in as good a physical condition as they can.”
“If I had chest pains, I wouldn’t race,” said Muldoon, who doesn’t exercise and smokes, though he’s down to half a pack of cigarettes a day. “I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody else. If you’re not 100 percent, there’s no reason to be in the car, especially at the speeds we’re going.”
If anything, Muldoon possesses a terrific case of tunnel vision. He races on even though he’s well aware that his old friend, Tony White, died of a heart attack during a heat wave last summer at Oswego Speedway. White, the track’s limited supermodified rookie of the year in 2002, was 37 when he lost consciousness during a Saturday night feature only hours after the temperature soared to 90 degrees.
“We had just sat down, and that’s when it happened,” said White’s older brother, Wayne, who went to school with Muldoon. “I thought something was seriously wrong. He just barely tapped the wall, and the car veered up to the outside and just kept going until it stopped on its own.”
Ironically, Tony White was in just about the best shape of his life after taking some time off from racing.
“He was a heavier guy and he smoked, we all do, but he had just lost probably around 65 pounds,” Wayne White said. “He had worked real hard because he wanted to go racing again and be in good shape to go. A year before, he thought he was having some problems. He had gone to the doctors and they gave him a clean bill of health. Everything checked out real good. He was in great spirits, excited about the new car.”
Instead, a 110-car funeral procession marked the end of his life, and the Tony White Memorial is now an annual event at the speedway.
And Tony White is not alone. The Joe Winne Memorial race is run each summer at Accord Speedway in the Hudson Valley region of New York state. The race is in memory of Joe Winne Sr., a tough-as-nails, small-block modified competitor for two decades who died of a heart attack at age 45 during a practice session in 2000.
That same year, 65-year-old Lou Lazzaro, of Utica, N.Y., collapsed after a race at Fonda Speedway and died two days later. Lazzaro, who had bypass heart surgery four years earlier, suffered a massive stroke that left him in a coma and died of an inoperable blood clot on the brain.
That Muldoon continues to compete probably stems partly from the fact that racing is in his blood. His father, Jim, raced at Oswego in the 1970s and his brother, Mike, is in the track’s hall of fame.
“It ain’t the money, definitely. My dad had six kids and no money,” said Shawn Muldoon, who is searching for a primary sponsor. “It’s just for the love of racing. It’s like an adrenaline rush. It’s different.”
Or perhaps there’s something alluringly macabre in all this. A week after Lazzaro died, his No. 4 was retired and, after one last victory lap, family members and friends spread his ashes around the half-mile oval in upstate New York where he won 113 feature races during a remarkable career spanning six decades.
“Tony always told me if he was going to die somewhere, he’d rather die doing what he loved doing,” Wayne White said. “That’s where he was. In his own way, he’d be happy. It’s just sad at the same time.”
“It’s the way I hope I go, not laying in a bed with cancer,” Muldoon said. “Just like that, you’re done. And it wouldn’t matter when it happened.”