Anyone interested in fast cars already knows what a burnout is, but in case you’ve never come across the term, the first few seconds of this video will give you the idea:
Essentially, it’s a practice where the tyres of a vehicle are deliberately spun, which makes a lot of smoke and noise. There’s a practical purpose to this: burnouts heat up the tyres and make them stickier, which allows for better traction.
Burnouts: car fans love ’em
However, just focusing on the practicalities misses the point. Burnouts are part of the racing and drifting culture.
What’s the appeal? Well, maybe it’s the spectacle of it: the banshee screaming of the tyres, the fire-and-brimstone smell, the car looking like it’s emerging from the gates of hell. Or maybe it’s because it all feels a bit transgressive, in our rule-bound society, to be making all that racket and ‘burning’ something in public.
Either way, burnouts are a tradition that huge numbers of car fans embrace. The fact that the featured vid has over 640,000 views tells you something, and there are plenty more where that came from.
What’s in that burnout smoke?
If you’re not caught up in that fast car scene, you might look at huge clouds of ‘tyre smoke’ and think, “Whatever’s in that smoke can’t be good for you.”
Getting definitive information on the subject isn’t easy – after all, investigating burnout smoke isn’t at the top of any research scientist’s agenda.
What we can say is that ‘burnout smoke’ is a bit of a misnomer. When tyres catch fire, they produce huge amounts of choking black smoke, not white smoke. And there are flames too, which tells you that the components in the tyre are reacting with oxygen. Despite the name, you don’t get either of those in a burnout.
What’s more likely to be happening is that the compounds in the tyre are heated up so much that they vapourise. As they condense, they hang in the air as droplets. So would ‘clouds’ be a better description? Not necessarily, as there’s almost certainly a lot of particulates in there as well – which is what we’d normally call smoke.
What’s equally apparent is that it contains some nasty stuff. Tyre compounds have some pretty toxic compounds in them – including carcinogens such as dibenzopyrenes – that are best left in solid form rather than huffing it in as droplets. Then there’s the impact of particulates, which are now firmly linked with a huge range of health conditions.
“A bit of smoke never hurt anyone”?
So, do burnouts pose any serious health risk for race fans, serial drifters, etc, etc.?
Almost certainly, no one knows for sure. As noted above, research scientists have bigger questions to answer, and there would be real difficulties in designing a study to investigate it.
Common sense tells us that the duration of exposure to nasties and the concentrations of them are going to be critical factors. Our best guess is that a once-a-year exposure to burnouts at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed probably won’t affect your health much (but that is a guess!). On the other hand, if you’re in the midst of it in a car, or you can’t keep away from burnout events, that might be a different thing.
Ban the burnout?
In researching this subject, we came across an entertaining old thread on the Driftworks forum. Back in 2009, an intrepid poster raised the question of the health risks of burnout/drift smoke. As you can imagine, some members were alarmed that when their hobby was ‘discovered’ by the ‘tree-huggers’ and fun police, all would be lost.
Actually, according to Wikipedia, burnouts are already illegal in public places in most countries. At sanctioned events it’s a different story.
Burnouts do raise a serious question about the rights of people to enjoy themselves vs the cost to health for themselves or others. But that’s one we’re not going to weigh in on!
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