Wolfgang Reip — winner of the European GT Academy in 2012, the Blancpain Pro Cup Endurance GT Series in 2015 and the Bathurst 12H in 2015 — thought he would be racing the rest of his life.
Now, he can barely drive on the highway.
Reip started karting as a child growing up in Belgium. “Everything in my little world revolved around racing,” he said. He raced professionally for eight years. Noise was part of the fun. “In racing, the noisier a car is, the more people love it.”
Now, Reip suffers from a severe injury — acoustic trauma, caused by constant exposure to noise that he didn’t know could cause permanent harm.
Earlier this year, Reip announced on Facebook that he was disabled by noise.
“When we think of disability, we think of a missing limb or paralysis,” he wrote. “My disability is invisible, yet it is extremely debilitating and has transformed my life.”
Reip, 35, listed some things he can no longer do, including taking public transportation, spending a normal evening with friends, and showering, cooking or shopping without earplugs.
“I cannot do anything directly or indirectly related to real and virtual motorsport,” he wrote. “I haven’t set foot on a circuit for two years, whether karting or car. I suffer from severe hyperacusis and crippling tinnitus following several sound traumas during my racing career. It is a rare and little-known pathology. Sound hurts my ears, literally. If someone talks to me in a normal voice for a while, my ears start burning.”
Reip feels pain — like a needle piercing his eardrum — from the high-pitched meow of his beloved cat. “Most of the things that make life worth living are no longer possible,” he said.
He is now raising funds for Hyperacusis Research, the only nonprofit seeking a cure for his kind of injury.
“Hyperacusis, or noise-induced pain, is a rare and crippling condition whose cause is not yet well understood,” said Michael Maholchic, president of the charity, based in Boston. “A main cause is overexposure to noise, which can lead to a cluster of symptoms — hyperacusis, the ear-ringing called tinnitus, a clogged feeling known as aural fullness and burning ear pain.”
The nonprofit, in partnership with the Hearing Health Foundation, is currently funding research into pain-sensing nerves in the cochlea.
“We are grateful to Wolfgang for his fundraising efforts and for spreading awareness to help fellow racers and spectators prevent auditory injuries for themselves,” Maholchic said.
“People generally think that prolonged noise exposure causes mild hearing loss, but for some people it causes life-ruining pain. Ears don’t heal well, and when ordinary sound causes relentless pain, it’s impossible to live normally. There is nowhere near enough education about this condition.”
Reip’s ear problems began in 2014. Despite wearing earplugs for at least some of his career racing for Nissan in British GT, the Blancpain Endurance Series, Super GT and the Nurburgring Endurance Series, he neglected to wear earplugs one day when the radio wasn’t working. After hours on the oval, his ears rang and never stopped.
A few weeks later, eating lunch at a restaurant, he found that sound was amplified to the point of pain. “I had no idea what was going on,” he wrote. “I was extremely scared for my career. The doctors were no help.”
Reip started wearing earplugs or protective earmuffs whenever necessary — at all races and test sessions, during nights out, and while driving on the highway. “I got a second chance,” he wrote. About 18 months later, he had improved enough to live a relatively normal life, using earplugs in noisy places.
Then, in 2017, he tested the 24H Zolder en Norma. The car, open to the wind, was jarringly loud. Entering the race, he knew, would have been “hearing suicide.”
He started asking engineers and mechanics to lower the volume of the radio. In early 2020, he went to a party in a pub and forgot his earplugs. He thought he could cope. Now, his tinnitus is louder than ever, “a permanent custom concert that reacts to noise,” he said. Talking to a visiting friend turns his ears into “a complete mess.” In virtual meetings for his job as a software engineer, he sets the volume to minimum.
Drivers are similar to musicians, whose occupation also puts them at risk for an acoustic injury. “When your ears are good, you can’t imagine that something like this can happen,” Reip said. “Once your ears are ruined, there is no turning back. There is no prevention for ear damage in the racing world, and that needs to change.”
In mid-February, to raise funds and awareness, a sim racing friend of Reip’s outfitted his car in the iRacing Bathurst 12H with the Hyperacusis Research logo. “I am not able anymore to participate myself,” Reip said.
Reip encourages people to donate to his fundraiser via Facebook.
Those not on Facebook can donate directly by clicking here.
“Any donation is welcome,” Reip said. “Let’s support the research!”