NASCAR Shouldn't Run In The Rain — And Neither Should Autojournos
It was a weekend of ups and downs for your humble author. Up: meeting model and FIAT television-commercial star Catrinel Menghia in Las Vegas, albeit for a moment too brief to pitch my admittely unconvincing case. (“Yes, I know your husband is far wealthier and better-looking than I am — but I can play ‘The Blower’s Daughter’ on the six-string Ovation.”) Down: not receiving an invitation to attend the Camaro ZL1 launch at VIR. The flights back and forth to Las Vegas, combined with various activities once I was on the ground, meant that I received my news in short bursts of permitted cell-phone activation.
So. The Daytona 500 dragged out over three calendar days. Approximately ten million Facebook users made “image macros” featuring everything from ALMS prototypes to LeMons racers driving in the rain. Juan Pablo Montoya ran into a jet-engined track drier, prompting another ten million people to make jokes about “Hit the pace car, Cole” and “Don’t let the invisible fire hurt my friend!” About.com’s lead writer, Aaron Gold, shit-canned Chevrolet’s trailer-park supercar at VIR in what can best be described as “a completely avoidable incident”.
It doesn’t bother me when people who know nothing about cars or racing make fun of NASCAR for not running in the rain. By contrast, when people who should know better — drivers I know with experience up to and including Rolex GT racing — run their mouths about it, it does bother me. It further reinforces the idea that there are two separate worlds of car racing in this country and both sides are pig-head ignorant concerning the other.
Oval tracks and racing in the rain have traditionally been mutually exclusive. The historical basis of this probably goes back to the fact that, while European racing has its roots in public-road events, early American races were commonly held on horse tracks and dirt ovals. Almost immediately after opening in 1909, Indianapolis Motor Speedway became a brick course, and wet bricks simply have no traction at all, so the Indy 500 remained dry-only even after the transition to conventional paving. To this day, the major oval-racing sanctions don’t race in the rain, although the IRL does run road courses under wet conditions.
With that said, there is a growing trend among small-track operators in the United States to permit, encourage, or even mandate racing in the rain in the slower classes. The Hoosier dirt-stocker tires which have long been used for road-course wet racing have become good enough to permit tolerable speeds on quarter-mile ovals. Since those drivers are used to relatively low corner speeds on those mildly-banked, short-radius-turn tracks, many of them have greeted the changes with open arms. It’s always better to race than to sit and wait, you see.
Alas, the same is not true for major-sanction racing on superspeedways. Road racers are very proud of racing in the rain, but the fact of the matter is that there are very few high-speed corners left on major road courses, and where those turns do exist, as with Road Atlanta’s first turn, there are often serious accidents when it rains. The corner loading a car experiences in pretty much every turn, everywhere, of the Random Hick-Targeted Product 400 Somehwere In The Middle Of Flyover Country exceeds Road Atlanta’s Turn One by a factor of three or more. In a full-throttle NASCAR race, run in a constant standing-water situation, (and don’t forget, water runs down a banked turn) every corner entry for every racer would be a hasty, on-the-fly calculation with the penalty for guessing wrong being a full-speed wall impact of the type rarely seen in the sport today. Drivers would die. It’s as simple as that…
…and that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be situations where it rains lightly, a dry line forms in the draft line, that line runs up to normal pace, and a driver is nudged out onto wet pavement, on slicks or intermediates, at over two hundred miles per hour. Don’t confuse that with the tire-smoking melees we see in NASCAR today, or the hit to the wall Danica took last week after full-locking for five hundred feet. It would be the equivalent of simply driving, full-throttle, into the SAFER barrier at 200mph. That’s not courage. That’s stupidity, and no NASCAR or IRL driver in his right mind would sign up for it. The institutional knowledge for running a superspeedway in intermediate conditions simply doesn’t exist among the teams and it would have to be paid for in blood. If you want that to happen, you aren’t a racing fan. You’re the same kind of person who would have enjoyed watching lions tearing people apart in the Colosseum. Go home and take your “TAPOUT” pants with you.
Real race fans, along with anyone else who has ever observed the “competition” of F1 cars droning through four-minute laps when standing water forms can also understand how boring it can be to watch rain racing. At safe standing-water speeds, NASCARs at Talladega would appear to be doing pace laps. It would be mind-numbing. Why bother? Why not just run the race when conditions are correct? Baseball could theoretically be played in the rain, as well, but nobody wants to watch it and they don’t bother to do it. It isn’t entertaining, and NASCAR is meant to be entertainment. Road racers get snippy about that, too, but that’s the way it is. I can guarantee you that if eighty thousand people started showing up at my NASA races, we would change the format to accomodate those people in a heartbeat. At that point, if there’s real prize money involved, we can turn it into figure-eight racing for all I care.
So, let’s review. Superspeedway racing in the rain is dangerous, it is unpredictable, and it is boring. One last thing. For most of the drivers, it probably wouldn’t be any fun. The average racer isn’t really any good in wet conditions. I’ve seen that proven again and again in my own little corner of the racing world. Although history has shown that I am a better wet-weather driver than I am a dry-weather one, just judging by my results over time against the same people, I’d rather drive a dry race. Driving a car with slicks or intermediates in wet conditions is a constant battle to judge conditions and come up with a slightly better answer than the guy next to you, who could kill you through idiocy at pretty much any moment. I can still vividly remember an incident at a NASA race where a guy looped his Spec Miata during the pace lap and took out a bunch of cars. Everybody involved in that incident lost their weekend. Driving in the rain is not fun. It is grueling, technical work and most people can’t do it worth a damn.
Which brings me, at long last, to Aaron Gold and the wrecked ZL1. Aaron had ESP turned on, he was proceeding at what he believed to be a safe, reasonable pace, and he still trashed the car. Aaron is far from a hothead. He is a decent, well-spoken, conservative fellow. I guarantee you that the phrase “Watch this!” never came to his lips or even his mind. He thought he was well within the envelope — but he wasn’t.
At some point the manufacturers and their PR people need to understand that cars like the ZL1 are simply too much for most people to drive on a track without direct supervision, and maybe even with direct supervision. Most journalists are twenty to forty seconds off the maximum safe pace on a two-minute track. I don’t even see what you can learn about a car driving that slowly. You might as well rip it around a Wal-Mart parking lot and write that up. Most journalists would learn more from taking a set of passenger laps with a qualified driver and listening to what that person has to say. Alternately, they could take the Motor Trend way — admit that nobody on the roster can drive and hire Randy Pobst (or Jason Saini, or Ryan Eversley, et al) to do the real work while they roll around in a loaner Phantom and give each other backrubs.
A middle-ground solution, and one I hereby suggest, is that manufacturers require NASA Time Trial certification, or similar, to attend a track event. That’s something you can get in six or seven weekends — or less if you want to pay Skip Barber to coach you up to competence. It’s a minimum requirement and it would be easy to meet. Had Aaron received that level of coaching and properly internalized it, I am virtually certain that Chevrolet would have one more functioning ZL1 in the fleet today. Right now it’s all fun, games, and finger-pointing Jalopnik articles, but on the day that the Lifestyle Editor of MinorLeagueWebsiteWithTwentyVistorsADay.com is decapitated by a Armco barrier, the back-slapping eternal press party will come to a sharp halt faster than people can make jokes about hitting a track drier. Which reminds me. How many Colombians do you need to stop the race? Just… Juan! Tip your waitress!
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Nascar wet or dry is boring round and round real race cars turn left and right and run in the wet IE Aussie V8 super cars NZ V8s and V8 supertourers if you cant race in the wet fuck off home and let those that can go
Jack, thanks for the kind treatment. A couple of clarifications: This wasn't a moderately-paced lap that simply went wrong. Would if it were. I was actually moving rather slowly. I was nervous about the lack of traction, I was distracted, and that led me to be way off the proper line. Next mistake: I was eager to get back into the slot, and had just paddled down to 2nd (yes, that lap was in an automatic car, sigh) in an effort to pick up the pace as I headed into the straight. Annnd, having done most of my track driving in sun or pissing rain, I did not realize that *freshly* wet is so much more slick than just plain wet, or that off-line would be so much slicker than on-line. I was genuinely taken by surprise at the way the grip just went away. Wrong place, wrong gear, too much power, insufficient experience to judge properly, and not enough traction or space to recover. Crunch. Oh, and one other important detail: I did *not* check what mode the ESC was in before I left. The driver before me may have turned it up to a less-intrusive level before my lap; I should have checked to see that it was set for wet traction (the ZL1 has 5 modes) or just left it full on. For the record, this wasn't my first rodeo. I've done fast-ish laps in wet weather in high-power rear-drive cars, and driving with a reasonable amount of care, it went pretty well. This time, I got myself into a bad situation without even realizing I had done so. And that, as you correctly point out, is where the lack of experience comes in. I agree that many autojournos think their track skills are better than they are. I have never deluded myself about my own skill level, and I have never professed to be a better driver than I am. Although, it seems that even in this case, that wasn't enough. As a friend said to me today, you can't know that you don't know what you don't know. That said, I don't necessarily agree that those without an SCCA license should only drive with on-board supervision. As I said, I do not consider myself to be a great driver, but I have some training and can get a car around a track at a reasonable rate of speed. When I drive on the track, I'm not looking to set records; I'm looking to evaluate the dynamics of the car in an environment where I need not worry about oncoming drivers, pedestrians and bicycles, blind corners, etc. It's virtually impossible to safely drive a car at 10/10ths (or even 9/10ths) on an open public road. Back to my ZL1 crash: Experience is the best teacher. But I do wish I'd learned this particular lesson in my own car, not someone else's. See you at the Spark event... Aaron