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Thompson in Turn 5: Rainy Days Mean Racing on Mondays… Not Rain Tires

Two rainouts in as many weeks is both frustrating and a real letdown for race fans, particularly those that put forth not only the effort but also the hard-to-come-by money that is required to take in a race live and in person. But as they say so often in the booth… “That’s racing.” A sport that’s always at the mercy of Mother Nature, postponements in NASCAR have been taking place since the sanctioning body formed way back in the late 1940s. The threat of weather delays pose a definite risk that fans know all too well when contemplating attending an event, and certainly can cause a big disappointment when they don’t wind up seeing what they paid for. However, putting on a set of Goodyear Eagle rain tires and sending the field out to race on them is not the correct way to remedy the problem.

To use rain tires or not is a question that comes to the forefront occasionally, most often when a road course event is the race in question. Folks have seen other auto racing series running in the rain on road courses throughout the world, naturally leaping to the conclusion that… “If they can do it, so can NASCAR.” Using that line of thinking, the answer is yes, they can; but so far, the sanctioning body has had the good sense not to pursue it to any great extent.

Fueling the argument for wet tires in Sprint Cup is that the junior league Nationwide Series not only has such tires available but have actually used them in competition. That, of course, occurred last August during their visit to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Canada. The use of the wet tires there was certainly historic for stock car racing; but, looking back, the day was hardly the success it was purported to have been. Other than the fact NASCAR was giddy over getting the race in under inclement weather conditions, it really was not much of a show.

Just eight laps into the race, NASCAR red-flagged the event and ordered the 9-year-old treaded tires to be mounted on each racecar. Understandably, and in consideration of the new territory the drivers were embarking on, the racing after that could be fairly described as tentative at best. It’s true that each driver’s cautious approach paid off, as there were no on-track incidents caused by the wet surface. In fact, the racing was cleaner than usual, as there was no one out of control and wrecking before finally ending up off track. That alone to me was proof enough that it wasn’t much of a NASCAR-style road race.

It’s true the experiment did provide a degree of entertainment, as Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards, whose team opted to not install windshield wipers while mounting the rain tires, attempted to wipe his windshield with a Swiffer. But is that really the type of in-race adjustment we come to the track to see?

Mercifully, the road-course event, scheduled for 74 laps, was halted with 25 to go when the skies continued to darken and drivers finally began wrecking into one another… during caution laps. When the checkered flag fell to end the debauchery, it was “ringers” Ron Fellows and Patrick Carpentier finishing 1-2 with another road-course ace, Marcos Ambrose, in third after dominating early before being penalized for speeding on pit road. The top finishers shared a common bond along with their expertise, as all had prior experience with racing in the rain prior to coming to NASCAR. In comparison, it was clear that, by and large, the Nationwide Series regulars without that were like fish out of water in the difficult track conditions.

That is not to necessarily say that NASCAR shouldn’t have made the decision to run those tires… or that they should not in the future at that track. As NASCAR’s President Mike Helton explained prior to the running of the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen, the rain tires were developed with an eye to the road courses scheduled for the Nationwide Series events at Mexico and Canada. These were two financially and logistically challenging out-of-country events, ones that can ill afford a rain delay which would not have teams traveling back to the U.S. until a day later. An added day out of the country, coupled with the already-time consuming travel distances that the foreign races already require, would wear on crews needing to prepare for the next event beyond what everyone involved in the sport would find acceptable. Additionally, rescheduling the event for later in the race season, due to the same costs and onerous challenges that come with transporting teams and equipment across the border, would be difficult if not impossible to pull off.

So, in essence, the wet tires that Goodyear had stored for almost a decade were never meant to be anything more than a last-ditch effort to complete the race on the scheduled date. It was not so much looked at as an exciting alternative for the fans; instead, it was NASCAR choosing a begrudging compromise as opposed to the expensive proposition of scrapping the race date altogether should rain become an issue.

But the reason why the sport shies away from rain tires goes far beyond simple logistics. Boxy race cars like those in Sprint Cup, with their high center of gravity and 3,400 pounds of weight, are just not a good fit in slick and wet conditions. It’s like comparing apples and oranges when you try and relate them to the lighter and easier-to-slow sports cars, which are low-slung and with significantly more downforce that makes it easy for them to compete in wet weather.

And then, there’s the issue of drivers being able to see what’s in front of them. Without some fairly significant modifications in the way of not only windshield wipers, but also some sort of defrosting system, visibility is problematic. Yet overcoming those two problems alone will not remedy the huge rooster tails that Sprint Cup cars are capable of creating for those behind them in the field to deal with. At times, zooming through standing water areas at high speed could cause tremendous volumes of liquid being thrown that even the most advanced and effective wipers would be rendered almost useless.

Of course, race postponements due to rain are always hard pills to swallow. However, watching a race in which drivers can hardly see, let alone run at top speeds for fear of hydroplaning and turning the esses into a straight line, is hardly worth watching either. A race where the drivers are not so much concerned with passing fellow competitors for position, but just keeping their ride on the track, is truly not what the ticket purchaser wants to see.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company has let it be known that the same Goodyear Eagles that were developed for the Nationwide Series could, with little modification, be made available to Sprint Cup. So far, NASCAR hasn’t bought in to the idea, although they say they’re “researching” the possibility for the future.

Hopefully, such experimenting will never make it past the testing stage. For who wants to sit in the grandstands during a downpour watching cars, obscured by walls of water being thrown into the air, with drivers holding on for dear life even at reduced race speeds?

Not me.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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