By now, everyone knows how miserably wet the NASCAR Cup Series’ inaugural event at Circuit of the Americas was.
The looming question, though, is why NASCAR allowed Sunday’s (May 23) EchoPark Texas Grand Prix to be marred by such treacherous conditions.
Before we delve into the calamity that took place around the 20-turn course, a few pre-emptive disclaimers.
My excitement for this race was at an all-time high. This was the first entirely new circuit on the NASCAR schedule since Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway were both introduced in 2001. Visiting a venue such as COTA does more to legitimize NASCAR than it does to legitimize the course, especially considering this facility was built for Formula One.
The start of the race was exceptional. Road-course aces Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger put their skills on display from the drop of the green, navigating slick but raceable conditions. There was side-by-side racing, calculated risk, and extreme levels of talent necessary to get through the rain.
That’s where my disclaimers — and excitement — end. For me, any high I had for the event plummeted during stage two, following three crashes and two cautions that should have never happened in the first place.
The first came on lap 19, when Christopher Bell drove into the right-rear corner of the slowing Ford of Ryan Blaney while neither driver could see through the blinding mist. The impact destroyed the front end of Bell’s car, sending him spinning and sliding down the long back straightaway. Rookie Chase Briscoe noted on the NASCAR subreddit, “[Tyler] Reddick and I almost killed Bell” because neither could see the sideways No. 20 Toyota as they raced by.
Simultaneously, Kevin Harvick was slowing on the same straightaway, unbeknownst to the trailing Bubba Wallace. On the fastest part of the track, Harvick slowed to 97 mph before getting hammered from behind by Wallace, briefly lifting the No. 4 car off the ground and ending both his and Wallace’s days early.
That was a wild one. pic.twitter.com/ZUZKBO2HWa
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 23, 2021
The downpour of rain and subsequent rooster tails — the spray of water spewing from behind and beneath the cars as they drove through pools of water — made for unbearably low visibility, putting drivers at risk on a high-speed circuit.
“I’ll put it this way, the entire field could have been wrecked on the backstretch and I would have hit them wide open and not have seen them until I hit them,” Briscoe commented.
Harvick told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long he “never felt more unsafe in [his] whole racing career.
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) May 23, 2021
While NASCAR officials should have displayed the yellow before these incidents occurred, perhaps this missed call can be excused. This is the first true wet weather race the Cup Series has endured, so lessons were being learned in real time.
NASCAR officials should have red-flagged the race, removed that standing water from the backstretch, and carried on once again.
But they didn’t.
Instead, they cleaned up the carnage, left the heavy water on the track, and watched as another horrible crash marred a sloppy and scary second stage.
This time, it was Martin Truex Jr. who was driving blind up the same straightaway before driving into the back of Michael McDowell, much like his teammate Bell drove into Blaney. Seconds later, Cole Custer sped full speed into the rear of Truex, launching Truex skyward from behind before the No. 19 Toyota slid along its right side and atop Custer’s roof.
After colliding with Truex, Custer then slammed left-front-first into the armco barrier – one thankfully covered with foam padding — before his car erupted in flames. The 2020 Rookie of the Year leaped from the car just as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. neared and swerved to avoid hitting Custer.
The crash. pic.twitter.com/GG5x9Pfvkt
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 23, 2021
This crash was avoidable — not by the drivers, but by NASCAR officials. The melee of the preceding caution should have alerted them something needed to be done immediately. Instead, more drivers were put in harm’s way.
To its credit, NASCAR acknowledged its error after the race when Vice President of Competition Scott Miller met with the press.
“I would kind of own the fact that maybe we did let it go a little bit too long before we did something,” Miller said. “It’s a learning experience for all of us. We will learn. We will be better next time. I think probably your original question is would we the pull the plug earlier? Probably so.”
I don’t envy those officials’ jobs. There were many obstacles to juggle and a lot at once. But conditions as egregiously bad as what we saw Sunday — let’s not forget the officiating tower has access to those same in-car cameras too — should have been sign enough to stop.
“It’s a tough job for us to balance — competitive event, a good show for the fans and with the drivers’ best interest,” Miller said. “It’s a tough job. I think rain at a race points out the fact that everybody in this business has a hard job. … We have a hard job. The drivers have a hard job. Everybody’s got a tough job.”
Winning car owner Rick Hendrick, whose Hendrick Motorsports team tied Petty Enterprises for the most wins in Cup history with 268 courtesy of Chase Elliott, praised the entire field for handling the track as skillfully as it did and noted it could have been worse.
“I don’t understand how we didn’t have more problems than we did,” Hendrick said. “There were a couple of situations there with the [No.] 19, it was a pretty serious hit. I’m just glad everybody’s OK.”
With as many races as we’ve seen interrupted by rain over the past two seasons, racing in wet conditions seems inevitable. Goodyear brought an impressive tire that handled the conditions surprisingly well, and the drivers maintained their cars extraordinarily well given the circumstances.
The difference comes when limited visibility devolves into none whatsoever.
Certainly, teams and officials will debrief following the chaos that developed at COTA. I hope the track gets another crack on the Cup schedule, one uninterrupted by wet weather.
But if Mother Nature shows up without a ticket again next year, NASCAR officials had better be prepared after what we saw Sunday.