This weekend, NASCAR saw not one, but both of its races at Michigan International Speedway shortened by rain. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and XFINITY series races were abbreviated when adverse weather rolled, and once again, talk has resurfaced about the viability of running rain tires on oval tracks. But should NASCAR and Goodyear make a concentrated effort to develop tires for turning left in the rain?
Slip slidin’ away
I completely understand the frustration of fans with the weather affecting the running of NASCAR races thus far in 2018. We’ve been rained out, rain delayed and rain-shortened almost constantly this season. Heck, they even got hit with a little snow to keep things interesting at Martinsville Speedway.
I also understand the desire to look for a solution that will prevent such a thing from happening so much. After all, it’s human nature to recognize a problem and want to do something to fix it. But we have to be realistic about one solution in particular.
Running rain tires on an oval track is not an option. It isn’t an option now and it won’t ever be one.
We’ve run on rain tires in wet conditions on road courses, as have multiple other racing series with varying types of automobiles. However, the dynamics of driving a racecar on a road course aren’t all that different from driving your passenger car on a rain-soaked roadway. Braking, accelerating and navigating corners are done at a much lower speed than the cars run on most ovals.
There’s the fact that most oval tracks are significantly banked. The banking serves as a stabilizer for the cars to maintain cornering speed. Words like loose and tight exist because the cars are on the edge of being out of control constantly. Each time a driver dives into the turns on an oval, the car is barely making it without spinning.
On a racecar, the area of the tire that touches the racing surface is known as the contact patch. For the cars to corner in a competitive manner, they need the contact patch to be as close to 100 percent as possible. The more the tire grips the track, the better the car will handle. Thus the reason why the Goodyear tires NASCAR uses are slick. Grooves or tread lessen the contact patch, resulting in lower cornering speeds.
With grooved rain tires mounted, each car on the track would have to slow their pace enough to get through the turns of an oval track. Now factor in the fact that the track is completely wet. None of the competitors would be able to use the all of the power their engines generate. 40 cars running in the rain on an oval isn’t a race. It’s merely traffic going in a circle.
In 1995, NASCAR tested rain tires at the Martinsville. But it hadn’t really been planned to take place the way that it did. When practice for the race was rained out, Terry Labonte drove on the rain-slicked track with grooved tires.
It was a sight to see but it was far from encouraging. The spray of water kicked up behind the car (commonly referred to as a rooster tail) would make the cars almost invisible to trailing drivers, as well as fans in the grandstands. Most officials and competitors agreed that their usefulness wouldn’t really extend beyond road courses. Goodyear had the tires developed to be used at the road courses, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They knew over 20 years ago that using them elsewhere just wasn’t a logical possibility.
It still isn’t and that’s exactly why rain tires can’t and shouldn’t be used anywhere else. –Frank Velat
Racing in the Rain
If Gene Kelly can sing in inclement weather, then NASCAR can surely race in it. Okay, that’s not a logical point, but NASCAR should still try to race in the rain.
Obviously, there would have to be limits to this. If there is lightning in the area or if it’s a monsoon-style rain then the race should be delayed. But if there is a light to medium rain, then I don’t see why it can’t be done.
If NASCAR is supposed to be home to some of the greatest drivers in the world, then it has to race in the rain. Otherwise, it makes the drivers look wimpy next to drivers in series around the globe that will race in any condition.
Come on the tire tech is there, F1 cars pull more G’s on a flat surface then a big stock car on a banked one. Yet they use rain tires. Once again it’s more a “this is how it’s always been so this is how it’ll be” not what can/can’t be done.
— Scott Heckert (@Scott_Heckert_) June 11, 2018
Scott Heckert is a sports car driver who formerly raced in the XFINITY Series and K&N Pro Series East, and he wasn’t bad at it. He won four races in K&N and finished runner-up to William Byron in the 2015 standings. To see a driver who has had success on ovals and road courses advocate for rain tires on ovals tells me that it is much more feasible than most think.
A large part of a driver’s task is adapting to the track. If the rain tires and loss of grip on the track can’t handle the normal speeds, then slow down. Slow and steady would win the race, while those that overdrive their cars would end up on a wrecker.
It would be no different than the early days of NASCAR. In the first few World 600s, Charlotte Motor Speedway was such a rough track that if you went as fast as you could then you would tear your equipment up. The drivers that nursed the car around the track ended with a good result.
Racing in the rain would cause more wrecks, but isn’t that what fans want to see? Isn’t that the footage that tracks use to sell tickets? The cars are a lot safer than they were in 1995, so it would not be as big of a risk. And it would add a lot of intrigue tracks where the racing has been fairly boring in recent years.
One of the most entertaining races I’ve ever seen was the 2016 XFINITY race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which was dogged by rain. It was exciting watching talented drivers take the lead, only to sail off into the dirt in the ensuing turn because they drove too fast into a wet spot.
Watching great drivers overcome adversity and terrible track conditions is exhilarating. I could watch that Mid-Ohio race on loop.
The common argument against racing in the rain is that rain tires work on road course, but not ovals. I disagree. On a road course, the track is designed in a way that the water doesn’t run off; it just sits on the track. With the banking of ovals, the water would run down the track. Obviously, the water would then pile up on pit road, so either pit road speeds would have to be reduced or it would have to be like pitting at local short tracks where the field is frozen.
NASCAR and Goodyear need to consider developing rain tires and at least try it out once. The spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway is always scheduled during the rainy season, so that would be the perfect place to test it due to the steep banking and slightly slower speeds.
Before shooting down the idea of racing in the rain, let’s at least try it. It would sure beat the alternative of no racing at all. –Michael Massie
About the author
Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.