Racing in the rain at COTA was okay, until it wasn’t

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on May 23, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASCAR and its drivers learned valuable lessons Sunday at COTA. The big one perhaps is that while we can indeed race in the rain, we can’t do it when it’s raining too hard.

Weather the entire weekend leading up to Sunday’s inaugural Cup race at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin Texas wasn’t exactly chamber of commerce. Off and on rain, heavy at times, plagued most of the activities except for Saturday’s Xfinity series race and Sunday mornings Cup qualifying session.

Sunday’s race began in damp conditions allowing teams to choose wet tires in place of the normal slicks. Most elected to do just that, but by lap 3 the rain was increasing and soon most of the field had pitted and were on rain tires.

NASCAR has raced on rain tires. Last year the start of the race at the Charlotte ROVAL in the Cup series was on rain tires, and the entire Xfinity race the day prior was run in downpours.

Sunday’s rain however took those showers to an entirely different level.

The rain picked up around lap 21 and visibility soon degraded. On the same lap, Kevin Harvick was hit from behind by Christopher Bell as Harvick was trying to brake into a corner.

Harvick tried to continue but was unable to. He scored his first DNF since Bristol in 2019 and was none to happy after it was over.

“It’s the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car by a lot,” he said. “You can’t see anything down the straightaways. These cars were not built to run in the rain and when you can’t see, my spotter said, ‘Check up, check up,’ because he thought he saw two cars wrecking.  I let off and the guy behind me hit me wide-open because he never saw me.  It’s unbelievable that we’re out there doing what we’re doing because we’re in race cars that aren’t made to do this, and if you can’t see going down the straightaway it’s absolutely not safe, not even close.

“We don’t have any business being out in the rain, period.  All I can say is this is the worst decision that we’ve ever made in our sport that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve never felt more unsafe in my whole racing career, period.”

Two laps later Martin Truex Jr. was hit by Cole Custer in a collision that sent Truex’s Toyota into the air. Both drivers were checked out and cleared.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Truex said. “Going down the backstretch just trying to stay on the road and next thing I know, I saw a taillight and it was on my hood in a split second. You just can’t see anything out there.”

With visibility an obvious issue, shortly after the Truex incident NASCAR stopped the field. The heavy rain was easing, and NASCAR took the time to clear standing water from the track and the race was restarted.

Visibility had improved, but NASCAR took the further step of single file restarts.

The rains would come again near lap 50, and by lap 54 the visibility was degrading once again. NASCAR threw the caution, brought the field to pit road hoping to once again clear some of the water on the track. With the rain picking up however, NASCAR decided to call the race and Chase Elliott was declared the winner.

“I mean, at the end of the day I’m not the one making the calls,” Elliott said. “I don’t want to make the calls. I can sit there and look at it and have an opinion, but it’s not my call. Like I say, I don’t want it to be my call.

“The track went through a bunch of different stages. The visibility further back in the pack, which I restarted back there on multiple occasions, it was super hard to see. That was really the case kind of all day long. I don’t really know how you fix that with the spray coming off the cars.”

“I think where it got to there at the end was just there were puddles of standing water. I think that was where NASCAR got to and they’re like, Hey, this is not good. Visibility is one thing, but when you hydroplane going however fast we’re going, that’s probably not good. I think that’s kind of the situation we found ourselves in there at the end.

“Obviously I was on the good end of the call, so I’m okay with the race ending. But actually I think a lot of guys would say the standing water was getting pretty serious. It might have gotten better, might have not. Who knows.”

NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said after the race that the rain kept falling harder when the field was brought to a stop a second time.

“We were monitoring the visibility for the drivers on the back straightaway there.” He explained. “It was getting really, really tough to see again over there, lots of spray. So we were going to make one attempt at, running the Air Titans back there, like we had before to see if we could kind of get back going again. And it just didn’t look like it was going to happen at all with the volume of water that was coming down. So it was time to call it.”

As for the safety issues brought up by Harvick.

“Harvick has his right to his opinion, obviously,” Miller said. “I don’t think that’s probably an opinion that’s universally shared among the drivers and we certainly don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way out there.

“You know, it’s a tough job for us to balance a competitive event, a good show for the fans with the drivers’ best interest 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, got a tough job and balancing all the elements to suit everybody is a tough job.”

Kyle Larson finished second.

“I mean, there’s honestly nothing safe about being a race car driver,” Larson said. “Yeah, I mean, it was at moments worse than other restarts. NASCAR did a good job with the Air Titans. That definitely helped it. You could definitely see a little bit after that for the restarts.

“There’s also sports car drivers, road racers that do this for a living. Yeah, I mean, I don’t follow it enough to know if our conditions were different than theirs or what. I mean, that’s kind of what you have to expect, I think, from racing in the rain also.”

Miller said NASCAR has indeed already learned some lessons and will continue to do so.

“We’ll take a good look at, how to be better at it,” he said. “You know we learn from everything we do and we’ll try to learn from this one.”


Greg Engle