Rain threat creates a perfect storm for NASCAR at Charlotte

In the week leading up to the NASCAR Cup race on the hybrid road course otherwise known as the ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway the hype centered around the four drivers that faced elimination from the Playoffs.

Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, and Clint Bowyer were among the group as was Kyle Busch the defending champion. All needed nothing short of a win to advance into the next round.

The attention on those four drivers began to shift as the week progressed, however.  Hurricane Delta had formed in the Caribbean and was heading towards the Gulf Coast.  In Charlotte, a weather forecast that once promised mainly clear skies for the weekend’s races began to increase the chances for rain.

Those chances grew the closer Delta got.  By Thursday that chance of rain turned into a very real probability.

Three years ago, rain in Charlotte on a race weekend was a very bad thing.  When the races were held on the 1.5-mile oval rain meant there would be no racing.  NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain on ovals.

Saturday in Charlotte didn’t dawn so much as slowly appear as dark clouds over the track grew a bit lighter. Heavy rain fell steadily, and the Xfinity race took the green flag with the field on rain tires windshield wipers flapping and red lights flashing in the rear windows.

They do however, race in the rain on road courses.  And Friday as Hurricane Delta made landfall its outer bands began to lash the Charlotte area, and racing in the rain was on.

The NASCAR Cup series has experimented with rain tires, most notably at Suzuka in Japan during an exhibition race in 1997 when rain tires were used for the first time in practice and qualifying.  And technically the NASCAR Cup series has raced in the rain before. In 1956, Tim Flock won a Grand National race at Road America. The race had been delayed by 45 minutes due to heavy rain and went green on a damp but drying surface. Beyond that however, the Cup series has almost no experience racing in the rain.

The Xfinity series has plenty of experience racing in the rain though.  The Xfinity Series made six visits to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and two of those were impacted by rain. Ron Fellows won there in 2008 in what would be his last of four wins in that series.  Rain affected the race there the following year. A rainy practice session at Road America in 2013 ended with a dry race, but the following year the race was run in rainy conditions with Brendan Gaughan winning in overtime.  Rain also fell during Xfinity races at Mid-Ohio in 2016, Watkins Glen in 2018 and this past August again at Road America.  Later that month the first Xfinity race on the road course at Daytona started in the rain but ended in the dry.

Saturday in Charlotte didn’t dawn so much as slowly appear as dark clouds over the track grew a bit lighter. Heavy rain fell steadily, and the Xfinity race took the green flag with the field on rain tires windshield wipers flapping and red lights flashing in the rear windows. The rain never let up and patient drivers were forced to slog it out splashing through puddles and spinning on slick surfaces.  Standing water and puddles led to a red flag period as NASCAR tried its best to manage the deluge.

Manage it they did, and AJ Allmendinger would eventually win the race after leader Chase Briscoe spun on the final lap after hydroplaning through a puddle.  Allmendinger, who has raced in the rain before, came across the start-finish line nearly sideways.

In 1956, Tim Flock won a Grand National race at Road America. (ISC Archives)


All in all, Saturday’s race was a disaster to some who complained that the rain actually fell too hard, and others who considered it a beautiful disaster. Several drivers complained that visibility was tough in the infield as the light faded.

“It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before,” third place finisher Daniel Hemric said. “I’m going to sit back with a cold one and watch [the NASCAR Cup Series race at the ROVAL] tomorrow.”

So were a lot of people it seemed.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Drive for the Cure 250 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2020 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

With the forecast calling for the same for Sunday, NASCAR and the track tried to address the issues revealed during the Xfinity race.  Most notably committing to adding lights on the infield portion of the course to be used if the race ran into darkness. They also messaged teams and drivers in an effort to let them know what measures they would take based on lessons learned on Saturday. Not everyone was optimistic, however.

“This is not a purpose-built road course,” Denny Hamlin said Sunday morning prior to the race. “The drainage is not made for it. We tried to spice up the Charlotte oval by making us go through the infield and through parking lots. This is just a tough place given the conditions. You’re going to need very light rain for us to be able to run without it being a complete shit show.”

Like Saturday’s Xfinity race, Sunday’s Cup race was an elimination event meaning that any variables normally not seen in dry conditions could lead to calamity for a Playoff driver and chaos for the rest of the field.  Talk of postponement if the rain was as heavy as Saturday began to emerge.

“It’s not up to me, but I mentioned to them (NASCAR) that people’s seasons are on the line,” Hamlin said.  “Good and bad. Ours isn’t, but I could not imagine having to either protect points or gain points in crazy conditions, such as what we had. You could argue it is the same for everyone, but how are we supposed to predict a puddle or a stream running across the racetrack. Add a jump to the backstretch and it would be complete.”

Sunday hours before the race the rain was still heavy. Several drivers made their way to the track in a heavy downpour posting video proof on their social media accounts of the blinding rain.

“I typically don’t get nervous before races,” Joey Logano said. “But this one had me pretty nervous because… I’ve never felt less prepared for the battle ahead.”

The rain began to ease as the green flag approached, however. The track was damp and there was still some standing water in places. The field was put on rain tires and for the first time in its history the Cup series raced on purpose build rain tires on a wet track.

It didn’t last long.  By lap 10 the light showers had stopped, and the track was dry enough that during the competition caution that started that same lap, Ty Dillon pitted and changed to traditional slicks from the rain tires while most of the rest of the field stayed on rain tires. He was fast enough that he would win Stage 1. This would lead the rest of the field to change to slicks during the Stage break. And beyond a few wayward puddles out of the racing groove, there were no further issues with the rain.

“I thought it went way better than I thought it would,” Logano, who ended up finishing second said. “I think yesterday for the Xfinity guys, that was an extreme case.  That was probably too much rain.

“But today the only negative I saw of anything today is that they got to fix the running water.  It never stopped running across the racetrack.  If they can figure out a way to drain that better through three and four and a little bit down the backstretch into the rear chicane, you can fix that and we’re good.  I don’t know how easy that is to fix.  I’m not a construction guy.  If they can fix that, good to go.”

“I was shocked it didn’t rain really at all,” race winner Chase Elliott said.  “Feel like we got really lucky that that didn’t happen in a lot of ways.

“I tried to be as prepared as I could be for that if it happened.  I felt like the biggest challenge today was that transition period when the track was wet, as it was drying out, understanding which areas were still damp and which areas weren’t.”

NASCAR did get lucky in a way.  The rains that deluged the track on Saturday never materialized Sunday.  Yet, the anticipation led to a great deal of hype both inside and outside the sport.  That the rains didn’t lead to the chaos and mayhem seen the day before but were enough for rain tires to be used for the first time in official NASCAR Cup competition showed that the sport is ready to meet that challenge.

The recently announced 2021 Cup schedule adds four more road courses to the mix, for a total of six, including a return to Road America for the series next season. It should be no surprise that if the rains do come, NASCAR and its drivers will be ready to meet the challenge.