Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rain washes out Sprint Cup race at Waltkins Glen. Where are the rain tires?

Photo provided by Ford Media

For the second week in a row, the Sunday feature race for NASCAR will be running on the first day of the work week. The Heluva Good! at the Glen road course race at Watkins Glen for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series will start Monday at noon. With Watkins Glen being a road course, the delay for the race is highlighted by the fact that NASCAR had rain tires available for several previous years. As we would learn watching the ESPN broadcast of the Nationwide race on Saturday, Goodyear did bring rain tires but only for the Nationwide series cars. In the television booth, NASCAR's president Mike Helton took a few minutes to explain that it was "a business decision" not to use Goodyear rain tires during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race activities. He did not elaborate specifically but it left me wondering what resulted in that business decision.

One of the more plausible thoughts relates to Goodyear's logistical abilities to provide an sufficient tires for the longer Cup series race. However, road course race strategy would justify that only one more set of rain tires per car would be needed (if even that many). The Sprint Cup cars run only 8 scheduled laps more than the Nationwide series variants. However, with the Nationwide series race run under dry conditions, the question is whether those Nationwide tires could be been converted to run on the Sprint Cup cars. For the steel wheels themselves, wheel size and stud patterns are identical. For many race tracks, in attempt to save time and money needed developing proper rubber compounds for NASCAR, Goodyear would frequently arrive with the same race tire for Nationwide and Sprint Cup series for race weekend at a single track. This was even allowed to continue with the Sprint Cup's fundamentally different Car of Tomorrow (COT) for multiple oval races. Therefore, it should be feasible to fit rain tires to the Sprint Cup series machines. Goodyear spokesperson has commented on the that the company is confident that the current package would work if NASCAR would elect to employ them in the top series.

The Montreal race at Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve was one of the most exciting Nationwide events in 2008. On that day, NASCAR was initially hesitant to drop the green flag but found that those fears were largely without basis. Of course there were a few cars that lost traction but that is common even during dry weather road races. In fact, many of the NASCAR oval track regulars were surprised at the minimal learning curve needed to run these heavy Nationwide stock cars in the rain. While the rain was halted past the halfway point when the rain turned to a monsoon, cars raced skillfully through a steady downpour for more than an hour. Canadian Ron Fellows won a thrilling home soil victory that year in his Chevrolet as fellow Canadian and open wheel transplant Patrick Carpentier came home second. A big race for Canada in NASCAR, it was also a significant event for road course specialists (so-called Road course ringers) as they snatched four of the five top finishing positions. While this point may be resulting in a very thin conspiracy theory, might NASCAR and regular championship contending teams fear rain tires could allow important Sprint Cup series races to fall in the hands of road course ringers? It should be noted that NASCAR regulars such as Juan Pablo Monytona and Marcus Ambrose (who came close to winning the rain-soaked Montreal race) came from road racing backgrounds, favoured for victory as much as dry weather. Also, the one conclusion that could be drawn from the splendid Nationwide race at Montreal last year was that race car drivers throughout NASCAR are capable to almost instantly adapting to the unique wet weather race. Camping World Truck series driver Ron Hornaday as well as young oval track ace Carl Edwards placed fourth and sixth on the final running order.

As a third thought, perhaps the Sprint Cup's COT car isn't prepared for racing in the rain. The older style Sprint Cup cars were fitted with wet weather racing equipment (treaded tires, windshield wiper, rear signal light, and defogger system) since Suzuka, Japan exhibition of 1996. The closest this package came to racing in the NASCAR Cup series came in 1997 when the non-points race on the Suzuka road course ran almost completely in the rain. With exception to one practice session held at Watkins Glen ages ago, Cup cars never ran a competitive lap in wet weather on North American soil. This historical lack of demand for rain tires and the costly addition of rain equipment has likely contributed to its exclusion for 2009 COT vehicles.

Back to the 2009 running of the Heluva Good! at the Glen, the weather forecast for Watkins Glen, New York hints strongly at the same rain and thunderstorms which postponed Sunday's planned running. With this likely not to be the only fan voice to urge the usage of rain tires for the Sprint Cup road course races, we shouldn't be surprised if NASCAR, ever desperate to remain on the fan's side, might provide some requirements to the Sprint Cup COT cars for 2010.

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