I’ve been a racing fan for as long as I can remember – from watching the races that were only shown on free-to-air TV in the early 90s to watching the full NASCAR schedule in the mid-to-late 90s. One of my favourite moments ever in a race came in the 1996 when Max Papis came literally flying down pit lane at well over 200 mph (320ish km/h) to get a late splash-and-dash in his Ferrari 330SP.
Anyway, there’s a point to this – for such a long time, NASCAR has had a plan in place for rain at a road course race (the plan for ovals is still stop the race, as it’s completely unsafe to run even treaded tyres at an oval) – it’s only been used twice – first at Suzuka in 1997, I think, and then at a practice session at Watkins Glen somewhere around 2000 or so. Finally, their plans had come to fruition – there would be a wet stock car race in
the US North America, at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (Wikipedia link here) in Montréal in the Napa Piecès D’Auto 200.
Sure, you’ve seen open wheel racing in the rain, even prototype racing in the rain – heck, quite a fair chunk of this year’s 24 Heures du Mans was run in the rain, with all the closed-body cars with rain tyres and wipers and (most importantly, if you ask me) headlights. Of course, there’s also the V8 Supercars who put on a spectacular show in the rain – the races at Sandown were excellent, with cars going off of the road left, right and centre, and action all around the track. But there’s something about the first time that you see the racing you hold dear being held in the rain – the first time ever that it’s happened in one of the premiere divisions – that makes it all that more special.
The thing that is special about the rain is that it really sorts out the men from the boys (or, if you will, the true racers from the oval jockeys 😉 ). The best example is the fella who has the most experience driving a car like this in the conditions like this – Launceston’s own Marcos Ambrose, a name I had first heard while watching the 2005 Bathurst 1000, and Leigh Diffey (now back here in the States in case any of y’all were wondering where he is during the winter, because I think he goes back down for some events) telling the Channel Ten (and other international viewers) that he was headed off to the States to race. For 2006, I actually followed the truck series somewhat simply because there was an Aussie in there. Also, as a result of his exploits, this has led to NASCAR being put onto free-to-air TV (albeit a small viewership since it’s on Ten HD) and taken off of cable – even though we have to have cable to watch the
Busch Nationwide Series races for most of the year.
From the time the race went green after the
3 6 9 15 20-minute-or-so break to prep the cars for wet racing (install a windshield wiper, change car setup, fit full wet tyres, turn on the light in the rear window (akin to the rain light the F1 cars have), and in some cases give the driver a squeegee), Marcos was off like a tear – he passed Scott Pruett by time the cars had made it to the first chicane, and pulled to a relatively huge lead of 10 seconds over the field; even after the first pitstop, and even after he went off of the road, he still held off Jacques Villeneuve (yes, the same one who won the 1997 F1 championship and the 1995 Indy 500 – not his uncle) and regained his lead.
The only thing that stopped him was having to stop once more to refuel to get to the end of the race, which didn’t quite go right when he was nabbed by the speed gun as going over the speed limit of 30mph (~48km/h – or 8 klicks faster than the V8s are limited to on their pit lane and about 30 km/h less than the F1 speed limit). Even then, and even after having to go through the pits again, he was in 3rd place…50 seconds behind Ron Fellows, who didn’t need to stop again. Then, the rains started getting heavier and drivers couldn’t see anything anymore, so the caution was brought out – Villeneuve and Joey Logano (Moving UP! as Rick Allen says in the commercial) both wound up wrecking under the caution – Villeneuve hitting the rear end of another car and Logano stuffing the car into the barrier (I think) on the Droit du Casino, or the back straight.
Soon after that, they made the decision to end the race, conveniently as ESPN were interviewing Carl Edwards, whose interview went something like this "…I’ve got a…oh, they’ve ended it…it was a good race, and I had a good car" – and Ron Fellows was declared the winner.
All in all, NASCAR’s first adventure in the rain went extremely well – until the end of the race, there were very few spins, but a few offs, which is expected during a road course race anyways. If it rains at Watkins Glen next week, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only person looking forward to seeing them race in the rain again. 😉