NASCAR official explains why Michigan race was called early

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Saying it was the “safest decision” for fans at Michigan International Speedway, NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell justified the move to call Sunday’s Sprint Cup race 62 laps from the scheduled end.

O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made the comments Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. He also discussed the notion of track-specific rule changes this season.

NASCAR’s decision to end Sunday’s event gave Kurt Busch the victory in a race delayed four times by rain.

O’Donnell noted that the stands were evacuated because of lightning nearby during the last red flag and that “there were still some pop-up showers in the area. Working with the track, we made what we thought was the safest decision for fans that were in attendance.’’

After the Aug. 2012 Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway had been called, a lighting strike killed one fan and injured nine others. They were struck in a parking lot outside the track.

The National Weather Service has what it calls a “voluntary recognition program” to help outdoor venues, including race tracks protect staff and fans from the dangers of lightning. It advises that when lightning is detected 8 miles from the venue that the event be suspended and spectators evacuated.

The National Weather Service office in Detroit confirmed to NASCAR Talk that there were about 50 total lightning strikes within a 10-mile radius of the track near the end of the race. It reported that four of those strikes were cloud-to-ground strikes within that 10-mile radius. Those occurred at 5:33 p.m. ET, 6 p.m., 6:11 p.m. and 6:18 p.m. The race was stopped for the final time at about 5:45 p.m. and called shortly before 6:15 p.m.

“We’ve got some indicators around lighting, when it gets within a certain mileage we have to work with the track and the track is going to evacuate the grandstands,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Even when the sun was shining, it was still raining at 6:30 but post that when the sun came out, there was still lightning in the area, it would have been really challenging to have put fans in that circumstance.’’

O’Donnell explained what series officials do and consider when weather becomes an issue during an event. He said series officials will talk to the “weather experts in the area.’’ He says that “ultimately, it’s up to the track, in this case (track president) Roger Curtis and NASCAR to work together.

“We judge it on how much time do we have left – daylight – you don’t have lights in Michigan, and more importantly, what does the weather look like. It takes longer to dry a track as you get later in the afternoon. Once we had to evacuate the grandstands … that put us in a really challenging situation. The fans had stuck it out for a long time and then when you looked at the radar and the possibility of continued lightning and rain, we thought it was the most prudent decision to make at that time to call it a day.’’

Rain also delayed Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park. The Air Titans, used to dry a track, were not at Gateway. O’Donnell explained why.

“Ultimately, we make them available but it’s a track call whether or not they want to have them in place,’’ O’Donnell said.

According to NASCAR’s sanctioning agreement with Dover Motorsports Inc. to host last month’s races at Dover International Speedway, a track “may, at its sole cost and expense, utilize the Air Titan track drying system to dry the track in the event of inclement weather.’’

All tracks must sign a similar sanctioning agreement to host a NASCAR race.

O’Donnell stressed change could be coming on the availability of Air Titans to tracks.

“I think we learned some lessons at Gateway,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think you’ll see them both at Iowa and Chicago this weekend regardless. Going forward, I think you’ll see that change. We’ll have them available, regardless, for the tracks.’’

The Camping World Truck Series races Friday night at Iowa Speedway with the Xfinity Series racing Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway.

O’Donnell also talked about possible rule changes this season. Reports have stated that NASCAR is looking for new rules that would create lower downforce for next month’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

“Nothing is off the table,’’ O’Donnell said. “We’re continuing to talk to the race teams, the drivers, the owners and the tracks, not just about ’16, but what if anything could be done for ’15. A lot of those discussions are still ongoing. If we’re going to do something, obviously, we’ve got to do it sooner than later, because we never want to implement anything in the Chase. It all goes back to how do we put the best racing on each and every weekend.’’

On the notion of specific rules for specific tracks, O’Donnell said:

“When we put something in a box of just 2016 rules package, it’s kind of a misnomer when you look at it because at each track you’re going to have a different tire, potentially a different gear, a lot of different things that go into it.

“As we look ahead, I think, we want to look more towards what specific track packages could we have, not necessarily having 36 different ones, but are there some configurations that do change up for particular tracks? That’s been a really interesting angle as we’ve talked to the teams and gotten some great feedback, especially from (manufacturers).’’