Report from Motorsport News International
Thanks to NASCAR Online
Wet weather alters qualifying By NASCAR Online Staff
SUZUKA CITY, Japan (Nov. 21, 1997) Windshield wipers are standard equipment on most stock cars, the ones you buy off the show room floor, that is. For NASCAR stock cars, wipers are typically not even considered optional equipment, but teams competing in the NASCAR Thunder Special - Suzuka spent a few extra dollars to have them installed. That's a good thing, considering it is Japan's rainy season, and there is no rain date on the entry form for this weekend's race. "We brought 400 rain tires for this weekend," said Goodyear's Phil Holmer. "That gives us about three-and-a-half sets per car." NASCAR and the racing teams obviously gave some thought to the matter before making the trip across the Pacific. Each car coming to Suzuka was equipped with a windshield wiper and a red running light on the rear of the car. "The light is not a brake light," said NASCAR Winston Cup Series Director Gary Nelson. "It should be on if we are running in the rain. With the rain and the added spray coming off the rear of the cars, it's hard for a driver to see a car in front of him. The light should increase visibility and safety on the track." Saturday morning, the teams had a chance to check out their rain gear. A steady rain began to fall on Suzuka Circuit overnight and continued through the morning when teams were slated to have their first practice session on the 1.4 mile course. Unlike a typical NASCAR race, rain didn't stop the on-track activities, the teams bolted on their Goodyear rain tires, switched on their wipers and braved the elements. "Rain is the great equalizer," said Universal Studios Chevrolet driver Wally Dallenbach, who has a great deal of experience racing in the rain in the SCCA Trans-Am Series. "Horsepower means nothing and brakes mean nothing if you can't make the tires grip the race track. When you race in the rain you really have to handle the race car with finesse. You have to know just how much you can push it." The allotted two-hour morning practice was done completely in the rain. For 14 of the drivers entered in Sunday's race it was the first time they were on the track at all. "It's kinda fun out there," said Ricky Craven, who is making his first appearance at Suzuka Circuit this weekend. "You're just not going anywhere. It's kinda like driving on ice. If you hit any standing water, you just have to wait until it finishes hydroplaning before you can get any traction." Craven is driving the No. 24 DuPont/Budweiser Chevrolet in the absence of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series teammate Jeff Gordon, who won the series championship last week following the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Only a handful of the drivers on hand have had experience racing on rain tires. In addition to Dallenbach, who raced in the SCCA Trans-Am Series, Australian driver Jim Richards is touted as being his country's best driver in the rain and Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt each tested rain tires at Watkins Glen in 1995. NASCAR has never seen qualifying or racing in the rain as a viable option in normal competition in the United States. After briefly experimenting with it in the 1960s, the idea was abandoned. "These drivers are making history," said Paul Brooks, NASCAR's Director of Special Projects and the person most responsible for making the NASCAR Thunder Special - Suzuka a reality. "This is the biggest test of rain tires ever undertaken by NASCAR." As a result of the weather, NASCAR modified the normal qualifying procedure for this weekend's event. The qualifying order will now be based on practice speeds from Saturday morning's practice with cars going out in reverse order from slowest to fastest, five cars at a time (slowest five first, fastest five last) for three green-flag laps. The fastest of the three laps for each driver will be used to determine the driver's starting position. The forecast for Sunday calls for cloudy skies, but no rain. So, that could mean having to start from scratch again come race time. Come rain or come shine, fans are in for an interesting event at Suzuka.