I know I’m going against the grain here, but I’m starting to really enjoy stock car races threatened by rain.
I know, I know, even a slight threat of precipitation is the last thing any NASCAR promoter wants to see these days. The anticipation of unpleasant weather of any kind has become a major factor in attendance.
For nearly all the 36 races on NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series schedule, the heady days of advance sellouts are long, long gone.
A decade or so ago, some tracks around the circuit had sellout streaks and waiting lists of fans who wanted tickets. Now many of those same tracks have removed tens of thousands of seats and still can’t fill the stands.
A significant percentage of the NASCAR ticket-buying public is a walk-up crowd, ready to scrap the idea of going to the races if their cell phones tell them it might be uncomfortable outdoors on race day.
Too hot? Never mind. Too cold? Maybe a movie instead. Rain in the forecast? Let’s just stay home and maybe check the TV coverage to see how things are going.
So, yeah, my apologies to Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier and his staff, but a day with rain lurking and threatening to cut a race short can produce either a breathtaking thriller or a head-shaking upset.
Here are examples – one current and one from decades ago.
Last Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway turned into the Watch the Radar 400 or Less. Scheduled for 400 miles, it lasted just 266. And every team knew it was likely to be cut short.
The race was delayed a couple of hours by rain, and when the green flag finally flew the main question was whether the next wave of showers would hold off long enough to finish the first two of the event’s three stages. If not, the race would have to be finished the next day.
Once the second stage was done, it was clear the rain would arrive soon. Drivers were racing hard to put themselves in the lead. Teams were making strategic moves to get the front spot, however briefly, in hopes that the lowering clouds would open up at just the opportune time.
Clint Bowyer had been fast all day but a step behind the leaders. On his last pit stop his team gave him two fresh tires instead of four. That quicker stop put his Ford ahead of the two drivers who had dominated the race, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, each of whom had four fresh tires, thinking fresh rubber would help them regain the front spot.
As the approaching showers loomed just beyond the track parking lot, Bowyer had to survive a two-abreast restart with Harvick beside him. Bowyer, as the leader, had the preferred high line and after a back-and-forth battle for a full lap he pushed ahead of Harvick.
Bowyer stayed in front for eight laps – the only ones he led all day. The rain finally reached the speedway, ending the race and setting off Bowyer’s exuberant celebration.
That was your thriller. A race made exponentially more urgent by the when-will-it-arrive rain.
And here is the did-that-really-happen example. We go back to 1982 at the old half-mile Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway. It was a dreary, chilly February day for the Richmond 400.
As was the case this week at Michigan, the Richmond race was official and rain threatened. Race leader Joe Ruttman had just lapped fifth-place Dave Marcis when he blew a tire and crashed. Marcis avoided the crash and went back into the lead lap, running distant fourth to Richard Petty, Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt.
Those three all pitted for tires and fuel, but Marcis stayed on track and inherited the lead.
At that moment the rain hit, cold and steady. Of the three drivers who had pitted, Petty had been the first to emerge, and there was confusion. Why was Marcis’ number, 71, in the top spot on the electronic scoreboard? Why not Petty’s 43?
But Petty’s team realized what had happened and had no complaints.
Marcis, a journeyman driver, was one of NASCAR’s “independents,” low-budget teams with volunteer help.
Marcis, who had built his own engine for the race, had not won in five full seasons before that Richmond 400. In the rain-drenched aftermath, he celebrated the fifth and final win of his Cup racing career, which would last two more decades.
He hadn’t prayed for rain, Marcis said, but as he had waited to see whether NASCAR would try to wait out the rain, dry the track and resume the race he told his crew “if the good Lord wanted to help an independent, this was his chance.”
Petty’s next win – it would be his 196th – didn’t come until early in 1983. The King of stock car racing, he would finish his career with the all-time NASCAR record total of 200 victories.
When I think about it, Bowyer’s on-the-edge gamble at Michigan last Sunday and Marcis’ serendipitous timing at Richmond 36 years ago rank high among the races that have made following the sport a blast for me.
So if your smartphone tells you rain is possible on race day, that might be one you don’t want to miss.