NASCAR unveiled a new track drying system that will be available should rain hit its season opening Speedweeks at the Daytona International Speedway and promises a drastic reduction the amount of time the cars stay in the pits.
Powered by compressed air, NASCAR's goal is to have the new system, dubbed "Air Titan," reduce drying time following a shower by 80 per cent, although it is not there yet.
"I think 30 minutes was the ultimate goal — when [NASCAR chairman] Brian France talked about an 80 per cent reduction that was 30 minutes," said NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell.
"We're only in Phase 1, so we're looking at a decent reduction in time. I can't point to an exact time because I don't know what we'll be facing if we're facing a downpour or if it's hot or if it's cold. All those things factor into how long it takes to dry."
Speedweeks begins with today’s practice for the Sprint Unlimited that goes on Feb. 16. Normal drying time at the Daytona International Speedway is about 2.5 hours.
Formerly known as the Budweiser Shootout, the Sprint Unlimited is a 75-lap non-points tilt where the drivers eligible are those who took a pole in 2012 or are previous winners of the pre-season race. This year 19 cars will race in the event, which was open to 22 NASCAR drivers. Although the Sprint Unlimited is not a points event, it does mark the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car hits the track in a race situation.
When the new drying system is used, NASCAR will have two sets of the Air Titan equipment moving in the same direction on opposite sides of the track. Each will do one complete lap of the racetrack. The system has units pulled behind a truck that shoot thin, pressurized sheets of compressed air onto the asphalt surface and force any moisture to the bottom of the track. A vacuum truck sucks up the water that ends up on the bottom of the track, while a bank of old-style jet driers finishes the job.
In the past, NASCAR used several jet driers — essentially a jet engine mounted sideways on the back of a truck — to blow hot air onto the track surface to speed its drying.
It would be a good guess that the racing series also hopes the new technology is Montoya-proof. That would be Ganassi driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who plowed into one of the old jet driers during last year's Daytona 500, causing a huge fireball and a two-hour delay to repair the scorched asphalt. The accident happened after the "Great American Race" had to be postponed to Monday due to rain.
"We actually had plans starting prior to that, but it certainly — having the first Daytona 500 rained out certainly put more of an emphasis on the importance for the fans attending and obviously those watching, and for us to get off to a really strong start to the season," O'Donnell said.
"The good news with this new innovation is it will really improve safety, there won't be any cars on the track during the track drying process, so we can avoid what happened in the past. And it certainly helped us to gain some momentum, I think, internally to make this a priority, which it was, and obviously with the speed with which our folks were able to develop it we're happy with where we are so far."
The danger of using jet engines strapped onto the back of a truck to dry a racetrack was illustrated dramatically last year. Montoya lost control of his car exiting the pitlane under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500 and careened into one of the jet driers that was working on the track. The impact ignited the about 750 litres of jet fuel in the dryer's tanks, causing a huge fireball and a river of flames streaming down the banking.
Although Montoya and the truck driver were both unhurt, the incident underlined the jet dryer's potential for disaster. As it stood, it took crews more than two hours to repair the damage and patch the scorched pavement. NASCAR has been using the jet driers since the mid-1970s.
Ironically, the incident that many feel spurred NASCAR to speed development of a new drying system would still have happened had the Air Titan been in use last year. The caution that ended in Montoya's accident was called due to debris on the track, something which the new system won't be used to clean up.
While safety is a huge reason for an update in the drying technology, NASCAR also understands that getting races into the books on the days they are scheduled will earn it huge bonus marks with fans and the television networks broadcasting the sport.
"When fans come to the racetrack, they've invested a significant amount of time and money to come to a race, and understanding now that they may have the opportunity to see that race happen that day we think is huge for the industry," O'Donnell said.
"We also think it's huge for our television partners. We know that when a red flag comes out, that's a challenge, and so speeding up any down time we think is a win-win for the entire industry, the tracks, the drivers, the race teams, the fans. That's the goal is to get this down to as short a time as possible, and if we do that, we think it's a benefit to the entire industry."
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