NASCAR tracks slow to embrace heralded Air Titan
By DAN GELSTON
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | September 22,2013
LOUDON, N.H. — The forecast calls for rain at New Hampshire, potentially soaking fans for NASCAR’s second consecutive Chase race, and putting the threat of a Monday finish in play.
Without lights at the 1.058-mile track, the rush could be for jet fuel dryers to wring out the asphalt and make it safe for drivers to complete at least half of Sunday’s race before the sun goes down.
NASCAR had an idea that would speed up the interminable process. It developed a state-of-the art system that was designed to blow the water out of every pesky weeper and reduce track drying time, perhaps up to 80 percent.
Hailed as NASCAR’s next big innovation, NASCAR chairman Brian France promised at a January announcement the development would revolutionize track drying and dramatically improve the fan experience.
Instead, the Air Titan has been start-and-parked.
With rain looming, the Air Titan isn’t at New Hampshire this weekend. Just like it wasn’t at the rain-delayed Chase opener at Chicagoland. And it won’t be at the third Chase race next week at Dover.
It’s stuck in Concord, N.C.
When the rain comes, the NASCAR tracks will rely on the same drying methods they’ve used since the 1970s. New Hampshire has at least a half-dozen jet dryers and two tankers of fuel that will be used to dry the track.
Drivers will retreat to their motorhomes. Fans at the track will leave. The ones at home will tune out.
No one likes the rain. But tracks have been slow to embrace the Air Titan, putting the machine on a Sprint Cup sabbatical since May at Talladega.
“They hyped it,” track owner Bruton Smith said. “But I don’t know anybody that thought it was effective. If they have enough jet dryers, they do the job.”
The Air Titan did pass its early test runs.
NASCAR touted the Air Titan’s success after it saved Saturday’s Nationwide Series race and a Sunday finish in the Cup race at Talladega. The Cup race was delayed by 3 hours, 36 minutes, still a long time, but enough to get in the full race. The Air Titan was credited with slicing at least 45 minutes off NASCAR’s expected 2½-hour drying process.
It also put the track into racing shape for a Friday practice at Martinsville.
“We developed it, we tested it, it’s proven that it works,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said.
The machines push water off the track and onto an apron where vacuum trucks remove the remainder of the moisture. Jet dryers will follow the Air Titan, drying all excess water left on the racing surface. NASCAR also says the Air Titan lessens the carbon footprint of track drying, decreasing both emissions and noise pollution.
With too much at stake to lose a day of racing in the Chase, International Speedway Corporation decided to have Air Titan at its tracks (Kansas, Martinsville, Talladega, Phoenix, Homestead) the rest of the way.
NASCAR made the push for the Air Titan after the 2012 Daytona 500 was plagued by rain and the race was moved to Monday for the first time.
The drying trucks are not on the track with other cars. Juan Pablo Montoya sparked a giant fireball in rainy Daytona when he crashed into a jet dryer loaded with fuel during a caution period unrelated to the rain.
The Air Titan is expected to be improved for next season — a Gen-2, perhaps — which could get the ball rolling toward having it on site at all tracks in 2014. NASCAR could work the cost into the track’s sanctioning fees.
So what’s the problem?
Like just about anything, cost has been a factor in the limited use. Tracks are responsible for running the pricey Air Titan, everything from transporting the system to paying for the drivers. Tracks had already set their budgets for 2013 well before Air Titan’s debut and decided not to make extra room.
Plus, tracks need to give NASCAR two weeks’ notice if they want the Titan, meaning they could pay for something they’d never use. Pocono Raceway had the Air Titan in the bullpen for its June race, but it sat idle.
Tharp said the cost of the Air Titan is now no more than $50,000 for a weekend.
Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said he never considered bringing the Air Titan to New Hampshire.
“You don’t park a fire truck outside your home just in case there’s a fire at night,” he said.
The Air Titan could have dramatically reduced the delay last week at Chicagoland. The start was delayed by mist for almost 90 minutes. Once the race did go off, it made it almost to the halfway point before the sky opened up again. In all, there were two stoppages totaling 6 hours, 30 minutes and winner Matt Kenseth didn’t cross the finish line until early Monday morning.
Had the track not had lights, the race would have finished on Monday, a position nobody likes.
“We actually brought in a higher complement of jet dryers. We stuck with the known commodity,” Chicagoland president Scott Paddock said. “I would think that the technology will continue to advance and the R&D process will continue to develop. And I’m confident that it will be rolled out en masse next year.”
There are no tarps in NASCAR. No domes. It’s just rain and wait.
“We’ll just deal with it like we have for 40 years,” Smith said.