The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule officially begins on Sunday with the 64th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
And now that football season is over, a lot of people's Sundays will include watching NASCAR and cheering on their favorite driver. You might think that rain is the only factor that can have an impact on the races, but in general, the weather can play a huge role in the outcome of a race.
"Presuming that cold track temperatures are associated with cold air temps, engines have more horsepower and lower fuel usage on cold days," said Aaron Studwell, Ph.D., Chief Meteorologist, Founder and Lead Researcher for RaceWeather and President of ExoConsulting. "This is because the air is denser with more oxygen and improves the engine’s efficiency."
However, Studwell stated that tire grip is lower during cold weather, which negatively impacts the car's handling. Now, if the track is hot, which is the more likely scenario this weekend, the car's tires have an increased grip and improved handling.
"When the track is hot, there is increased grip and improved handling. But tire wear does increase, so again, it’s about trade-off," said Studwell.
So Studwell says warm (but not hot) tires and cold air temperatures are really the best scenarios for a car’s optimal performance.
Currently, it's forecast to be 73 degrees and mostly sunny when the race begins at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time on FOX, so it's looking picture-perfect, maybe just not for the cars.
Drivers and race crews also have to pay close attention to the weather.
During the summer months, the temperatures at the start of a race may be in the 90s with the heat index approaching 110 degrees.
Studwell said generally, these are forecast, so the drivers, along with the whole race team, will put an extra focus on hydration.
"In-car temperatures can climb into the 130s with some drivers losing between 10-15 pounds during the course of the race," Studwell stated.
Studwell mentioned that continuous innovations in driver cooling systems now bring outside air into the driver’s helmet through a flexible tube. Over the past few years, some drivers have adopted a cooling system that is built into a shirt worn under their fire suit.
From a rain perspective, teams will monitor both the actual and forecast weather, so a crew chief may alter pit strategy and timing based on the short-term forecast.
Speaking of rain, while it won't be a factor for the Daytona 500, it is not very desirable for a racing weekend. NASCAR can’t run on wet road surfaces. Without any tread on the tires, the track becomes dangerously slick for drivers.
For the passionate NASCAR fans, the weather-related issues range from the heat index to needing sunscreen to taking cover from lightning in the event of nearby storms. As Studwell noted, all these could happen in one afternoon for fans.
"When we issue our forecasts and race day update, there is a reminder for hydration. It’s so easy to lose track of that when tailgating," said Studwell. "Also, even pre-race, we will watch our systems for lightning and issue updates around that too."
Either way, the weather plays a key component once you hear "Drivers! Start...your...engines!!"