NASCAR and its host racetracks need to plan for just about anything every weekend of the racing season.
But what was thrown at both the sanctioning body and Daytona International Speedway over the weekend had to be unimaginable for even those with the most fertile imaginations.
For the first time in its 54 year history, the Daytona 500 fell victim to Mother Nature’s wrath and was rained out. The postponement meant the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar was forced to move to the next clear day and Daytona had to be ready for the challenge.
Getting ahead of the next day’s weather obstacles, which included another long day of rain before the skies finally cleared, and announcing the race would try for a 7 p.m. ET green flag proved to be a perfect call by NASCAR and the track.
“The last thing we wanted to do was have our fans wait through another long day of rain delays and jet dryer activity, so we felt like this gives them some clarity so they can come up with their plans, and hopefully that means stay at home, stay at their hotel, rest, whatever it is they need to do and they can come out and enjoy the event this evening,” said speedway president Joie Chitwood III when making the announcement early Monday morning.
But making sure the speedway was ready to accommodate whatever size crowd did show up for the rescheduled event provided another challenge for the track.
“For us, we have to staff and be prepared that we're going to have a lot of folks show up,” Chitwood said. “The last thing I would want to do is be understaffed, have a lot of folks show up and we can't take care of them properly. We have to be prepared most of them are going to show up.”
From the looks of the grandstands and infield Monday night most of those folks did show up and although some regular traffic issues were reported, overall the track passed the test with flying colors.
But the tests didn’t end with rain and crowd control. An even more unexpected challenge arose when Juan Pablo Montoya collided with a jet dryer on track and sparked a fiery blaze that engulfed the entire third turn.
Montoya’s impact erupted an inferno as more than 200 gallons of jet fuel burned wildly up the track surface and over the wall.
Almost immediately safety crews were on the scene to battle the blaze and rescue both Montoya, who climbed from his car, and the jet dryer driver (Duane Barnes, a Michigan International Speedway employee brought to help with the 500) from the frightening scene.
Track workers used heavy equipment to try to remove the burned truck without damaging the racing surface and after a two-hour red flag repairs were made and the race resumed.
And once again NASCAR and the speedway responded to another bizarre set of circumstances with flying colors.
“I'm very proud of the team in terms of what we were able to do,” said Chitwood. “Obviously the last 48 hours were very challenging in terms of rain delays and trying to complete the 500 miles. But what the team did today in terms of responding to a burning jet dryer on the racetrack, I think is phenomenal, and the fact that we got to finish the race under green is a heck of an accomplishment. The team was prepared. The expertise was there. The training was there. The teamwork with NASCAR was there.”
However after the parade of weird and wild events, NASCAR officials are no doubt wondering what could possibly top the happenings of Speedweeks 2012.
But they’re probably thinking hard about it.
“Well, you know, things do cross your mind, but you would think after 65 years and running all the races that NASCAR has run over the past six and a half decades that you've seen about everything, and a lot of what you've seen gives us the experience that causes us to have the safety summit and the training programs and everything,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton.
“But you do think about, oh, my gosh, if that can happen, what-else-can-happen-type thing. That gives you pause to sit and try to figure out what might else could happen so that you can be as ready for it as you can.”
Thankfully NASCAR and Daytona were ready this weekend.