By Justin Schuoler, Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS – When the NASCAR Cup Series traveled to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for their third round of the 2023 schedule, it came with a wind advisory in the local area. Gusts pushing 70 mph are expected, with 20-30 mph consistent winds holding steady throughout the weekend. Las Vegas always holds exciting races and various pit strategies will now have one extra dice thrown in the mix. But how do race teams and drivers prepare for that extra effect come race day?
“You really don’t,” said 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski. “It’s the same for everyone, and you just try to cope with it the best you can.”
Cope seems to be a spurn for something that can easily ruin your day. Some drivers simply shrug at the fact that they may face the unknowns of heavy gusts blowing their car all over the circuit and making adjustments at a moment’s notice to compensate for those heavy winds.
“Out here, that’s one of the toughest things to understand,” said AJ Allmendinger. “You always gotta give yourself maybe a little bit of room for error getting into the corner. Whether you’re running the bottom or the top, you can’t bury the car off in the corner. If you’re side by side with somebody trying to make the pass happen, you’ve gotta be careful. One time you catch a gust the wrong way, especially with these new cars and how fast they react, you don’t save them as quick anymore.
“The race tomorrow looks like it’s going to be extreme.”
Just like driving down the highway, a heavy gust can cause one’s car to sway across their lane. Even passing a semi truck can make cars feel the draft brushing off the front of their vehicles. That’s traveling at 60 mph. Racing at 190 mph exponentially multiplies that factor with 40 cars diving aggressively into each turn for 400 miles.
“It is like if you get a big gust of wind when you are driving your car down the highway,” explained reigning Cup champion Joey Logano. “Your car may move a little bit, but we are going really fast and it moves us a little more and it isn’t real comfortable. It gets sketchy. There is no other way of saying it other than you can’t predict it and don’t know when it is coming.
“One lap you are good and the next you are blowing up the race track. Where it gets tricky is if you are two-wide with somebody. You can imagine how that can go bad quickly. Usually it is down in the middle of three and four and it is blowing at your left side door. That is not where you want wind. It affects the cars a lot.
“There is not much we can do about it other than just deal with it and have a good enough handling car that you don’t crash when the wind blows.”
Las Vegas isn’t the only track susceptible to heavy winds. Last weekend, the series raced at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. where gusts are abundant off the Angeles Forest mountain range north of the 2-mile oval. Other tracks like Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway also have significant weather implications that can easily jeopardize a team’s day with a simple blow across the turns.
“Gusty wind is a big problem because it’s very unpredictable and if you’re running right up against the wall, you don’t really have a lot of room for error,” shared Christopher Bell, Championship finale driver from last year. “If something happens and you lose grip for a moment, you’re in big trouble. I go back to Kansas – I think it might have been 2021 – it was really gusty there and I think three or four guys got pushed into the wall out of Turn 2 and got flat tires.
“Definitely got to be mindful of where you place your car and how hard you’re pushing in certain situations where you know wind could be a factor.”
So what can a race team do about it? Clear communication seemed to be a common factor across all the drivers in sharing their relationship with their spotter, who all stand at the top of the grandstands on the roof overlooking the entire track. A clear view of flags around the track and feeling clean wind without any obstacles gives them a precise picture to relay down to the team and their driver during the races.
“They are very very important,” continued Bell, talking about the value of his spotter’s input regarding the wind. “Stevie Reeves does an amazing job of keeping me updated on the wind. They’re going to be watching the flag, and if the flag changes direction at all, he’s going to give you a heads up.”
Some drivers, like Bell, prefer running the high line against the wall. While it may be the longer way around the track, they usually carry more speed on corner exit and make up that time down the straightaway. For sophomore Cup driver Harrison Burton, he has learned very quickly his aggression cannot dwindle.
“You can’t drive into the corner being nervous about a gust,” Burton stated. “If it doesn’t come, you’ve shorted that corner. The only way to be safer is to give up aggression level on entry. To me, it’s to be ready to catch it if you get a gust.”
Another thing to consider is that we live in 2023. We have simulation and computers capable of mimicking so much with these cars, down to every nut and bolt on the machines. Teams use simulators to practice different setups, how various strategies play out in differing situations, and much more. One of the few things simulation can’t fully duplicate is the weather.
“They try. Everything is simulation,” said Kansas winner Bubba Wallace. “That’s what you’ve got to decipher from real life to simulation. That’s what a lot of these keyboard warriors think that running on a computer is the same, and it’s not. You get updated on which way the wind is blowing. If it’s a tail wind, you’re hauling ass into whatever corner the tail wind is carrying you into. Head wind, the opposite, but cross wind is where it gets tricky.
“But we’ve had enough races with wind where you just rely on basic instincts.”
Ross Chastain isn’t even allowed to be comfortable in his sim rig. He practices in the heat to be physically ready for the hot summers at tracks like Sonoma Raceway where temperatures could easily reach over 100°.
“No winds in the sim,” Chastain shared. “I’m not even allowed to turn the driver comfort fan on in there if I get too hot. I have to sweat it out if it’s hot. You can adjust how fast you go and how much grip the track has, but it doesn’t account for wind.
“That’s where the cool part comes and that’s where racecar drivers get to come and put these cars on the limit. You catch a bad wind gust… and wind crashes racecars. It can be from dirty air from other cars a lot of times. If it gets that bad, then we’ll feel it inside the car.”
With all of that said, drivers are ready for and expecting those big gusts come Sunday. And when they come, Logano said there’s only one thing to do.