There is no sadder place than a race track in the rain.
Unless it’s a road course, no cars go out on the track when it’s wet, and in NASCAR, only the NASCAR Nationwide Series has done it. That was on a road course as well, in Montreal.
When Mother Nature is on a rampage and pop-up showers bedevil the paying public, what’s a racer to do?
If you’re NASCAR, you call for the Titan.
Titan, as in Air Titan, is the biggest, baddest, hottest thing in track drying equipment in the business.
It was wetter than Davy Jones’ Locker after a couple of nasty thunderstorms chugged through central Alabama, dumping what seemed to be six feet of water on the speedway -- and the fans. In fact, if you’ve seen any of the photos of the associated campgrounds near the track, six feet sounds about right.
NASCAR officials, faced with 63 laps of racing yet to go once the rain finally stopped, had a decision to make: dry the track and make the crowd -- and the TV audience -- happy, or call it and go home to get ready for the Bojangles' Southern 500.
They went with the first choice, and called on the Air Titan to get the job done.
When it rains like it did then, there’s nothing short of sunshine and a stiff breeze that can dry a 2.66-mile speedway in less than three hours, even one with cliff-like banking like Talladega.
NASCAR officials estimated it would take two hours, 30 minutes to dry the track. Air Titan got it done in two hours. That meant there was just enough daylight to get the remaining laps in.
So what is the Air Titan?
It’s not a jet dryer, though it is used in concert with the aircraft engines on trailers. It is a system of tag-along units that blow hot, compressed air on the track to dry it quickly.
It’s something different.
“[It’s] quite a bit [different], visually and operationally,” said NASCAR President Mike Helton. “It uses compressed air as opposed to jet engines. It's designed to expedite, obviously, the removal of water using compressed air and heat, where the jet dryers were simply designed around blowing and depended more on hot air. The new system depends more on compressed air.”
Compressed air is, of course, under pressure, and it can be targeted to blow directly where the water is rather than in the same zip code. The addition of heat helps as well, much the same as NASCAR will do when the rain isn’t steady or hard and they keep the cars on the track to keep it dry with engine heat.
That made it perfect for the Talladega race, and was quite a departure from the way it used to be.
“We used to dry tracks off with just a fleet of vehicles going around the race track, or dragging tires behind pickup trucks,” Helton said. “And then someone came along with the jet dryer that expedited it quite a bit and served its purpose for a long period of time, but in today's world with the expectations of getting the show done and getting it on, there was a high priority placed by Brian [France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO] and the rest of us to come up with a way that we could expedite that, and Robin [Pemberton, NASCAR VP of Competition] and the folks at the R&D Center responded to that and come up with ideas, and this one seems to have quite a bit of validity to it.”
You wouldn’t know to look at it, but there’s a lot of hot air blowing through the small units, and focused as it is, it is remarkably efficient. It’s also “greener” than the jet dryers, which go through a ton of aircraft fuel during a rain delay.
Plus, there’s the added benefit of not hauling several hundred gallons of JP-5 around the track on an unprotected trailer, in case anyone forgets what happened at Daytona in 2012.
“Appearance-wise, it's considerably different,” Helton said with his gambler’s grin. “It's a gain of pipes behind a pickup truck that the air is being pushed through as opposed to a jet dryer.”
The system itself underwent an overhaul as well, to prevent another Daytona incident where the disabled car of Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into the jet dryer at speed, causing a conflagration that melted the asphalt and delayed the racing even further.
A pumper truck feeds compressed air into high-pressure blowers being towed along the track surface by another vehicle, which forces standing water toward the apron of the oval where a vacuum truck sucks it up.
Several of the blower units travel together, staggered to cover the entire track surface. The vehicles are followed by jet dryers to remove the last of the moisture, and two brigades are positioned halfway around the track from each other running simultaneously.
The concept was conceived and developed by the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C., and was intended to speed up the track-drying time by up to 80 percent. It didn’t quite do that well in the adverse, continually damp conditions at Talladega, but it did well enough to get the race in.
Remember the Titan … you’ll see it often when Mother Nature throws a trackside tantrum.
Note: This story originally ran on May 21, 2013.