Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

NASCAR to explore rain-tire potential for short tracks in Martinsville test

NASCAR competition officials said they plan to hold a test session Thursday at Martinsville Speedway to assess the feasibility of using rain tires on the circuit’s shorter ovals.

Plans for the test were announced Wednesday, with Kyle Larson scheduled to drive the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Chris Buescher set to drive the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford on a dampened track. NASCAR officials are currently at the .526-mile Virginia venue for testing of the Next Gen car for the 2022 Cup Series, with Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota all putting their manufacturer-specific models on the track for the first time.

NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said the test’s intent is to explore a wet-weather tire’s short-track potential, with the goal of returning to racing sooner in inclement conditions. Martinsville is the shortest paved track on the Cup Series schedule; O’Donnell indicated that if the test yields encouraging results that competition officials could explore using the tire in damp conditions at flatter tracks up to approximately 1 mile in length, such as Phoenix and New Hampshire.

“I think the overall goal is anything we can do to speed up the drying process, regardless of the technology, to allow us to get back to racing more quickly is a benefit to the fans,” O’Donnell said. “We’re always trying to innovate, and you saw that with what we’ve done around the track-drying system and that’s worked out well. We’ve always looked at what’s the next iteration. If you’ve looked at what the teams have been able to do with more road racing coming into the fold, the idea of short tracks and could we work with Goodyear to find a tire that would allow us to get back to racing sooner under wet-weather conditions.”

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Rain tires made their national-series competition debut in 2008 during an Xfinity Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. The NASCAR Cup Series’ first use of rain tires during race conditions came just last season, during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval event in October.

Both the Xfinity Series and Cup Series were affected by rain that weekend, but the performance of Goodyear’s wet-weather tires on the oval portions of the Roval course prompted a conversation between O’Donnell and NASCAR CEO Jim France, “just thinking about the what-ifs and how do we get back to racing, and Martinsville became that focus for us,” O’Donnell recalls. “We had a conversation with Goodyear and they’re on board as well, so I think that’s why the timing just lined up for us of let’s try to innovate, let’s try this and see what we can learn.”

After an initial shakedown of the two cars Thursday, test organizers plan to wet the track to gauge traction levels, using feedback from Buescher and Larson to evaluate the performance of the tire, which has different characteristics than the current rain tire for road courses. In a twist of scheduling fate, Wednesday’s weather forecast calls for significant rainfall at Martinsville with clearing on Thursday’s test date. Rather than test during a Wednesday downpour, however, competition officials opted to stick with Thursday to test the tires under controlled conditions.

“I think at this point, we’re not talking about if it’s actually raining,” O’Donnell said. “It’s more so, can we get back more quickly than the track being completely dry, which is what we require now. That’s part of the test, looking at where’s the limit, where we would feel comfortable for the drivers. We want this to be safe, so that will be part of this test — talking to the drivers, what are they comfortable with — then obviously talking to Goodyear and (director of racing) Greg Stucker and his team about how they feel and how the tire performs, what if any tweaks we could make to that tire coming out of Martinsville, so there’s a lot that we’re hoping to learn here in terms of grip levels. Each track is unique, so this is something we’ll have to look at for multiple venues.”

The 2021 NASCAR schedule is idle this weekend for the Easter holiday, then resumes next weekend at Martinsville with the Whelen Modified Tour, Xfinity Series and Cup Series in action April 8-10. Depending on the outcome of the test, Thursday’s trial run prompts the question of how soon an oval-track rain tire could be made available for racing — at Martinsville or elsewhere.

“Too early to tell, but I would say if this worked and we felt comfortable with it — and that would be both Goodyear and reaction from the drivers and teams — this is something we would look to implement as quickly as we could,” O’Donnell said. “We all know that if we can deliver a race on time or shorten those delays, that’s a benefit to the entire industry.”

It’s worth acknowledging that the date of the test coincides with the first day of April, when pranks and hoaxes tend to raise skepticism levels. O’Donnell has some reassurance that the idea behind the test isn’t an elaborate April Fools’ ruse.

“It just happens to fall on April Fools’ Day. You can’t make that up,” O’Donnell says with a laugh. “But no, this is a real thing and a real test, and we’ll be happy to report back April 2nd on how it went.”

NASCAR officials have tested wet-weather tires before at Martinsville, with Terry Labonte making a handful of laps in another Hendrick No. 5 in September 1995. That short session came just one month after race officials first put rain tires to the test on the road course at Watkins Glen International, with fellow Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin taking turns with a set of treaded Goodyears.