They’ll be racing against time.
Due to the threat of what weather service officials called “a particularly dangerous situation” involving the possibility of tornadoes and strong straight-line winds within 25 miles of the track, NASCAR postponed Saturday’s entire racing schedule.
The decision wiped out the running of the Aaron’s 312 Nationwide Series race and qualifying for the main event, today’s Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup, forcing both races to be staged today.
Gates will open at 8 a.m.
It is the first washout of a competitive day at Talladega Superspeedway since April 2005, when the Sprint Cup race was run the following Monday. It is the second week in a row NASCAR will stage the racing equivalent of a doubleheader with its top two series on Sunday.
Racing gets under way at noon, but because the track isn't lighted, organizers are fighting a finite amount of daylight to complete the schedule.
The duration of last four Sprint Cup races averaged 3 hours and 19 minutes, while the last two Nationwide Cup races averaged 2 hours and 6 minutes — and that’s not counting red-flag stoppages, of which there were three in those six races for a total of more than 65 minutes. Given an estimated hour between the two races in which large, multi-car wrecks are expected, with a little more than seven hours of available daylight from the time they drop the green flag, there is little margin for delays.
“We are working on a tight window to get them both in,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said.
But track officials are committed to staging both races today.
“There’s no reason we should not get both races in tomorrow,” TSS spokesperson Kristi King said. “Not unless we have [bad] weather tomorrow and it’s supposed to be fine.”
Today’s forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures during the race window in the upper 70s.
Tickets for either race will be honored today, track officials said, but fans holding tickets for the Aaron’s 499 will have precedence on reserve seating. Fans holding tickets for the Aaron’s 312 will need to seek ushers to help them find available seating. Tickets will continue to be on sale for both races.
NASCAR officials made the decision to postpone early in the day, citing what Jim Stefkovich of the National Weather Service called “a very volatile situation unfolding across Alabama and Talladega.”
Much of the area was expected to experience large hail, damaging straight-line winds and a number of tornadoes, some violent and long-lived, for several hours.
Stefkovich, the meteorologist in charge of the weather service’s Birmingham forecast office, said there was a 30-60 percent chance of severe weather within a 25-mile radius of any point across central Alabama. NASCAR encouraged the estimated 45,000 to 50,000 overnight campers on site to “batten down the hatches” for the impending conditions. King said individuals were responsible for their personal safety. Track officials planned to use the Infield Media Center as a shelter for those staying in the adjacent driver/owner parking lot.
“I ain’t got my plan figured out yet,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said when asked how he planned to wait out the storm. “I’ll be looking up in the sky all day, I reckon.”
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said he expected the drivers pulling double duty today to handle that challenge in stride.
Actually, Jamie McMurray, one of the 11 drivers who will run both races today, was hoping race officials would choose the doubleheader option.
“I wish that every time it rained out the Nationwide race Saturday they would run the doubleheader on Sunday, if it’s possible,” the reigning Daytona 500 winner said. “I would assume it costs the race track a lot of money to reopen back up on Monday to run those races. I thought what Texas did last week where they let everyone stay over pretty much for free was really cool, because those people aren’t going to be able to come back on Monday.
“Fan-wise and for the teams and drivers logistically it’s way better to do. I was praying last night (it would happen). I heard there was a rumor they might do them both in the same day. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I hope so.’”
McMurray has seen the fury of a tornado first-hand. As an eighth-grader in Joplin, Mo., he recalled his mother stopping by a convenience store for breakfast on their way to school during a stormy day and seeing the windows of the store being blown out by a storm.
“I was trying to get her car door open and the vacuum was so bad I couldn’t get the door open and all the glass blew out,” he said. “It was pretty terrifying. Mother Nature is very powerful. You have to pay attention and not taking anything for granted.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3577.