How NASCAR Outsmarts the Weather
March 27, 2018
Nick Franza was high above the action of a NASCAR race, in the area known as “race control,” when he first noticed something that didn’t seem quite right. Race control is the beating heart of every NASCAR event, and as the organization’s senior manager of technology development, Franza was intimately familiar with the work of these employees—and with the data and systems they used to keep tabs on everything happening at races on the wildly popular stock-car racing circuit.
Weather, of course, is a huge element of that monitoring. But Franza and his colleagues saw an inconsistency: not everyone was using the same weather apps or information services. This meant that different employees might be making decisions based on inconsistent readings, and in a sport that requires incredible precision, NASCAR needed a platform that could establish both uniformity and accuracy. So they connected with The Weather Company to make it happen.
“There are millions of dollars’ worth of decisions to be made,” Franza says. “Weather really impacts us from an operational standpoint. It’s a core part of what we do.”
Few sports are as reliant on weather-driven decisions as NASCAR. Higher temperatures can mean a slicker track, and higher humidity can decrease the horsepower of the cars themselves. Headwinds and tailwinds can impact the balance of the cars. Everything from cloud cover to impending weather can impact the decisions that individual pit crews make.
Utilizing its own systems and the computing power of IBM’s Watson, The Weather Company already had designed weather “dashboards” for companies in various industries seeking to leverage weather information to their advantage. They’ve worked with petroleum companies to help determine the conditions around their offshore oil rigs, and with trucking companies to determine how the weather might impact their long-haul fleets and when they offload their cargo. In the retail space, they’ve worked with chain stores to determine if they should staff locations differently to accommodate the weather (as well as traffic). They’ve also worked with airlines, because—well, is any industry more dependent on staying two steps ahead of bad weather?
All of those dashboards benefit from The Weather Company’s massive amount of information—coming from 250,000 personal weather stations, nine million webcam uploads, two million crowd reports, and 50 million Internet of Things barometric reports—as well as its 162 forecast models that use dynamic machine learning.
To make those same resources work for NASCAR, The Weather Company partnered with Flagship Solutions Group, using the second company’s Infralytics technology—a combination of infrastructure and analytics—to create a dashboard specifically tailored for the racing circuit. “It was really pretty simple,” says Mark Wyllie, CEO of Flagship Solutions Group. “NASCAR was looking for a way to standardize their use of weather across all their tracks.”
Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple. The dashboard that The Weather Company built specifically for NASCAR is also “highly scientific and customized to do what we wanted it do,” Franza says. Franza and his team sat down with the people in charge of competition at NASCAR—the people in race control—and asked them, What would you like to see in a weather platform? Some of them actually drew pictures on a page of what they’d imagine an ideal weather dashboard to look like. “We did arts and crafts for an hour,” he jokes.
What they came up with affords NASCAR’s operations team access to a wide variety of weather data, from hyper-local forecasts to humidity to cloud cover to the UV Index, so that race workers can slather up with sunscreen as necessary. It has a radar with multiple overlays to allow them to see the scale of a storm or cloud formation. They also get customized e-mails from a Weather Company meteorologist twice a day, pointing out trends and potential trouble spots. The best part of it all is that if the operations team has questions, they have a dedicated meteorologist on call at all times. That meteorologist can answer questions about what the data might mean, and how it should be interpreted.
“So many companies are impacted by the weather, but they’re not sure how to use weather to their advantage,” says Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek, head of marketing for the company’s Global Business Solutions Group. “This is all about helping NASCAR make weather-driven decisions with greater confidence and less uncertainty.”
As part of the partnership, The Weather Company has published infographics and other information that helps race fans understand how crucial a role weather data can play. For now, though, NASCAR is largely using the data for its own race preparations. When NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ben Kennedy raced a road course recently, his pit crew was able to tell him whether it was raining in certain corners of the course. “Knowing about the weather—it’s crucial, really to everything that we think about,” he says.
Ironically enough, the weather at this year’s Daytona 500 was “absolutely perfect,” Franza says, but as an example of how The Weather Company might enhance race preparation, he points to a race last year in Charlotte before the partnership began, when a hurricane was racing up the coast and the “forecast was changing dramatically from hour to hour.” The dashboard also allows NASCAR to view the weather at a number of tracks that they own, as well as at their Charlotte headquarters, which allows them to prepare for production shoots.
As the partnership between NASCAR, The Weather Company and its consumer brand, The Weather Channel, grows and evolves, the hope on both sides is that hyperlocal forecasts can be fine-tuned, and that personal weather stations can be added to tracks and on race car haulers. At a track as expansive as Daytona, the weather can differ in Turn 1 and Turn 4, and The Weather Company’s massive trove of hyperlocal data could dovetail perfectly with NASCAR’s needs.
“But now we’ve got a one-stop shop—it’s one source of the truth,” Franza says. “And we’ve got that Batphone we can pick up to speak to our own dedicated meteorologists. It’s allowed us to cut down on the amount of noise we see so regularly with the weather.”