NASCAR is revving up its weather forecasting operation

Here's how hyperlocal data fuels the company's race day decision-making

Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400. Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images.

In stock car racing, a little precipitation can bring some of the fastest cars in the world to a halt.

“A 3,500-pound stock car can’t race in the rain. It’s highly dangerous. Rain alone is enough to postpone an event,” said John Bobo, NASCAR’s VP of Racing Operations.

Scheduling races to avoid bad weather, consequently, is a huge imperative for NASCAR. But for years, NASCAR relied on the weather data provided by the tracks where it holds its events to inform scheduling decisions. And those track operators relied on different sources of weather data, which offered inconsistent insights.

Often, a race simply needs to be moved an hour or two earlier or later than originally planned to avoid a storm. But without precise knowledge of a storm’s expected landfall, NASCAR would sometimes move the race a day or two away from weekend prime time. That cost the league millions of dollars in ad revenue, ticket sales, and staff—and disappointed legions of fans.

“A 10 a.m., 11a.m. race on a Monday is not the best viewership for our broadcast partners. So we’re doing everything we can to get the race in that day,” Bobo said.

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What NASCAR needed, Bobo said, was highly accurate weather data at the most local level possible, and analytics specifically tailored to a racing event. It called in for help from Flagship Solutions Group and The Weather Company, an IBM Business.

“One of the things we know is that weather is, in fact, hyperlocal. If you’re within two kilometers of a weather reporting station, your report is going to be 15 percent more accurate,” said IBM’s Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek. “Think about that from an analytics perspective. When you can get 15 percent more accuracy, you’re going to have a much better output.”

Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Kickin’ Ranch Ford, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400. Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images.

Today, NASCAR is achieving that level of accuracy with WeatherTrack, a real-time weather insights dashboard that taps into The Weather Company’s vast wealth of data from 250,000 personal weather stations, nine million webcam uploads, two million crowd reports, 50 million Internet of Things barometric reports, and 162 forecast models.

Businesses across industries rely on The Weather Company to help make informed decisions. But each business’ specific data needs are unique. In the WeatherTrack dashboard, which Flagship designed specifically for NASCAR, planners are directed to the weather factors—including air density, cloud cover, and wind speeds—that most affect car performance and track conditions. The data is continuously updated and tailored for each track where NASCAR races are hosted.

“NASCAR is a sport where victory is determined in thousandths of a second,” said Nick Franza, NASCAR’s Senior Manager of Technology Development. “Having highly accurate, scientifically-validated information improves the experience for everyone involved.”

These days, NASCAR event planners are able to schedule races between storms, saving money, ensuring safety, and creating happier fans. And if they’re ever not completely sure about a decision, they can call a dedicated Weather Company meteorologist at any time.

For Bobo, that’s not merely a convenience; it’s key to offering the kinds of experiences that he and his colleagues are charged with delivering to sports fans.

“We want to concentrate on officiating a race and putting on the best entertainment we can for sports fans,” Bobo said. “It’s a joy to look at the data and pick up the phone and not have to figure this out myself.”