Sunday morning before the Dickies 500, I got to take a spin around Texas Motor Speedway with Sprint Cup Series pace car driver Brett Bodine.
I’ve been to many events at TMS, but have never had the chance to get on the track. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.
The towering wall of asphalt that makes up the 24 degree-banked turns at TMS is an awesome sight for race fans in the stands, but seeing it while leaning sideways in the bottom groove, looking up at the top of the track, puts it in a whole new perspective. The forces that keep the cars glued to the track as they scream around the corners is truly awe-inspiring. A driver may put his faith in the hands of his crew chief, but he puts his fate in the hands of the laws of physics.
From the front seat of a car, the backstretch is more narrow that what you’d might expect, it’s definitely close quarters over there. I could just image what it’s like for a driver speeding three-wide down the backstretch, battling for position, before turning into the corner and hoping the car sticks.
As we circled the track, Bodine explained his role in the race when a caution comes out. He’s in constant radio contact with NASCAR race director David Hoots, and he, along with pace car copilot Robert “Buster” Auton, who stays in contact with Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, are responsible for taking control of the chaos that is a stock car race when the caution comes out.
“The key is getting in front of the leader,” Bodine said.
Once he’s in front of the leader, Bodine explains how he gradually slows down the field to caution speed — 55 mph at TMS. At the same time, he and Auton are evaluating the track, advising NASCAR officials situated high above the speedway in the track’s towers. They point out debris on the track, whether its rubber worn off of tires, car parts, or an oil spill, and help officials make decisions on what kind of equipment is needed to get the track back in race condition.
Once the pace car is in command of the field and crosses the start-finish line, pit road will open. Even during a caution, drivers have to make a sharp left out of turn four to make it down pit road at the NASCAR-mandated 45 mph. As Bodine took us around the corner at more than 80 mph, and only a few hundred feet ahead, dropped our car down to pit road speed, I lurched forward in my seat. It’s a quick deceleration, and it takes a skilled driver to get it right. But even the best drivers sometimes miss their mark.
“That’s why there are pit road speeding penalties,” Bodine said.
After the cars have finished their pit stops and the track is ready to go, Bodine and Auton make one final check of the track. They are the ones who have the final say on when racing can resume. When any caution starts to wind down, Bodine always gets asked the same question, “Caution car, how’s your track?”
On the final lap of caution, Bodine will switch off the flashing pace car lights, and lead the field around one final time. As he brings the field out of turn four, he drops down to pit road, and the green flag flies, sending the 43-car field back at it again.
As a former Cup Series driver, Bodine has a unique understanding of the condition the track needs to be in for the drivers to feel confident and safe during the race. A job he takes pride in.
“We’ve got an important job, and I’d like to think our competitors have faith in our ability to do it right because I know what its like for the drivers,” he said.