You’re on a beach. Any beach, it doesn’t matter.
The ocean is in front of you and the sun is shining. You’re standing right at the edge of where the tide comes in, and the sand beneath your feet is tightly packed. You could easily run along this part of the beach. It’s an ideal surface. The soft sand a few feet behind you has been baking in the sun for hours and would cause you much more trouble.
What the water does to the sand is how Cutters Coach Jim Kirkham describes rain’s effect on the track at Bill Armstrong Stadium for the Little 500.
“The surface of the track changes so much based on moisture, wind and sun, those three elements,” said Kirkham, who’s coached Cutters since the late 1990s. “Generally if it’s raining, the track is almost always great.”
There’s no way to change the weather on race day, but Kirkham, Little 500 race director Andrea Balzano and the grounds crew that maintains the track and preps it before practices and events, all agree that cool weather and rain keep the track in prime condition for riders to clock their fastest times. What they’re hoping for isn’t the same as what a casual fan might like to see.
Darren Robertson is part of the two-man crew that prepares the track. When rookie week starts in mid-February he’s at the track every day, Monday through Friday, and on days when there are events. He said the crew drags the track and then uses a roller to pack it. Depending on how much rain the track’s gotten, they’ll water it with one to two truckloads of water.
That means anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of water.
Normally this happens in the morning, but if it was so cold the night before that the track froze over, Robertson said the crew will have to wait until the afternoon because there’s nothing they can do until it thaws out.
Kirkham said the track has been really good this year, and appreciates the effort Balzano and the grounds crew have put in to ensure the riders have the best track possible.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” said Robertson, who’s been doing this for about eight years. “I try to make it the best I can every day.”
Even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, Balzano knows the riders won’t be upset with her or the grounds crew about less than ideal track conditions.
“Riders are pretty understanding that we can’t control the weather,” Balzano said.
Kirkham, if he could make a request that would have the track at its best, would schedule heavy rain overnight that tapers to a morning drizzle and stops right before the race. Clouds would stay overhead throughout.
“It makes it crappy for the fans, but it makes it good for the pictures,” Kirkham said. “It makes it good for the stronger teams because they can separate themselves pretty quickly.”
Kirkham wouldn’t mind if that didn’t happen, though. He has his team prepare for any number of weather conditions while training so that on race day, no matter what happens, his riders are prepared.
He said he would even prefer it if the track was dried out and slippery in the turns, so a team like his could separate itself from the pack. No team has more Little 500 wins than Cutters, which hasn’t won since 2011 but has 12 titles to date. That 2011 win was the fifth straight the Cutters had won dating back to 2007, and the team has stayed in the top 10 ever since.