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Predicting The Weather For Race Day

Interview

Photo: Chris Owens
The sudden unexpected rain storm or a hotter than expected day can ruin a race weekend for a team instantly. Whether they get the setup wrong or are just caught off guard, they need to be prepared and know what's coming. We talked to Doug Schneider (a meteorologist), to get the low down on forecasting weather for a race weekend.

Doug has "had a fascination with meteorology for nearly as long as [he] can remember." After being inspired by Hurricane David in 1979, he knew he was either going to be a race car driver, or a meteorologist. "Lacking the budget for racing, I chose the latter," he added. From there, Doug attended North Carolina State University, where he earned both a Bachelor's and Master's degree in meteorology. Doug has been working as a forecaster for 15 years now and lives in Tennessee.


How did you start forecasting IndyCar races?

The idea started when I discovered Brian Neudorff on Twitter. He's a TV meteorologist who also makes unofficial forecasts for NASCAR races. My favorite racing series are TUDOR United SportsCar and IndyCar, and I always looked at the weather forecast for each race weekend anyway, so I figured why not make my own forecasts geared toward fans of those series? It's been fun combining my two passions of weather and racing.

But once I started, it didn't take long for me to realize I needed some help. It can get busy keeping up with live weather updates, and my work and family schedule didn't always cooperate. So I approached a fellow weather geek and race fan, Scott Martin, to be my partner. He's currently a meteorology student at Mississippi State University. He has experience in graphic design too, and he created the great-looking forecast graphics and logo that we use. He's been a great help to me, and does a great job.


How do you go about making race weekend forecasts?

The first step is to make a cup of strong coffee - freshly-ground organic beans, steeped in a french press. Then I evaluate various computer model projections. These models take in observed weather data from around the world, then use mathematical equations to simulate how the atmosphere will change over time. As computing power has increased, the programmers have made major strides in model accuracy over the past several decades, but they're not perfect, and I still have to evaluate and interpret what the different models are telling me based on my own experience. I have access to a wealth of data at my work, but tons of data are also available on the web.

The two most important questions to answer to determine if it will rain are:

  • Will there be enough moisture in the atmosphere?
  • Will there be a way to lift the air upward?
These are the two basic ingredients needed to produce rain, but the tricky part is to figure out the balance of the two, and the timing of when they come together. After I create my own forecast, I'll look at the forecast discussion from the local National Weather Service office that covers the race track area to see if their thoughts jive with mine, as they have the local expertise that I don't have. As we get closer to race day, I'll use radar and satellite data to give a more precise forecast of the timing of rain, and which race events might be impacted.

Doug and Scott's forecast for the 2014 Milwaukee race.
What's the toughest part of making accurate predictions?

It's difficult to admit that sometimes I have very little confidence about what is going to happen. Meteorology is an inexact science. Weather works in three dimensions - we need to figure out not only what is going on at the ground, but also up through eight miles into the atmosphere, all around the globe. We don't have 100% knowledge of what's going on in the atmosphere 100% of the time. We have to make estimations and assumptions to fill in the gaps.

As a result, there are times when the various computer models can all show something completely different happening. But I have to make a forecast anyway, and I have to take responsibility for it. I put my name on all my forecasts, and I don't hide behind a pseudonym.

Fortunately, people have been kind enough so far not to point out when I'm wrong, but I have to use those times as a learning experience to improve my forecasts in the future. It's tough to tell people that I don't have confidence about what's going to happen, but I have to be honest and realistic about my limitations.

How important are these forecasts to a team on a race-weekend?

I can't say for certain how race teams use a weather forecast in their strategy, so I can only speculate a few ways it might be helpful.

Knowing if temperatures will be hot over the weekend could help teams be better prepared to keep their drivers and crew members cool and hydrated. Hot or cold temperatures could also affect the setup of the car. If rain is expected to arrive during the race, teams could adjust their pit strategy in advance to gain an advantage.

I would think that the forecast would be very important to Firestone, as they would need to estimate how many sets of rain tires might be needed over the weekend. Track organizers and local medical/emergency crews need to stay aware of the weather for the safety of the fans in attendance, such as preparing for extreme heat or knowing when to evacuate the grandstands as a thunderstorm approaches.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I started doing race forecasts in January, and I'm amazed at how quickly it has grown. I really appreciate all the follows and retweets, as well as any feedback on the forecasts. If anyone has a weather question, racing-related or not, I'm always happy to answer the best I can.

Where can people find you?

I post my forecast updates and live weather updates during races at my Twitter account, @Race4caster. Be sure to also follow my partner Scott at @RaceWx4You, as he'll be forecasting for the Sonoma and Fontana races.

Both of us always mark our forecasts with the hashtag #IndyCarWx so they're easy to find if you miss our posts. Our TUSC forecasts can be found at #TUSCwx, and our Pirelli World Challenge forecasts at #PWCwx. We don't yet have a website for posting our IndyCar forecasts, but our TUSC and PWC forecasts are posted at NASportscar.com.

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Forecasting the weather for race day isn't easy (as you can see), but it's necessary for the teams and track to have a good idea of what's going to happen. If you have any more questions, let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Scott G10:04 PM

    Nice write up! Doug's and Indycar Weatherman's forecasts are a great help on race weekend!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, Scott! Look for some more posts in the future about the weather and races. The weather can really have a big impact on race strategy. Glad to hear you enjoyed the piece.

      Delete
  2. The amount of race day info available to fans on twitter is amazing compared to years past. I've gotten my NASCAR weather from Brian Neudorff and my Indycar weather from the indycar wxman for years now, and now all my sportscar series forecasts from Doug and Scott. Good to know they are all using an extensive process to come up with these forecasts....saves me a trip to accuweather.com haha!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Matt, the information that's grown on Twitter and the internet has been exponential these past years. You can look up so much information that was either hidden or not free a couple of years ago. And with people like Doug, Brian and the other meteorologists, we have as good a view of the weather as the teams do (and it's right on Twitter!). Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Besides the ones mentioned in the article, for other really good weather twitter handles your readers should also give a follow to @raceweather (NASCAR), @fergieweather (F1), @indycar_wxman (Indycar obviously), @weathergalcass (NASCAR, Indycar, United Sportscar)….all do a really good job!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, JB. I'll see if I can talk to one of the other forecasters in the future and get an article up on them. Always good to have people with so much information right on Twitter!

      Delete

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