With the exception of Reed Sorenson’s surprise release from Turner Motorsports this week, there’s not much in the way of news in NASCAR-land as this column is written. That’s rather odd, considering we’re in the midst of our “playoffs” but I suppose it’s another stunning example of just how well this Chase concept isn’t working. When you can’t even get Coors to produce cases or bottle artwork on their beer to acknowledge your postseason, you know you’ve got some issues to deal with. (Rest assured, I am checking the local beer establishment regularly to see if this changes.)
One PR announcement that did cross my desk this week involves a continuing exclusive relationship between NASCAR racing and Goodyear that will drag on until 2017. (Is this sport confident it’s still going to be around in 2017?) That’s not because the NASCAR execs think the Goodyear folks, or even their products, are swell. It’s more like the money they give them swells their financial coffers; Goodyear pays big bucks to be the exclusive tire supplier in NASCAR. And you know what? Considering their past history, that’s probably for the best for our friends in Akron. In every major racing series where they have faced head-to-head competition over the last decade, Goodyear has been forced to retreat, rather embarrassingly in defeat.
By chance, I happened across another article today by John Leicester of the Associated Press talking about the Formula One series and what a big improvement tires (in this case, Pirelli) have made in that facet of the sport. Now in the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit I don’t watch F1 racing all that often and usually catch up with the Grand Prix gang via the highlight shows. It’s not that I have anything against F1; it’s just they schedule their races way too early in the morning for me. If anything, I’ll catch the last ten laps while trying not to drown in a cup of coffee. (Yes, I am being facetious. Even here in the boonies our teachers told us about different time zones around the globe, even here in the real world, and how they relate to the sun’s rotation around the earth.) But in what little F1 racing I’ve seen, I’ve noticed a lot more passing (or “overtaking,” as silly Englishmen refer to it) from second place on back. Up front, it’s always that Vettel fellow in the blue car with the big yellow cow on the nose.
As per Mr. Leicester (and the English still call each other “Mr.” and do other polite things like not shoot each other) the increase in passing in F1 is due to a calculated risk by new tire supplier Pirelli. The original tires they developed for the series, according to sources were said to be so hard and stable in lap times they could have lasted the duration of three race weekends. But the F1 organizers (and what a load of rascals they are) and Pirelli agreed that they needed a tire that “fell off” (no, not literally… lost speed progressively, in this instance) enough in lap times that the teams would require two or three pit stops per race. Thus this year, tire management has become crucial to the F1 superstars if they’re looking to win the race. It’s analogous to the tortoise and the hare: if a driver gets aggressive and runs his tires hard in as soon as ten laps (and remember, they tend to have long laps in F1 races) his tires have lost significant grip and he’s vulnerable to being passed (ahem… overtaken) by another driver who has been easier on his tires during that run (ahem… stint.) Or the speedier, more abusive driver can simply plan to make that extra pit stop and hope that his additional speed during his faster laps will make up the difference.
Oddly enough, that’s how it used to be in NASCAR racing. As recently as a decade ago, drivers would rarely drive an entire fuel run before pitting. If they tried to do so, their lap speeds fell off so greatly over newer tires that they were sitting ducks for anyone who had fresher rubber. That’s one of the reasons there were a lot fewer fuel mileage races back in the day; no one ever tried to stretch their mileage. But nowadays, the tires remain so consistent in speed during an entire fuel run that the need for gas rather than new tires has become the determining issue in when to make stops. Two-tire changes at Dover, much less Darlington were once unthinkable due to the speed dropoff; now, they’re par for the course. Back in those days, drivers and teams often shortpitted to get the advantage of fresher rubber, though that was sort of one of them “robbing Peter to pay Paul” deals because eventually the earlier stop meant the tires wore out earlier, too. It all came down to which driver had the fresher tires at the end of the race. (Well, that and solid brass cojones back…)
Now the F1 folks (and IndyCars, for that matter) have thrown another curveball into the equation. There are two different tire compounds available to the teams at each race. One is softer and therefore grippier and faster, but it wears out much more quickly. The other is more durable and consistent, but slower. Teams are issued a limited number of the faster tires for the race weekend so they need to be wise as when to use them. (The faster tires are identified by red lettering and stripes on the sidewall to keep everyone honest). Do you start the race on the faster tires, attempting to build up a big lead while the field is bunched up, or do you conserve them for the end of the race to make a charge to the checkers? (Or, if you’re this Vettel fellow, do you mount four studded G78 biased-ply whitewall snow tires to your car for the entire race and win anyway?)
Introducing a similar, softer compound tire in the Cup series and allotting the teams two sets to use during the course of the race would likely improve the quality of competition. One of the problems with NASCAR racing right now is that aero-push phenomenon, where the faster car in second gets into the dead air behind the lead car and loses front downforce to the point that he’s unable to complete the pass. By introducing more mechanical grip via a softer tire (or even just fresher tires with a higher level of falloff than today’s Goodyears) a skilled driver would be able to make that pass. And if nothing else, I think we all agree more passing makes for better racing, right? (Well, except for Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 czar, who once opined if there was too much overtaking in Grand Prix racing fans would be confused as to who was running where.)
Nobody is suggesting that Goodyear once again display the level of incompetence that turned the ’08 Brickyard 400 into a farce. But now that they are comfortably ensconced as the sole tire provider in NASCAR again, maybe they can experiment a little to try to improve the level of competition. Fans, well, they can do their part and give them a couple of mulligans while they sort things out. Let’s face it; I doubt anyone makes a decision anyways on what tires to buy for the family truckster based on racing success, anymore than they choose to drive a Focus or Camry due to race wins in NASCAR. If that were the case, the Impala would be the best-selling vehicle in America since Chevrolet has won the manufacturer’s title for almost a decade straight. I know personally when I shop for tires, an inability to drive in the rain and the need to replace the set every sixty miles aren’t features I’m looking for. Heck, if Goodyear wanted to go back to bias ply tires for racing I’d be good with that.
Sadly, NASCAR doesn’t seem inclined to modify the cars to allow for good racing again. A valid argument can be made that officials started us down the slippery slope to the mess we’re in today back in the mid-1980s, when they started raising and lowering roof heights on cars regardless of what was sitting on dealers’ lots and green-lighted the GM, front-wheel drive funny car “stock cars.” All that was decades before the Car of Sorrow; hey, disaster has to start somewhere, right? But we can’t change the past, only modify the future and the tires are one tool we can experiment with to try to improve the racing now.
Will it happen? Remember, NASCAR still has some heavy pull with Goodyear (and vice versa). I hate to use the term “twisting arms,” with its implied violence and discomfort, but maybe NASCAR could use a little stern persuasion to get the boys in Akron to pull the tire wear rope back in the right direction.
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