Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday March 4, 2013
We’ve heard it thousands of times: the four most important things on a race car are the tires that connect the car to the ground. Without them, you can have all of the technology in the world in the cars to make them go fast and they still won’t move. In recent years, Goodyear has produced rubber for these vehicles that’s been high on durability, to a point where it is nothing for a team to keep the same set attached for two full fuel runs. That’s a problem. Tires need to be safe to a point where they don’t just randomly blow out, but they can’t be so safe that drivers don’t have to worry about them at all and teams can ignore them from a strategy standpoint.
The folks at Goodyear, for many years, have been focused on the durability of the tires. In an interview I did with them, in late 2012 Goodyear confirmed that they build sets with the intention of them lasting one-and-a-half fuel stops. That methodology has hurt racing by allowing teams to make multiple two-tire stops or fuel only ones as races have been winding down. Thankfully, at least for this week, the tire that Goodyear brought to the track did actually wear out, creating some great competition with cars coming and going based on tire strategy.
It wasn’t perfect; at times, a set of four fresh ones didn’t produce the speed they should in overcoming those who got two. But by and large, when you look at the overall results on Sunday they were light years ahead of where we were with the Gen-5 car. That’s good for the sport, whose supplier, Goodyear, is constantly fighting that balance between speed, safety, and durability, a battle that’s hard enough to do on their own. There have been tire wars a few times in the history of the sport and they are not good, for the fans, teams and especially the drivers themselves. The tire war in the early 1990s, between Hoosier and Goodyear resulted in a lot of very scary wrecks, causing several drivers serious injuries. The sport doesn’t need to have tires that are pushing the envelope to the point those major risks are being taken. But what NASCAR does need is tires that fade out, requiring drivers and teams to take into account those consequences when developing their strategy and competing in the event.
Certainly, there were a number of failures on Sunday. But the tires blowing at Phoenix were blamed not on poor construction; it was the result of brakes getting too hot and melting the beads on the tires. That magic section of the tire which holds onto the rim, against all odds and pressures to keep them from rapidly losing air is the bead. When brakes are developing temperatures at well over 1,000 degrees, the teams have to do everything they can to cool those brakes quickly so that the temperature of the rim doesn’t get high enough to melt the tire. If those temperatures are controlled, the tires should still wear down, just not to the point of complete destruction. Pushing the car too hard for too long should naturally cause the tires to wear out, to a point they have to be changed before the fuel.
Throughout the race Sunday, the pit strategies in play seemed almost as numerous as the number of cars in the event. While green flag pit stops were non-existent, each caution period brought varying numbers of cars down the pit lane changing different numbers of tires each time. The softer tire wore out quicker than most of the ones we’ve seen, in the last five years and that was a good thing. The back half of the lead lap cars that would come in during a caution were able to gain ground and pass those who didn’t come in. At the same time, the softer compound allowed some of the cars who did stay out the ability to hold off fresh tires for short periods of time. Having the option to change to a softer version, one that offers more grip made the race more interesting for all involved.
While many fans would rather see more options for tires, with teams having the option to choose harder or softer compounds is still not on the table, at least we are getting closer to the days when drivers had to worry about their tires. They can’t just go out and push for all they have every lap and not worry about their rubber wearing out. When the series gets down to the point that it is in the drivers’ hands, and cars with new tires pass cars with old ones, we’ll be well on the way to better racing.
People need to realize that, if Goodyear brings softer tires that wear out, it isn’t their fault that the teams push the envelope, push the cars too hard and blow them to smithereens. The PR folks at Goodyear would be well served if they would let the fans know that tires wear out and pop; it isn’t the fault of the tires but the fault of the team. NASCAR fans are smart enough to understand that if the PR folks give them an honest appraisal of a tire’s capability, they won’t hold the company accountable when the teams push them too hard and blow them out.
Goodyear does deserve kudos for bringing a tire to the track that loses speed over time. Alan Gustafson told me this week, before the race, that Goodyear was bringing a tire to the track that was softer than the previous two or three races that were held at Phoenix. As a result, a few more right front tires blew out and caused a slightly higher number of cautions. But in the end, it was not Goodyear’s fault – you can’t control bad setups – so let’s hope they view the race as a positive.
In the end, as NASCAR’s Gen-6 works out the kinks Phoenix was made better thanks to the tire that was used. I’m sure of it.
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