NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Tires at Talladega: What Caused the Failures?

Editor’s Note: Our regular rookie columnist Danny Peters is off this Tuesday, so we filled his spot with another freshman! Newsletter contributor Philip Allaway writes this edition of The Yellow Stripe in his place. However, look for your favorite British expert to be back online next week!

This past weekend’s on-track action at Talladega Superspeedway will be remembered for three notable things. One is the sheer number of lead changes (64, the most since the Talladega 500 in July, 1984). Another is the now infamous judgment call that gave Tony Stewart the victory and dropkicked Regan Smith back to 18th. But the one underreported factor that was prevalent all weekend were Goodyear tires – as well as their propensity to fail once again on the top level of racing competition they work for.

Many of the commentators almost made it sound like a new issue at Talladega, but there have been a fair number of tire failures at the 2.66-mile track since the resurfacing two years ago. Also, this issue did not seem to be Goodyear’s fault. If it were simply a Goodyear issue, then the ARCA race would not have been affected by tire issues. But it was, and the ARCA Series runs Hoosiers instead.

In fact, the ARCA Re/Max Series’ ARCA Re/Max 250 was marred by multiple blown tires. A right rear blowout on Brian Scott’s No. 16 caused the Big One in turn 1 on lap 12. That particular crash eliminated 11 cars from the race and damaged a couple of others… and it wasn’t the only crash caused by tire failure.

Former motocross overlord Ricky Carmichael, making his ARCA Re/Max Series debut, had an explosive tire failure on lap 50. The failure destroyed his right-rear fender and sent his No. 33 on a long slide. Points contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also had a tire let go on the backstretch. The resulting spin saw the No. 99 get airborne and nearly flip before setting down. Even points leader (and future Cup Series rookie) Scott Speed was not immune to the tire issues, blowing one late in the race and almost saving it before hitting the wall in the tri-oval.

Goodyear representatives didn’t have a definitive answer for why all of these tire problems were occurring. ESPN, to their credit, interviewed Goodyear representative Rick Heinrich during the race. He admitted on air that Goodyear was almost 100% positive that David Reutimann’s tire failure was caused by a basic cut. For the others, he said that those tires would have to be analyzed back at Goodyear’s lab in Akron, Ohio. If any news comes out about those tires, we’ll have it right here on Frontstretch this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., after seeing the issues not only with his own car on Friday but in the ARCA race as well, opined that there could be an issue with the track surface. It’s a surface at Talladega that, since the 2006 repave, has been glass-smooth but resulted in more abrasive wear. Indeed, if the track surface is the real problem, then we could be looking at a somewhat similar issue to what happened at Indianapolis – only not as extreme. However, the track surface at Talladega was not diamond ground like at Indianapolis. Thus, there are no grooves that could cut and/or flatten tires – leaving us in search of a better explanation.

Also, since the issues occurred in both the Sprint Cup and ARCA Re/Max Series, it cannot be tied solely to the CoT.

Looks like we’re talking in circles. Now, I’m not technically inclined – I’m more of a historical nut, to be honest – but, I’ll try to propose some kind of an explanation.

First, some historical context.

In 1987, during ESPN’s broadcast of the now-infamous Winston 500*, then-ESPN pit reporter Dick Berggren talked about the tires that were being used at Talladega. He explained that the tires had very thin tread in order to dissipate the massive heat that gets built up with 210-mph speeds. That race had relatively few tire failures, but most, if not all, of the failures (including Bobby Allison’s scary lap 22 crash) were caused by metal cutting tires. There were no outright blowouts at speed from wear.

Now, I know the Cup cars do not run 210 mph at Talladega anymore, but according to ESPN’s RaceCast (available for free at espn.com) the fastest race lap was set by Juan Pablo Montoya at 200.561 mph. That’s an average, and not exactly tortoise speed. In fact, those speeds are high enough that even the most minimal amount of contact – however slight – could cut a tire down faster than it would take to pull the car to pit road for fresh rubber.

Tire temperatures are never mentioned at Talladega because tires were always seen as being a non-issue. But perhaps the tread thickness has increased since 1987, and thus, tire temperatures are much higher now because heat cannot escape as easily as before.

We have seen a situation very similar to this recently.

Think back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2005, after the “levigation” of the track. If you remember that episode, the track levigation increased the speeds significantly (pole speeds were over 193 mph), while smoothing out the notoriously bumpy 11-year-old pavement. However, this caused the tire temperatures to reach unheard of levels on the super-quick 1.5-mile facility. The tires simply could not take this heat and began to fail after 25-30 laps. However, unlike Sunday’s display, it never got any better.

Yes, the finish of the Coca-Cola 600 that year was a classic, but it came after an all-time Sprint Cup Series record 22 cautions at the track. A very unpopular decision to use the same tires in October of that year led to a similar wreckfest, with 17 more cautions. The track has been repaved since, but the tire problems did not go away immediately, and the 2006 races were run using 13-gallon fuel cells due to concerns with durability.

My personal opinion on these issues is that both Goodyear and Hoosier need to look into how well their tires dissipate heat under constant high speeds. A particular emphasis should be paid to tread thickness and how much heat that the tires build up. This can likely be done in the two tire manufacturers’ factories on a dyno, as opposed to on-track testing.

Because when that testing fails on race day, you get a public reaction of the worst kind.

*NASCAR currently has a contract with TeamMarketingDVD, a division of WaxWorks. As a result of that contract, TeamMarketingDVD puts out single disc DVDs and DVD sets. Nine races have been remastered and released. The 1987 Winston 500 is one of these races, and I purchased it through half.com.

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