After the tire explosions at Talladega and with the Cup Series coming to Charlotte, a track that has had its own share of tire problems, it’s an opportunity to expound on what has become an all too well-known problem with NASCAR races: inadequate tires.
That said, I’m going to tell the story of my first trip to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. My involvement with NASCAR at the time wasn’t official as such… I watched every week, rooted for my fantasy team drivers, and sent a lengthy missive about the race that week to other members of the Fairgrounds Racing League. So back then, I saw things more through the eyes of a fan with a journalistic eye, as opposed to the other way around.
In October of 2005, this columnist was in the middle of a brief stint living in Fredericksburg, Virginia. My girlfriend Suzanne (now my wife) was still living in New Jersey, and one of the two of us would make the trip to visit the other most weekends. That weekend, the two of us headed to Charlotte, a six-hour ride, after she had made the four-hour trip to Fredericksburg. Needless to say, local hotels were a bit more expensive that weekend, so we were fortunate to have tickets through the largesse of one Kevin Foley, a producer at NASCAR Images.
It was my first night race. I was blown away by how sharp the cars looked under the lights. Suzanne was even more awestruck when the race started, grabbing my arm and shouting above the din: “They’re going so FAST!”
65 laps later, the two most popular drivers in NASCAR were repairing their cars in the garage. Jeff Gordon hit the wall about 50 laps in, followed briefly by Dale Earnhardt Jr. smacking the wall himself. Both incidents were met with crowd approval, but no one would be cheering by the end.
The race trudged on. More tires blew. More cars hit the wall. Everyone who led, it seemed, had a tire problem. Elliott Sadler, blam. Michael Waltrip, blam. Kasey Kahne, blam. Other drivers having great runs went into the wall: Kyle Busch, Sterling Marlin, even David Stremme, who at the time was having the run of his life (including since) driving the No. 39 car for Chip Ganassi, running in the top five for much of the evening before his early departure. And points leader Tony Stewart hit the wall, distorting the standings, although he would recover to win the title.
The race was red-flagged while NASCAR tried to figure out what to do. Apparently nothing was figured out, since they started the race up again with no real changes (at least none I can remember). It became a matter of survival. Greg Biffle said after the race that he was driving at 60%, simply trying to finish. Finally, mercifully, this lemon concluded with Jimmie Johnson taking the checkered flag at about 40 mph (I’m exaggerating, but not by very much).
At my desk, I have a picture of Suzanne and myself at Lowe’s Motor Speedway before the race started. In the photo, I have a big grin on my face. It was gone for good that evening after about 200 miles. And she heard a lot of profanity that night that she had never heard from me before. (“This sucks!”)
The biggest culprit in all of this was Humpy Wheeler’s well-intentioned but disastrous resurfacing of the Charlotte oval. The Coca-Cola 600 that ran previously that year wasn’t much better, but for some reason NASCAR and Goodyear didn’t work out the issues. (I don’t know if they tried or not. I’m just saying they didn’t.)
The main point here is that this was before the new car design, which suggests that NASCAR and Goodyear have had increasing tire problems – long before mandating a car with a higher center of gravity, making it much harder on outside tires. The time to say “never again” about a disastrous race happened long before it was obvious that not every issue about the new car was addressed. I won’t argue the point if you disagree, but Charlotte in October 2005 was the worst race I had ever witnessed, not this year’s Brickyard mess.
Since then, we have had Atlanta where Stewart very publicly lambasted Goodyear and many drivers quietly agreed, Indianapolis where a 160-lap race was cut into 10-lap segments out of fear of blown tires, and Talladega where exploding tires effectively ended Gordon’s title hopes and cost about 10 other teams hundreds of thousands of dollars in totaled racecars.
Heading into Charlotte, I haven’t heard much about tire issues that need to be addressed, other than Robin Pemberton’s claim that Goodyear now can make a tire that goes 20 laps at Indianapolis. The obvious response is, if NASCAR and Goodyear are capable of improving the tire, where were they before the race?
Instead NASCAR is now promoting Lowe’s as the “Beast of the Southeast,” trying to turn obvious problems that Goodyear has had building a tire for this surface into a positive by giving the track a nickname… you know, like Darlington. But drivers expect a rough ride at Darlington. No one knows what to expect at Charlotte.
In the seven years of research that supposedly went into the design of the new car, it is almost incredible, especially in light of already growing tire problems, that neither NASCAR nor Goodyear put every ounce of effort imaginable into making sure that the only thing separating the car from the asphalt was of the highest possible quality. Teams are using too much camber? NASCAR and Goodyear really have no business being surprised that teams push the envelope.
No doubt Goodyear understands this, but this is a serious issue. The reason NASCAR made Indy a series of 10-lap sprints was for safety reasons. We’ve just seen what can happen when tires are insufficient at Talladega. This has to be addressed now. Both entities need to get together and work on an acceptable tire for every racetrack. There aren’t any excuses anymore.
The booth announcers on every round of pit stops remind everyone watching that drivers are coming in “for four Goodyear tires and to fill up the tank with Sunoco race fuel.” Then Denny Hamlin got his bell rung hard enough at Talladega to send him to the hospital. By the time that the tire on the No. 11 exploded Sunday, the viewers all knew who manufactured it, even if Jerry Punch doesn’t say “looks like he had a Goodyear tire problem” when that happens. That scene didn’t exactly make me rush out to a Goodyear dealer for a set of new ones.
Surely Goodyear especially should be prioritizing this, even if they aren’t entirely at fault. They have spent a lot of money to be the official tire supplier of NASCAR, and for all of the mishaps and outright disasters that have happened this year especially, they are cultivating a reputation so damaging that they might be better off not being in NASCAR at all.
The lesson was there to be learned in October of 2005. Take the time and spend the money. Get the tires right, gentlemen.
Kurt’s Shorts Special Edition – The Talladega Finish
- It is with a heavy heart that I have to admit this, but NASCAR made the right call at Talladega. Either you’re allowed to pass under the yellow line or you’re not, and there shouldn’t be any last-lap exceptions. Forced down there or not, you’re not supposed to improve your position, whether that has been enforced consistently or not in the past. There probably would have been just as much controversy had Regan Smith been given the win. Trust me on this my friends, you all know that I will hold NASCAR accountable when it is called for.
- That said, if drivers believed, as Smith and Johnson and many fans did, that anything goes when the checkered flag is in sight, then shame on NASCAR for creating or even allowing that impression. The rules should be black and white when possible, they should be enforced fairly, and they should be the same from lap 1 to lap 200. When NASCAR deliberately allows for gray area, they open themselves up to the type of criticism that they have received this week. While I’m at it, it’s a gray area to decide if a driver is “forced” below the yellow line, as we’ve certainly heard this week. As we know, NASCAR does not operate well in gray area.
- Put a wall where the yellow line is and be done with it already.
- It’s surprising that this type of disputed finish doesn’t happen more often at plate tracks. Finishes are always close and the yellow line and bump-drafting rules seem to be entirely at NASCAR’s discretion… not to mention the timing of yellow flags. Can we just ditch the plates already?