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Thompson in Turn 5: Indy – A Better Tire This Time Around!

There has been a lot of racing miles run and a lot of rubber laid down since what Turn 5 believes to have been the biggest embarrassment for the National Association for Stock Car Racing in recent memory occured; however, it has only been one-year since NASCAR, its tire supplier and Indianapolis Motor Speedway partnered up to host the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard – a race that could only be run in 10-12 lap increments, a race that forever more will be a low point for the sanctioning body, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., and the famed Speedway.

To refresh memories – it wasn’t long before all concerned, and particularly Sprint Cup drivers, noticed that they had a serious tire wear problem during Saturday’s practice leading up to the Sunday race. It was not a typical tire wear issue either – one that some teams might experience while others, running more conservative set-ups were immune from – this was a garage-wide problem of severe tire degradation occurring in as little as seven laps for most teams. After meeting with the teams and Goodyear, NASCAR made the decision to throw a “competition caution” after the first 10 laps. Although the plan bought the sanctioning body some time, it did nothing to address the problem.

Goodyear, almost as clueless as NASCAR was as to how to remedy the problem, diverted 800 of its race tires, meant to be used the following week at Pocono, to Indianapolis. Those tires were never used – they were believed to be as equally useless on the gritty track surface. As the track filed away the tires, it left only a dusting of rubber that would not build up on the track for better grip and less abrasiveness.

The lap 10 tire-check plan didn’t really work so well, either. Michael Waltrip spun on lap 4 and some competitors pitted at that time, already aware that their Goodyears were wearing to the cords after only a few laps. Race officials moved the first “competition caution” to lap 14. Just before the yellow could be shown, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick were involved in a wreck – tire wear was the suspected culprit.

It was crystal clear to NASCAR that they had a mess on their hands. The tires would not hold up for more than a handful of laps around the 2.5-mile speedway, let alone a 30-plus lap fuel run. To let teams figure their own pit strategies would be allowing a dangerous situation to go unchecked – teams were certain to push the envelope in hopes that their tires would give then ‘just a few laps more…’ The only sane choice, short of canceling the event, was to mandate frequent pit stops for fresh tires.

And so it went… mandatory pit stops every 10-12 laps, though not even the short periods of racing were necessarily all that competitive – the short sprints between pit stops were run tentatively, at best. Drivers were understandably hesitant to race hard as they knew that their Goodyears would not withstand too much wear and tear.

“It’s a really, really, really disappointing situation,” said Matt Kenseth, who suffered tire woes and finished 38th last year. “This is one of the two biggest races of the year… I feel bad for the fans – we’re running three-quarters speed because we’re worried about the tires blowing out. They got blown out every eight laps.”

“Every lap. Every lap I was concerned about it [a blown tire]. Every corner, for that matter,” said Jimmie Johnson, who claimed the win after a daring, if not anti-climatic seven-lap dash to the checkered with runner-up Carl Edwards in pursuit.

It was a long, disappointing day for competitors and fans alike. There was a total of 11 caution flags with six of those thrown to force teams to pit and change their tires. Drivers were able to run no more than 13 competitive, or more like it semi-competitive, green-flag laps at a time. After the smoke cleared from that charade of a race, the initial finger-pointing began between speedway executives, NASCAR and Goodyear; however, the crux of the problem was still self-evident… Goodyear did not supply a tire that would hold up to the new stresses that the car formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow placed on it.

The good news is that, from all indications, exhaustive testing by the tire manufacturer since has resulted in a suitable tire compound for the abrasive surface of the Brickyard. Following seven separate testing sessions, the tire combination for this Sunday’s Sprint Cup race has been developed and has the endorsement of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “I’m 100% confident,” Gordon recently stated. “I ran this tire as hard as I possibly could, and this is a dead issue. This race might come down to a lot of things – fuel, pit strategy, a double-file restart – but it is not going to come down to a 10-lap shootout on whose tires can last the longest.”

Also invited to test the new race tire was two-time Sprint Cup champion and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart who has openly chastised the tire maker in the past. (Following last year’s spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he very publicly lambasted the Akron, Ohio tire builder stating that he was “going home and taking everything that has Goodyears off and putting Firestones on to feel a lot safer.” He then added, “It’s a shame these teams that work so hard are being dictated by a company incapable of building tires fit for a street car.”) However, even the highly critical Stewart conceded that he was “not at all” concerned as to the durability of Goodyear’s new offering which is reported to withstand the rigors of the Brickyard’s racing surface through a full fuel load. Coming from Stewart, that’s a high endorsement for sure.

Try as one might, there never was an acceptable defense for the poor excuse of a race that was put on for fans and a national television audience at the Brickyard last year. Ultimately, Goodyear bore the lion’s share of responsibility for not supplying suitable race tires to the Sprint Cup garages; however, there was also plenty of fault to justifiably heap on the speedway–they eagerly collected ticket revenues with the implied promise of providing an entertaining event–as well as NASCAR, the overseers of the circus they own and sell as the premier automobile racing series in the country.

The July 27, 2008 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard can be counted among the biggest blunders in the history of NASCAR. Still today, it is unimaginable just how unaware and ill-prepared NASCAR was on that day. Considering their experience and expertise, that both the organization and a major corporation such as Goodyear could not have foreseen and headed off potential problems is still mind-boggling.

It is tempting to give a shout-out to the sanctioning body and Goodyear for all the time, effort and expense they have expended over the last year to correct the tire problems for this year’s running at Indianapolis, but isn’t that their job? The folks that are deserving of kudos are the tens of thousands of forgiving and loyal race fans that will make their way again this year to the famed Indiana racetrack for the 16th running of the Brickyard 400.

Sometimes, one cannot help but wonder if the sport deserves the fans they have.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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