NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – They’re just tires, it isn’t Rocket Science

Last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway the folks from Goodyear had to call an audible and bring in different tires to run on the right side of the cars in both the Nationwide and Cup series. The tires that were originally brought to the track were wearing but the rubber was not adhering to the track and the tires were falling apart too quickly. In the end the Nationwide Series used the same tires on the right side that they ran last season at Bristol while the Cup series incorporated the right side tires that were designed for California next weekend.

The question that arises out of the entire situation is: Why does making tires for the national touring series of NASCAR have to be such an involved process?

Race tires for the national touring series are steel belted radial tires and have been since 1989 when Goodyear brought them into the Cup series, effectively ending the first tire war with Hoosier. The steel belts built in allow radial tires to maintain their size and consistency from set to set. While that is the theory, most fans have heard drivers complain about getting a “bad set” of tires. For whatever reason there are times when, even though the tires are made at the same time with the same rubber compound, a set of tires will just not react the same and the handling of the car will be drastically different.

Fans of dirt car racing around the country know that teams are given a variety of tires to choose from whenever they pull up to a race track. Generally there will be two or three different compounds for them to pick from, ranging from soft to medium to hard in terms of the softness of the surface of the tire. Depending on the conditions of the track on a given weekend the teams may opt for a harder or softer compound.

The thing about the choices is that the teams choose from the same three tire compounds at most tracks. There isn’t a different set of compounds run at Eldora vs. Knoxville for example. The companies that make the tires can make three compounds that are utilized at dirt tracks all over the country, and there is no reason that the same logic could not be utilized in the upper echelons of NASCAR racing.

Granted, there are some major differences in race tracks where the national series compete so it would not be reasonable to expect the same tires to work at all 28 tracks that host touring series races, but there are four distinct types of tracks and it would not be hard to develop three compounds that would work at all four types of tracks. There are flat tracks, intermediate/banked tracks, superspeedways and road courses. That is 12 different compounds that would be necessary for all of the tracks on the schedules. As Goodyear just proved last weekend, a tire that will work at Bristol will also work at California because that is the tire that they ultimately used for the race.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is not a call for another tire war in NASCAR racing. When the tire manufacturers started battling for market share back in the late 80s and early 90s the results were quite a few injured drivers and far more torn up race cars. Goodyear has figured out how to build a safe and durable tire but they’ve gotten caught up in trying to make customized tires for each track. The end result is that the racing teams are shooting at a moving target every weekend when they show up at the race track and they have limited ideas of what the tire is going to do.

The other advantage that would stem from giving the teams a choice in the tire compounds on race weekend is that they would actually have one more option to adjust the handling of their cars. Some drivers like their car looser than others and the compound of the tire would allow crew chiefs the option to select the type of feel their driver wants in the car.

A harder compound might translate into a looser feel while a softer compound might make things tighter. It would also put strategy calls into the hands of crew chiefs as far as the amount of time they want to run the tires on the car. They could elect to put on softer tires which would be faster than harder tires out of the gate but they’d wear out and fall off further than the harder compound. If the caution flags fell right they would look like champs, but if the race went for a long green run they’d end up looking like goats.

Tires are one of the most important elements of the racing. They are the only part of the car that consistently contacts the track and they provide the adhesion that allows the cars to go around the track as quickly as they can. Billions of dollaes have been spent in developing the most technologically advanced racing tires in history, but sometimes things can be over complicated. The race tracks that the national touring series race on are made of asphalt or concrete. Most of the tracks have been resurfaced over the last decade so there isn’t nearly the diversity of surfaces that the competitors used to face. Darlington is still rough on tires but it doesn’t eat them like a cheese grater like it used to.

The time has come for NASCAR and Goodyear to take a step back and realize that the tire has evolved enough and it is now time to put the decision of what tire to run in the hands of the crew chiefs. Bring three tire compounds to the track and let the teams choose what tires they want to run, either for the whole weekend or at given times during the race. The bottom line is they’re tires, it isn’t rocket science.

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