While I went to Purdue University, I am not an engineer, nor do I claim to have any kind of vast knowledge about building race tires. That said, I’ve been watching racing for over 40 years and I am continually dumbfounded by how complicated the sole tire supplier to NASCAR continues to make the process of putting race tires on the cars that work properly. The definition of working properly can vary from person to person but one thing is for sure, having chunks flying out of the surface of the tires or having them suddenly deflate while at speed are definitely not part of the definition. I lived through the tires wars in the 90’s and while I do not advocate having multiple suppliers, the convoluted process that is currently in place is not working, either.
Pocono Raceway was the site of the Cup race the week before the series went to Michigan and its recently paved surface did not seem to provide any difficulties for the tires that were brought to the track. There were very few instances of blistering and there were no flats caused solely by tire wear. When the series got to Michigan it was a completely different story. The new track surface allowed the competitors to carry amazing speeds into the corners and, more importantly, get back to the gas much more quickly than the tire engineers had anticipated. The end result was excessive heat buildup in the tires, and eventually, blistering. In the end, the decision was made to bring out a rock hard tire for the left sides of the cars that was previously used when Charlotte Motor Speedway was repaved some six years ago. During the race on Sunday, the left sides did not have many problems, but several teams still saw right-side tires that blistered.
There was a tire test a couple of months before the race, but the engineers claim that the track was cooler and they didn’t get a proper gauge on how the tires were going to wear. As a result, the compound that was brought to the track did not wear enough which added to the heat buildup and the eventual blistering. If this were the first time, or even the 10th time, a race track had been resurfaced since the start of NASCAR, it might be possible to overlook this incident, but there have been more than twenty track repaves since the modern era of NASCAR started in 1972, so by now it shouldn’t be that difficult to know what the tires were going to do.
Mind you, the modern world of auto racing is extremely focused on safety, and everyone is thankful for that, but it has led to one very big problem from a racing perspective. The tires that come to the race track do not wear out enough. It is nearly impossible to abuse a modern Cup tire enough to make it wear completely through before the car runs out of gas. As a result, drivers don’t have to manage their tires and everyone can race at roughly the same speeds. If NASCAR would make the manufacturer develop a tire that, depending on setup, would not make it for a full fuel run if it was pushed to the maximum, the racing would change dramatically. The people who make the tires will tell you that they don’t want to be responsible for people being hurt by tires blowing out, but if NASCAR and Goodyear handled the public relations properly, it would not be blamed on the tire manufacturer, and the end result would be much better racing.
One other aspect that is still amazing is that the tires that are run in the Cup series are still made by hand. In the modern world there are robotic, laser controlled machines that are able to perform repetitive tasks within a 10,000th of an inch tolerance day in and day out. Try as you will, it is impossible to think that Don, who bowled a 135 with his 180 average in the league championship last night, while LeBron was lighting up the Thunder, and stayed out until 3:00 AM, can come in and lay the steel belts into a tire with that kind of precision. There may be some reasoning behind not adapting more modernized equipment, but it is time to shake off that mindset and embrace the future.
One final question is: do the teams who receive tires that blister receive a refund? A set of tires in the top series of NASCAR these days is something like $4,000. If you bought a $4,000 set of tires for your car that were supposed to last 50,000 miles and, after just 35,000 miles, started throwing chunks of rubber out of the tread, wouldn’t you go back to the store that sold you the tires and demand a refund? I’d be willing to bet that race teams who not only spent money on tires that didn’t make the distance but also lost tens of thousands of dollars in prize money thanks to having to make unscheduled pit stops didn’t get a dime back on what they paid for those tires.
Racing tires are among the most important things on a race car. If the tires aren’t holding air and staying in contact with the racing surface, the drivers of the cars cannot win races. Tires that don’t blow out and keep the drivers safe are certainly preferable but, at some point in time, there needs to be some driver skill and strategy in the tire management end of the racing. If you attend a dirt race, you’ll see cars that run on different compounds and routinely the drivers who pick soft tires gamble on making their rubber last until the checkered flag. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is in the hands of the racers. The time has come for Cup series tires to wear out and the length of time they last to be in the hands of the racers instead of the manufacturer engineers.
We all grew up watching drivers like Cale Yarborough going like hell from the drop of the green while guys like David Pearson would show up at the end of the race to compete for the win. The reason that happened was that different drivers approached the race in different ways, and how they managed their tires determined the number of pit stops and how the race played out. If NASCAR wants to continue bringing fans back to the sport, they need to get back to that kind of racing and tires that wear out depending on how they’re driven will provide that kind of racing.
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