A lot has changed in NASCAR over the past couple of decades. Next year will mark the fourth incarnation of a Cup car since 2000, and today’s schedule is a far cry from the slate of races in the 1990s. Just two of today’s regular Cup drivers raced against Dale Earnhardt in the top series. There are playoffs.
But what hasn’t changed?
I mean, teams have changed thousands of tires on race weekends over the last 25 years or so, but the tires themselves? Not so much.
Is it time for something new?
The last time NASCAR allowed anyone other than Goodyear to make tires for its national series was 1994 when the so-called “tire wars” between Goodyear and Hoosier saw their final skirmish.
That 1994 season was competitive, but it was also costly. Two fatal crashes happened at Daytona on Hoosier rubber; at least one, the crash that killed Rodney Orr, was proven later to have been the result of a mechanical failure, not a tire issue. It’s highly probable that the crash that claimed Neil Bonnett was caused by the same faulty part, though not a certainty. There were other crashes that season, some due to tire failures, most notably the one that nearly killed Ernie Irvan at Michigan (Irvan was on Goodyears).
Many blamed the competing tire manufacturers and their rush to attract teams to their stable, and NASCAR returned exclusively to Goodyear in 1995, a deal that’s gone uncontested since.
What that’s led to is a race tire that’s safe and durable (hooray!) and also generally wears out about as fast as those bad boys on Fred Flintstone’s ride. There are some softer tires that wear a little more, but not enough to really force teams’ hands on pit strategy.
Let me be clear here: the most important thing is driver safety. We cannot exchange fun racing for injured drivers.
But it’s also unfair to pin it all on the tire companies.
It’s of note here that NASCAR’s regional series don’t race with Goodyear tires; they run either the General Tire or Hoosier labels (both fall under the Continental brand).
Should the tire wars make a comeback?
It’s past time for a change in race tires. Whether it means Goodyear making more than one compound for each track and making teams choose one (fast but wears faster, slower but lasts longer) each week or allowing teams to select a tire manufacturer on a yearly basis, much the same as with other parts manufacturers or another option can certainly be up for discussion.
Regardless, NASCAR needs a tire that wears out before the end of a fuel run. That’s wears out and negatively affects handling, not blows and puts drivers in the wall. With years and years of racing and advances in technology since 1994, it’s hard to believe that Goodyear and/or Continental can’t come up with a tire that wears out.
This doesn’t have to be an overnight thing, and NASCAR should be involved every step of the way, with extensive testing before any tire is approved and strict standards about the way tires wear.
Win on Sunday, sell on Monday is, at least according to Goodyear, alive and well, so don’t expect a radical departure from radials, like the return of the bias-ply tire, or anything completely wild anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have better tires.
A different tire approach would require teams to manage tire wear a bit more. Teams will always push the envelope, but they have to keep their drivers safe. That could mean pitting before they wanted to when the tires wear out. They might not like that, but it would make the racing more interesting for fans. To help the cause, NASCAR could allow the development of technology that alerts teams (and NASCAR) when treads wear to a dangerous point.
So, while there needs to be extensive testing involved no matter what direction a change takes, it’s past time to start thinking about making that change. Give teams a choice but make them police themselves. It’s been almost 30 years since tire wars. Surely the tire companies have learned something over that time that could be applied to making where the rubber meets the road a bigger part of strategy.
NASCAR, it’s time to change the tires.